There was once a popular theory about how to understand, and even appreciate, Donald Trump’s presidency—at least on the right. According to this theory, you had to separate Trump’s personal conduct from his professional responsibilities. There was Trump (the man) and Trump (the president). Trump (the man) said outrageous and obnoxious things, tweeted insults and conspiracy theories, demonstrated bottomless ignorance, and shocked the country daily. Trump (the president), however, presided over a standard Republican administration. He instituted tax cuts, nominated conservative judges, rolled back regulation, aligned himself with conservatives of faith and supporters of Israel, and so on.
The eccentricities of Trump (the man), it was thought, would never infect the policies of Trump (the president). For one thing, Trump didn’t really care much about policy. He was interested in attacking enemies, performing at rallies, and playing golf. For another, the vast machinery of American policymaking involved so many responsible people and so much institutional baggage that no outlandish Trump impulse could make it through the system and out into the real world. It was a hopeful theory, and it had some explanatory power for quite a while. Trump’s consistent praise for Vladimir Putin, for example, contrasted dramatically with his administration’s admirably hard line on Russia.