But Trump’s move toward the Democrats on DACA — just as his earlier move toward them on the debt ceiling — isn’t about pragmatism. It’s not even about the plasticity of his convictions. It’s about his addiction to betrayal, his contempt for those who bend their knee to him, his disdain for “losers” (especially when they’re on his side) and his desperate need to be admired by those who despise him most simply because they have the wit to see through him. This is a presidency whose defining feature isn’t ideology, much less policy. It’s neurosis.
This is almost exactly the sort of thing that people said about Nixon. Nixon, like Trump, loathed the establishment, while also longing for its approval. Like Trump, he both attacked establishment figures and fawned over them, publicly humiliated them and hired them as aides. Nixon, like Trump, seemed to be a peculiar victim of the Hegelian dialectic: he felt contempt for his followers while seeking to surpass the people he perceived as equals or superiors. And Nixon implemented or proposed countless liberal policies that outraged his supporters—not just EPA and OSHA, but wage-and-price controls, a generous welfare measure, and, for that matter, détente with the Soviets and the opening with China, which were anathema to the right at the time. Like Trump, Nixon loved to defy prediction, and this often meant acting contrary to his perceived ideological proclivities.
And yet Nixon really was a conservative, and he really did seek to advance a conservative agenda—and would have been more successful had it not been for Watergate. He advanced liberal policies in order to divide and confuse his enemies, and to shore up public support where the public really wanted them. He was playing the long game: trying to establish an ideologically conservative majority consisting of white southerners, northern workers, business, and religious people (a coalition later perfected by Reagan). Thus, he appointed conservative supreme court justices, attacked the counterculture, opposed busing, bashed the press (through his surrogate, vice president Spiro Agnew), and harped again and again on the liberal eastern establishment, hoping to destroy its cultural and political influence by representing it as elitist and contemptuous of the values and interests of the common person.
Trump lacks Nixon’s sophistication. But it would be a mistake to think that the deals he has made with the Democratic leadership (if that’s what they are) show either that he is merely working out his neuroses in public or that he lacks an ideological agenda. We’ve been through this before.