So far in the 2016 presidential race, Hillary Clinton has positioned herself as a pragmatist, what Michael Tomasky of the Daily Beast calls “a fix-the-problem type” of politician. This is probably a smart move, as it allows her to distinguish herself from Bernie Sanders’s idealism during the primaries, while also setting her up to face off against the erratic force that is Donald Trump.
As the candidates steer toward the general election, however, perhaps it’s time to reconsider whether she’s the only pragmatist in the race. Is Trump’s lack of an ideological core so different from the pragmatism that is often admired in other politicians?
Pragmatism is, simply put, the eschewing of broad systems or ideologies in favor of a more down-to-earth approach to solving problems. According to Louis Menand, philosophers such as John Dewey and William James believed that “ideas are provisional responses to particular and unreproducable circumstances” and “should never become ideologies.”
In the political sense, pragmatists reject the traditional left/right binary, which they may derisively refer to as dogma. They are willing to sample widely from the smorgasbord of political ideas to find the best solution to a pressing problem. They care little about ideological purity or abstract principles and pride themselves on their independence, on being above what they consider clichéd and predictable perspectives.
This context helps make sense of Trump’s recent foreign-policy speech, in which he emphasized common sense rather than overarching or abstract principles. Surveying recent history, he concluded that “logic was replaced with foolishness and arrogance, which led to one foreign policy disaster after another.” He promoted “a new, rational American foreign policy, informed by the best minds and supported by both parties, as well as our close allies.” He promised to “look for talented experts with new approaches and practical ideas,” and vowed to end the policy of “trying to spread universal values that not everyone shares.”
Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen gave the rebuttal for the #NeverTrump movement: “On the center right, there are plenty of philosophies — realism, conservative internationalism and isolationism — to choose from. So which does Trump subscribe to? None and all, depending on the day he is speaking.”
This is a fair criticism that happens to describe pragmatism to the core. Trump rejects predictable and set conservative ideas. His foreign policy would have no consistent “isms” but pragmatism, because, as he has said elsewhere, “you have to have flexibility. You have to change. You know, you may say one thing, and then the following year you want to change it because circumstances are different.”
Compare Trump’s foreign-policy remarks to those of President Obama, who in Jeffrey Goldberg’s profile in April’s Atlantic describes himself as an internationalist, an idealist and a realist. His perspective is so difficult to categorize that Goldberg settles on the oxymoron “Hobbesian optimist,” then quickly promises that “the contradictions do not end there.” The president is prudent, yes, but also restless and risky — a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma!
To many of his supporters, Obama’s pragmatism is one of his greatest virtues. Andrew Sullivan has argued that Obama “was elected as a pragmatic, unifying reformist,” called the president a “decent, pragmatic man,” and praised his early “ambition to transcend the old politics in favor of pragmatic reform” and his “pragmatic response” to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. In 2008, Cass Sunstein explained that apparent flip-flops by Obama — on the death penalty, guns, NAFTA — were actually proof of his “pragmatic nature,” and that “Obama’s form of pragmatism is heavily empirical; he wants to know what will work.”
The president helped foster this perception. In his first inaugural address, he announced that “the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.” That attitude was also evident in March, when he told a group of students in Argentina that what he called the “sharp division between left and right, between capitalist and communist or socialist,” is irrelevant: “I mean, those are interesting intellectual arguments, but I think for your generation, you should be practical and just choose from what works. You don’t have to worry about whether it neatly fits into socialist theory or capitalist theory — you should just decide what works.”
“Whatever works” is the unofficial slogan of pragmatists. It also sounds a lot like Trump, who has promised to fix everything from health care to trade with China by making “great deals for this country.”
Even Trump’s most controversial positions are arguably pragmatic insofar as they offer straightforward solutions that defy orthodoxy. The proposed ban on Muslim immigrants may be antithetical to the abstract principle of religious freedom, but hey, whatever keeps us safe from terrorists. The wall that Mexico will build? It doesn’t seem possible — but sparing American taxpayers the costs certainly skirts a budgetary issue.
Whether Trump’s policies would actually solve our problems (count me as a skeptic) isn’t really relevant to his status as a pragmatist. Ultimately what sets pragmatists apart from traditional conservatives or liberals is not their faith in the effectiveness of their ideas, it’s their originality — the whatever, not the works. Intellectual independence is a better standard on which to evaluate claims to pragmatism. When national security adviser Susan E. Rice calls the Iran nuclear deal “pragmatic and minimalist,” she shouldn’t be doubted because the deal may not be effective; she should be doubted because the deal is in keeping with conventional liberal goals and methods.
A few Trump supporters have already ventured to make the claim that he’s a practicing pragmatist. The businessman and investor Carl Icahn told CNBC that “Donald is a pragmatist. He’s going to do what’s needed for this economy.” Similarly, hedge fund manager Anthony Scaramucci wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “What elitists misinterpret as uneven principles, entrepreneurs understand as adaptability. … Mr. Trump would be the greatest pragmatist and deal maker Washington has ever seen.”
One challenge to getting people to accept this characterization is that we tend to conflate pragmatism with moderate temperament and tactics.
Clinton invokes the term to mean finding solutions based on her knowledge of, and her experience in, the political establishment. Trump, meanwhile, wants to tear down the establishment. In fact, because pragmatism implies impatience and frustration with the usual ways of doing business, it can involve breaking a system rather than working within it. This is a point Chris Hayes recognized several years ago, when he observed in the Nation that “pragmatism requires an openness to the possibility of radical solutions.”
Obama, too, realizes that pragmatism doesn’t need to involve compromise. Perhaps the peak (or nadir) of the president’s pragmatism is his 2014 vow that he wouldn’t wait “for legislation in order to make sure that we’re providing Americans the kind of help that they need. I’ve got a pen, and I’ve got a phone.” The separation of powers is dusty dogma — git ’r done!
Obama’s pragmatism is part and parcel of his legendary cool. And he surrounds himself with people like Clinton who exhibit similar levels of detachment. Goldberg writes that “Obama has always had a fondness for pragmatic, emotionally contained technocrats.”
Yet there’s nothing in the Pragmatist’s Playbook that forbids mocking a rival’s face, height, footwear, eating habits, energy level or spouse, or even encouraging supporters to physically assault protesters. And although it’s certainly reprehensible to promote absurd conspiracy theories — like Trump’s suggestion that my father, Justice Antonin Scalia, was assassinated — it’s not necessarily unpragmatic.
So Trump could stake a legitimate claim on pragmatism and undermine the distinction Clinton is trying to make.
Of course, that wouldn’t inevitably bolster his trustworthiness. Although people may accept Clinton as a pragmatist, they overwhelmingly tell pollsters that she lacks honesty and would “say anything to get elected.” Voters understand that “whatever works” can easily slide into “the ends justify the means.”
Nonetheless, the word’s generally positive connotations could very well lend Trump that always-coveted air of gravitas, gilding his unpredictable and inconsistent ideas with a semblance of respectability and intellectual seriousness.
Heaven knows that in this campaign, stranger things have happened.
Christopher J. Scalia works at a public-relations firm in Washington. He wrote this article for the Washington Post.