NEW YORK — I didn’t really believe that there was such a thing as Trump Derangement Syndrome — hatred of Donald Trump so intense that it impairs people’s judgment. It’s not that I didn’t notice the harsh, unyielding language against Donald Trump — I said a few tough things myself — but that throughout the campaign, Trump seemed to do things that justified it. Once elected, instead of calming down and acting presidential, he continued the stream of petty attacks, exaggerations and lies. His administration seemed marked by chaos and incompetence.
And then came the strike against Syria. On that issue, Trump appears to have listened carefully to his senior national security professionals, reversed his earlier positions, chosen a calibrated response and acted swiftly. I supported the strike and pointed out — in print and on air — that Trump was finally being presidential because the action “seems to reflect a belated recognition from Trump that he cannot simply put America first — that the president of the United States must act on behalf of broader interests and ideals.” On the whole, though, I was critical of Trump’s larger Syria policy, describing it as “incoherent.” My Washington Post column was titled, “One missile strike is not a strategy.”
From the response on the left, you would have thought I had just endorsed Donald Trump for pope. Otherwise-thoughtful columnists described my views as “nonsense” and a sign that the media has “bent over backward” to support Trump. (Really?) One journalist declared on television, “If that guy could have sex with this cruise missile attack, I think he would do it.” A gaggle of former Obama speechwriters discussed how my comments were perhaps “the stupidest” of any given on the subject.
White House speechwriters must have written the lines that President Barack Obama spoke on September 27, 2013, announcing the U.N. deal in which the Syrian regime agreed to give up its chemical weapons stockpile. “This binding resolution will ensure that the Assad regime must keep its commitments, or face consequences. We’ll have to be vigilant about following through.” In other words, the Trump administration watched a violation of Obama’s 2013 deal and enforced it in precisely the manner that Obama had implied. Which is why virtually every major Obama foreign policy official — from Hillary Clinton to Thomas Donilon to Leon Panetta to David Petraeus — has supported the Trump administration’s action, as did U.S. allies in the region and beyond.
The strikes were discreet, measured, intended to convey a signal and yet at the same time were designed to ensure that the U.S. did not descend further into the Syrian civil war. In other words, they were very Obama-like. Two senior Obama officials I spoke with told me that, were Obama still president, he would have likely ordered a strike that was similar if not identical in scope. Presumably, those former speechwriters would then have used different words to describe the same strikes.
Conservatives seem to understand Trump’s about-face better than liberals. Many of Trump’s strongest backers — from Ann Coulter to Michael Savage to Laura Ingraham — are distraught by Trump’s embrace of Obama-like policies. Andrew McCarthy wrote in National Review, “When it came to foreign policy, I was worried that the 2016 election would be a case of Clinton delivering the third Obama term. Instead, we have Trump giving us the third Clinton term.”
Liberals have to avoid Trump Derangement Syndrome. If Donald Trump pursues a policy, it cannot axiomatically be wrong, evil and dangerous. In my case, I have been pretty tough on Trump. I attacked almost every policy he proposed during the campaign. Just before the election, I called him a “cancer on American democracy” and urged voters to reject him. But they didn’t. He is now president. I believe that my job is to evaluate his policies impartially and explain why, in my view, they are wise or not.
Many of Trump’s campaign promises and policies are idiotic and unworkable. It was always likely that he would reverse them, as he has begun to do recently on several fronts. Those of us who opposed him face an important challenge. We have to ask ourselves, which would we rather see: Trump reversing himself or Trump relentlessly pursuing his campaign agenda? The first option would be good for the country and the world, though it might save Trump from an ignominious fall. The second would be a disaster for all. It raises the quandary: Do we want what’s better for America or what’s worse for Donald Trump?
Fareed Zakaria is a columnist with The Washington Post. His email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.