News & Politics

The Evolution of Donald J. Trump: How the President Went From Quasi-Democrat to Far-Right Republican and White Nationalist

It's a bizarre and twisted story.

Photo Credit: NBC/CNN/PBS Newshour/MSNBC

Although Donald Trump has governed from the far right since being sworn in as president of the U.S. in January 2017, the word “ideologue” doesn’t apply to him. Many Republicans can be characterized as extreme ideologues, whether it’s House Speaker Paul Ryan’s obsession with Ayn Rand economics or Sen. Ted Cruz’ severe social conservatism and theocratic views. But Trump, truth be told, has no core political ideology. The Donald has always been about self-aggrandizement, often saying or doing whatever it takes to promote his own brand. And that has resulted in lot of flip-flops. Trump often sounded like a Blue Dog Democrat or a northeastern Rockefeller Republican back in the 1990s and 2000s, but that was before he evolved into the Tea Party wingnut, white nationalist and Christian Right ally he is today.

The Donald Trump of the 1990s and 2000s never sounded like a hardcore dyed-in-the-wool liberal or progressive, but he was at least centrist or center-right and was on fairly friendly terms with Bill and Hillary Clinton as well as northeastern Rockefeller Republicans. In a 1999 interview with NBC’s Tim Russert, Trump expressed views on abortion that were similar to those of Republican Rudy Giuliani—who was mayor of New York City at the time and said, more than once, that while he personally hated abortion, he was pro-choice and believe that government shouldn’t interfere with women’s reproductive rights.

During that interview 19 years ago, Trump told Russert, “I am very pro-choice. I hate the concept of abortion. I hate it. I hate everything it stands for. I cringe when I listen to people debating the subject. But….I just believe in choice.”

Trump, in fact, had co-sponsored a $500-per-plate dinner for the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) at the Plaza Hotel, an expensive Mid-Town Manhattan Hotel that he owed at the time. But these days, Trump claims to be very anti-abortion, insisting that he will only nominate Supreme Court nominees who will vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. Both of Trump’s High Court nominees—first Justice Neil Gorsuch, now Judge Brett Kavanaugh—are far-right “strict constructionists” of the Antonin Scalia/Clarence Thomas variety who would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade if given a chance.

Trump expresses nothing but contempt for Hillary Clinton today. But according to porn star Stormy Daniels’ new book “Full Disclosure,” Trump had words of praise for her back in 2007. That year, Daniels says in her book, she was with Trump in the Beverly Hills Hotel when Clinton called him on the phone—and after Trump had finished talking to Clinton, he said of the former first lady, “I love her. She is so smart.”

It isn’t hard to believe that Daniels remembers exactly what Trump said to her about Hillary Clinton in 2007. That same year, in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Trump welcomed a presidential run on Clinton’s part—telling Blitzer, “Hillary’s always surrounded herself with very good people. I think Hillary would do a good job.”

Trump has no kind words for Democrats in 2018. But when Blitzer interviewed him on CNN in 2004, he asserted, “I’ve been around for a long time, and it just seems that the economy does better under the Democrats than the Republicans.”

With Trump, one started to see a move to the far right when Barack Obama was president and Trump promoted the racist, idiotic birther theory—which alleged that Obama was really born in Kenya rather than the U.S.—and he continued to cater to angry white males when he campaigned for president in 2015 and 2016. By that point, Trump was no longer saying nice things about Hillary Clinton. Instead, he repeatedly denounced her as Crooked Hillary, and the Trump of 2015/2016 was not a Blue Dog Democrat or northeastern Rockefeller Republican but rather, a disciple of Patrick Buchanan’s ideology.

Indeed, Trump’s presidential run was right out of Buchanan’s playbook, with its mixture of white nationalism, protectionism, disdain for non-white immigrants and severe social conservatism. In fact, Buchanan was an early supporter of Trump’s campaign, praising him in a July 28, 2015 column for addressing “the issue of uncontrolled and illegal immigration.” Politics do make for strange bedfellows: in 1992, opposition to NAFTA ranged from Ralph Nader on the left to Ross Perot and Buchanan on the right—and opposition to NAFTA and similar trade deals became a prominent part of Trump’s presidential campaign 15 and 16 years later.

The difference between Trump and Buchanan is that while Buchanan’s presidential runs didn’t get very far, Trump not only defeated a long list of Republicans in the 2016 GOP presidential primary—he actually won the general election over Hillary Clinton and became president of the United States. But while Buchanan has been consistent in his ideology over the years, Trump’s has conveniently evolved. Buchanan is an ideologue with very xenophobic views; Trump’s xenophobia is a cynical exercise in self-promotion.

Trump will say or do whatever it takes to promote his brand. And these days, that brand is residing not only at Trump Tower, but also, in Washington, DC at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

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Alex Henderson is a news writer at AlterNet and veteran political journalist. His work has also appeared in Salon, Raw Story, Truthdig, National Memo, Philadelphia Weekly, Democratic Underground, L.A. Weekly, MintPress News and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter @alexvhenderson.