Will President Donald Trump have a "Nixon to China" moment by pushing for significant gun regulations that are opposed by the National Rifle Association? It's easy to draw that conclusion from the startling White House meeting Wednesday where Trump expressed support for outlawing "bump stocks," tougher background checks for gun owners, higher age limits for buying assault rifles and even taking guns away from the mentally ill without a hearing. "Take the guns first, go through due process second," Trump said.
If President Barack Obama had said any such thing, Fox News hosts would have had an aneurysm and congressional Republicans would have launched impeachment proceedings. But with the exception of Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., Republicans are giving Trump a pass, and for good reason. They realize that once again the president doesn't know what he's talking about and doesn't mean what he says.
Trump's comments were reminiscent of a January meeting on immigration where he backed a "clean" bill to stop the deportation of "dreamers" who had been brought to the United States as children – meaning legislation without any conditions such as border security provisions or limitations on legal immigration. Instead of lobbying for such legislation, however, Trump back-peddled as fast as his bone spurs would carry him. In mid-February, under prodding from immigration hard-liners, he torpedoed bipartisan legislation that would have legalized the dreamers and funded a border wall but did not cut legal immigration.
So consider me skeptical that Trump will deliver any significant gun controls. Indeed, by Thursday night the NRA's chief lobbyist claimed the president had repented of his heresy.
Trump's pattern is well established: He flirts with bipartisan compromise before meekly retreating to the safety of his own party lines. It's almost hard to remember that before his inauguration there was hope in liberal circles and fear among conservatives that he would turn out to be a closet centrist. Trump, after all, had switched parties repeatedly; in 2004 he said, "In many cases I probably identify more as a Democrat." Yet now he accuses Democrats of "treason" and routinely sides with GOP hard-liners.
Why has Trump become righter than right? It's hard to say for sure – he may not know himself – but my theory is that it's a combination of prejudice and self-interest.
Start with the fact that Trump has always been a bigot and a sexist. He began his presidential campaign attacking Mexican immigrants for being drug-dealers, criminals and rapists. Later, 16 women would accuse him of sexual harassment or assault. That made him permanently toxic for liberals who criticized him harshly and appropriately.
Trump does not react well to critics. A would-be strongman, he demands that people blindly follow him and despises those who don't. Just ask James Comey, who was fired as FBI director after refusing to pledge loyalty. Ever more caustic criticism has driven Trump ever-further into the sheltering arms of the populist right, which has embraced him as one of its own because of his racism and nativism. Trump, in turn, has appealed to them with the zeal of the convert determined to dispel any doubts about his newfound faith even if he's not quite sure of the catechism.
The Nixon to China comparison misses a key difference: President Richard Nixon could reach out to Mao Zedong because no one could doubt his anti-communist credentials. Trump's conservative bona fides, by contrast, are very much open to question. If he were to flip-flop on a major issue such as guns or immigration, he would risk alienating his most strident supporters. He especially doesn't want to antagonize the NRA, which spent at least $30 million to get him elected. A classic bully, Trump pushes the weak around but won't risk a fight that he could lose.
Trump ran for president by mobilizing his base of "deplorables," defying predictions that he needed to move to the center or appeal to suburban women and minorities. Having succeeded with that uncompromising approach, he's sticking to it. The price he pays for his extremism and partisanship is that his approval rating is stuck around 40 percent despite good economic news. But he's more afraid of losing Republican support than he is desirous of winning over independents and Democrats – something that he may have realized will never happen in any case. It's become a matter of self-preservation: With special counsel Robert Mueller moving full-speed ahead (19 indictments and counting), Trump needs GOP support to prevent possible impeachment.
So don't expect any significant compromises from Trump on guns, immigration or any other hot-button issue. For all his intellectual incoherence, the easily triggered president has found his "safe space" on the far-right.