Lindenberger: Looking at Trump and wondering what if?

The first time I really took notice of Donald Trump as a potential president was late in the summer of 2015. True, he had launched his campaign two months before in June, coming down that escalator to the sounds of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World,” and much of that day’s bluster and bombast would soon become signatures. So too would his easy rapport with his audiences. “We need Trump,” yelled someone in the audience, and quick as a cat, Trump yelled back: “Well you need someone. Because politicians are all talk and no action.”

Like so many others, I was slow to see him as a winner. The 2016 election was still remote, and he seemed destined to be a sideshow. By late summer, though, things had shifted. It was clear by the first GOP debate — Aug. 6, 2015 — that Trump was on his way to being the whirlpool sucking away the energy, press coverage and electoral hopes of the nine other candidates on main stage.

When Trump alone refused to commit to endorsing the eventual GOP nominee, the crowd roared. Rand Paul and others on the stage who objected, soon learned the hard lesson of the 2016 primaries: Attacking Trump was a one-way ticket to the sidelines.

I was living then in swampy Washington, D.C., working as a correspondent covering the intersection of policy, politics and the Texas economy for the Dallas newspaper and in the week ahead of the debate my partner Phil was visiting from Kentucky. About 10 minutes of cable news usually does me for a day or a week, but Phil’s a news junkie. So we had on CNN nonstop and after about the 30th replay of Trump speaking, I started tuning in.

Trump was boasting that he was too rich to be bought, too successful a businessman to fail, and too hard-nosed a negotiator to give an inch. His message: If you’re tired of losing, vote for me.

Phil and I looked at each other, and agreed that some of this was going to resonate, especially among working-class Americans still struggling for a place in the increasing tech-centered global economy. Trump was also hard to pin down. Since when had a Republican candidate been so contemptuous of free trade and the Iraq invasion, and seemingly so disinterested in social issues such as gay marriage and abortion?

Trump’s flaws were obvious from the start, but so was his appeal. What intrigued me then was his promise to challenge from within the Republican Party what had become over the past 30 years a rigid orthodoxy that favored big business over workers and — especially on social issues — ideological purity over tolerance. Much of his appeal from the first was his contempt for the political class, for all the losing he kept saying those in charge had gotten used to. I never bought into that, but I did see potential in his disdain for the partisan boxes so many other candidates allowed themselves to be locked into. His reluctance to start wars was refreshing, too.

He promised to make the best deals Washington had ever seen, and boy did America need a dealmaker. After the intense partisanship of the Clinton, Bush and Obama years, the idea of a president free of traditional constraints was intriguing. Neither Phil nor I were ever likely to be swayed to vote for a candidate like Trump, but his appeal to millions of Americans dissatisfied with the status quo from either party was obvious.

I didn’t know it then, but with a job change that winter, over the next five years the riddle of Donald Trump — would he ever break free from his worst instincts and live up to his promise? — would come to dominate my professional life. Looking back now, it’s clear he never did rise above himself to become the president he promised to be.

The real loser in that is America. Trump is deeply loved by millions. Many of his goals — to drain the swamp, to focus the economy on adding better and more jobs, to limit the influence of campaign donations — were righteous, and long overdue. It’d eventually become clear to me that he had never meant the things he promised. He filled the federal bureaucracy with cronies, commingled his business interests with the running of the government, and saw more of his appointees and aides indicted, charged and convicted than any president at least since Watergate.

The few times he did buck the right wing of his party to embrace bipartisan results — such as on criminal justice reform or when acquiescing to the CARES ACT — are so rare that they serve now only to hint at what might have been.

But hindsight is easy. There were years where it seemed still possible that he’d find a way to bring even a little of the change he had campaigned on.

***

I drove my packed car out of Washington on Dec. 18, having spent my last day as correspondent at the White House listening to President Obama deliver his final press briefing of 2015, where there had been no insults, no braggadocio, and plenty of leadership.

I’d been lured back to Texas by a promotion to the editorial board at The Dallas Morning News, a family-owned newspaper that hadn’t endorsed a Democrat for president since 1940, but had been wary of both the tea party’s rise in 2010 and Trump’s emergence in 2015. In this new role as editorial writer and columnist, I came to see some flaws in Trump’s politics as disqualifying: His racist language and his demeaning of women, for instance. But there were flashes of what might have been that kept me guessing, long after many had written him off.

Two instances in early 2016 help explain why. They showed a pragmatism and even basic humanism that largely had been missing from the party since Newt Gingrich’s ascendancy in the 1990s. In February during another GOP debate, Trump said that while he wanted to kill Obamacare, he would make sure that the sick were tended to. “I will not let people die on the streets for lack of health care,” he said.

