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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

Donald Trump’s bark is worse than his bite

President Donald Trump marks his first 100 days

President Donald Trump marks his first 100 days in office on Saturday with a rally Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Alex Wong

The Donald Trump presidency — a phrase most of us could never imagine we’d see, let alone write — has passed the 100-day mark, and much of the commentary seems to be along the lines of, “Well, it’s not so bad.” In some ways, things have not been as bad as some of us Trump opponents feared; in others, Trump has fully lived down to expectations. And where we go from here is still largely uncertain.

To the relief of many, he has moderated many of his foreign policy positions that seemed to signal a withdrawal from the very idea of American leadership of the free world. The new Trump loves NATO, which he previously declared obsolete. He is not averse to flexing America’s military muscle to deter and punish rogue regimes around the world, from Syria to North Korea. And the expected lovefest with Vladimir Putin is virtually nowhere to be seen.

Despite some trade-war saber-rattling at Canada and Mexico, Trump also has reversed his position on withdrawing from NAFTA. He won’t be labeling China a currency manipulator as he pledged to do, offering the risible excuse that China stopped its currency manipulations as soon as he took office.

In some ways, Trump’s abandonment of his anti-establishment positions is reminiscent, funnily enough, of Barack Obama’s record as president. After campaigning as a staunch foe of the Bush administration’s war on terror, he failed to close the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, and he expanded drone strikes. Some would argue that, once in the White House, both Trump and Obama were co-opted by the self-serving establishment (call it “the national security state” or “the swamp”). Others would say their zeal for change was moderated by practical realities.

`So far, fears that Trump would bring fascism to America seem to have been as exaggerated as fears that Obama would usher in an American communism. While Trump’s authoritarian impulses are evident in his rhetoric, his bark is far worse than his bite — and some of that rhetoric seems to be mostly about pandering to his hard-core base. He readily gives interviews to the same media he pillories as “fake news.” Trump’s role as an anti-elite populist frequently clashes with his desire to be loved by the elites.

So far, the system of checks and balances that many feared could be easily crippled has been working as it should. Even the Republican-controlled Congress has stymied Trump on health care, while courts have blocked his travel ban covering several majority-Muslim countries and his order to withhold federal funds from cities that shelter immigrants here illegally.

In some ways, Trump has fully justified his critics’ concerns. Promises of a new dignified and presidential Trump have yet to materialize, as demonstrated by his recent reference to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) as “Pocahontas.” (Perhaps she should start calling him “Trumpolini.”) Entanglements between the presidency and Trump business interests have been on full and unseemly display.

Where do we go from here? It is likely that, on trade and foreign policy, we will see more of the establishment Trump who largely stays his predecessors’ course. It is also likely that, as Trump has done already, he will throw largely symbolic bones to his evangelical backers, such as the appointment of strongly anti-abortion officials in various government posts — not because he feels strongly about the social conservative agenda, but because it’s one area in which “doing something” is simple.

The rest depends on which way the world goes. If you have any predictions for what we’ll say when Trump’s first year is up, scrap them. They’re likely to be wrong.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.