‘Mister Softie’, screams the headline on the New York Daily News, with Donald Trump’s luxurious comb-over transformed into an ice-cream twist. The president elect is back-pedalling, flip-flopping and cozying up to his enemies. Going soft. Before he has even taken up residence in the White House, America’s liberal media has declared Trump a traitor to the millions of people who delivered a shock election win. The reason is Tuesday’s lunchtime chat with the New York Times, in which he said he wasn’t that fussed about locking up Hillary Clinton, suggested he had an open mind on climate change and rather toned down his support of torture in the fight against terrorism.
It is all a far cry from the campaign, when his rallies were punctuated by calls to ‘Lock her up’, his earlier suggestion that climate change was a Chinese conspiracy to make the US less competitive, and his pledge that terror suspects would be waterboarded – a practice banned under Barack Obama. All of which raises some interesting questions. Is this all part of a pivot to the centre? Is Trump cynically ditching his campaign promises? Has he been a Democrat all along? Is he just like any other politician, promising one thing before delivering something entirely different? Is he simply a pragmatist realising the sheer scale of the job ahead of him?
Some of those questions will become clearer as we get past inauguration day. But the verdict is already in on one question: Trump has let down the millions of ordinary Americans who voted for his ragbag collection of policies. Headlines talk of u-turns, broken promises and betrayal. Which is all a bit rich. An American media world that failed to see how a bloviating billionaire could take over the Republican party, much less win the White House, is proving itself once again to be out of touch with those voters who put him in power. Remember how voter support did not waver when Trump the candidate hummed and hawed on abortion law – suggesting women should be locked up for having illegal terminations, before reversing tack? Nor did they desert him when he first said he would send ground troops to fight Isis only to later deny having said any such a thing. And when he finally allowed that yes, Barack Obama, had indeed been born in the US – ending his years of ‘birtherism’ – it made no difference to the outcome of the election.
Trump was not elected on policies. He was elected on feelings: A notion that America was losing its way and that he was the man to restore it; his familiarity from years on TV; and an intense hatred of anyone named Clinton. Speak to his supporters at those heaving rallies in the Rust Belt and the conversation was not peppered with policy points. It was not about global warming or rebuilding the manufacturing base. Bring up those subjects and the response was invariably the same: wait till he is in the White House when he can bring in the best advisers and work out the best solutions. They were there as much for the show as the politics. As Jimmy Riordan, a diesel engine salesman, told me in a school auditorium in New Hampshire at the start of the campaign last year:
‘We know he is a leader. We know he is a businessmen. Let him do the deals he is talking about.’
That might not please the polemicists of Breitbart News or the shock jock radio hosts who have built an industry out of hardline rhetoric, and who have seen some of their hobby horses discarded in the past few days. But many more Americans know the rules of this particular game. Trump is not a politician. He does not need to be judged on policies. He is a winner. He is a TV figure who has successfully completed rounds one and two, winning the Republican nomination and then winning the election. Abandoning policies will not cost him anything for now. It’s just a switch in slogans. Never mind our post-truth politics, this is post-politics politics. And so long as he doesn’t reveal himself to be a secret member of the Clinton family, he has a clean slate.