That seemed like a rare moment of health care realism, common sense even. But not to Cruz, who demanded with a sneer, “So does the government pay for everyone’s health care? Yes or no?”

Two months later, the campaign had narrowed. Talk centered around the North Carolina bathroom bill and the sports and business boycotts that had followed. Trump was asked about it and said the state had overreacted. “There have been very few complaints the way it is,” he said. “People go, they use the bathroom that they feel is appropriate. There has been so little trouble.”

Here was Trump stepping away from the crazy.

Cruz once again helped remind how unusual that had become in the GOP. Texas’ junior senator shifted his campaign’s chief message and for days hammered Trump with a baseless transphobic attack. “Grown adult men, strangers, should not be alone in bathrooms with little girls,” he said. “Have we gone stark raving nuts?”

It left me thinking whether Trump, for all his flaws, might do some good after all. By the time he was elected, those moments had become vanishingly rare, but they weren’t entirely gone.

***

By January 2016, I had reconciled myself to the reality of Trump’s victory. I felt the political press — cable news and print giants alike — had been played a fool. I was angry at James Comey, Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein. But it was over and we had a new president.

Here, I thought as the inauguration approached, was a chance for Trump to show he could switch off campaign mode and become a president for all Americans. It’s what Hillary Clinton in her concession speech had urged her supporters to hope for, and it’s what Trump’s own gracious acceptance speech in November had seemed to aspire to.

That sentiment is what I was waiting for as I sat at my keyboard ready to write live off his inaugural address. But the speech Trump gave that morning left me colder than his most incendiary campaign rhetoric. Dark, insular and angry, Trump spoke of an American wasteland that only he could save. To the world, he proclaimed America’s willingness to “bear any burden” was canceled. We would now put ourselves first every time, long-term consequences be damned.

Still believing he was owed a chance to succeed, I remained hopeful for any new flashes of a Trump willing to break out of the calcifying tenets of hyper-partisanship.

One example came early, when Trump canceled Obama’s DACA program for childhood arrivals, but gave Congress six months to find a permanent solution before the order took effect. “We love the Dreamers,” he added.

Of course, when the legislation reached a critical point, he withdrew his support over a demand that Congress pay for his border wall — killing the bill and empowering congressional hardliners who had never wanted to help the Dreamers.

It wasn’t just Trump’s own worst instincts that doomed so many of his half steps toward compromise and common sense solutions. Republicans in Congress, especially leaders such as Mitch McConnell, never partnered with Trump to help make him a better president. They feared him, and slavishly followed his lead, and Trump took that for loyalty. But it was never that.

***

In November, 2018, I moved from Dallas to Houston to join the Chronicle’s editorial board. From this new vantage point, I continued to watch Trump’s evolution and saw clearly how this faux loyalty weakened, rather than strengthened, the president — and sealed his fate as a one-term loser.

It came into better focus last month, when Sen. John Cornyn told us he’s told the president privately he’s willing to support standalone legislation to help the Dreamers. It said a lot about Cornyn that he would wait till just ahead of the election to make that known, but it also helps explain the way Trump was let down by his so-called allies in Congress.

The tragedy of the GOP’s subservience to Trump is revealed not only in the things that it allowed Trump to do with impunity, but in the things he might have done if only he’d have learned enough discipline to focus on the big goals and stop stepping on his every good idea. What if, when Trump told Congress they had six months to pass Dreamer legislation, enough senior leaders like Cornyn had stepped forward to reinforce that instinct. If they had, Trump might never not have backtracked.

Even if he had tried, a solid phalanx of senators willing to say just what Cornyn told us — that, Mr. President, this is a moral issue, and one too important to use merely as leverage — might have saved Trump from himself. And also, the nation from Trump at his worst.

What if by the time the pandemic spread to America, Trump’s allies in Congress had earned his trust enough to steer him toward what everyone knew was needed — a bipartisan, apolitical, stern-faced and all-hands-on-deck emergency response?

Trump’s failure to protect the Dreamers and to rally all Americans to take the virus dead seriously may well have cost him the election. In that, his failures are also his allies’ failure to understand the difference between loyalty and subservience.

As his time in office ends, and Joe Biden and his administration loom as my focus these next four years, I can’t help but think about what might have been with Trump. He had many serious flaws, but despite them all he had a chance to introduce a freshness to a system too-long dominated by the rigid confines of our two-party system. That he so thoroughly failed is a missed opportunity not just for him and the Republicans, but for America, too.

Lindenberger is deputy opinion editor and a member of the Houston Chronicle editorial board. He is on Twitter @lindenberger.