Anyone who watches reality television knows that not a lot actually happens in any given episode. A single glass of chardonnay thrown in someone's face at a pop-up shop opening will be teased for half the episode, and then replayed—in slow-motion, in black and white—before thorough analysis by each of the participants. A ten-second argument can be padded out to 15 minutes of content. The art of this wonderfully American format is to get people to tune in to an event in which almost nothing happens.
Whatever else is going on with Donald Trump, the guy knows how to make reality TV.
The president had a busy weekend, at least judging from the headlines he generated. On Saturday, Trump praised Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, whose brutal anti-drug policies have resulted in thousands of deaths and been condemned by the international community, even inviting the strongman to the White House. The president also held a rally in Pennsylvania where he viciously denounced the media. Then, in an interview with CBS's John Dickerson Sunday, Trump said that he wasn't sure if Russia was responsible for the hacking of the Democrats during the campaign and refused to answer questions about his (still unproven, still confusing) allegation that Barack Obama illegally wiretapped him.
Meanwhile, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus hinted that the administration might look into restricting freedom of the press (in the vaguest possible terms). Oh, and Trump seems to be confused about the causes of the Civil War. That's a lot going on!
But there should be a distinction between what is entertaining, outrageous, even alarming, and what is important. And on every important point, Trump is governing not as a populist but as a cookie-cutter Republican.
The biggest event in US politics this weekend was probably the budget deal reached by leaders of both parties that should keep the federal government running until the end of September. (Congress still needs to vote that deal through.) The agreement would increase spending for the military and border security, priorities valued by Trump and most other Republicans. But it would also give more money to the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Appalachian Regional Commission, federal programs Trump has proposed wiping out entirely. There's no money for Trump's beloved wall, and Planned Parenthood would be funded. In other words, it's a compromise, and not one that Trump can crow about. (The deal would extend a program that gives healthcare to retired coal workers, but that wasn't a cause Trump fought for, despite his pro-coal rhetoric.)
It's not just the budget deal—Trump's legislative agenda remains stalled. His tax plan revealed last week was a vague outline. The fight over healthcare has become a quagmire, with moderate House Republicans unsure if they can vote for the latest Trump-backed bill, which would make it harder for many sick people to get insurance. The infrastructure plan, which Trump and his embattled adviser Steve Bannon talked up during and after the campaign, was supposed to be a way for Trump to break free from Republican orthodoxy and work with Democrats on a matter of economic nationalism. But that, too, has gone AWOL, along with the most provocative parts of his foreign policy.
When Trump first started running for president, there was a sense that "Trumpism"—basically whatever half-formed idea came out of his mouth most recently—was different from ordinary Republicanism. The idea was that Trump would be more protectionist on trade, less prone to getting involved in foreign wars, more likely to preserve entitlement programs.
If there is such a thing as Trumpism, though, it's dying out before seeing the light of day. Though Trump has made a lot of hostile noises about the Canadian lumber and dairy industries, he seems to have backed off a broader tax on goods entering the US after big corporations objected. Trump has made promises to make health insurance better and more affordable, but the healthcare plan he and conservatives are pushing doesn't do what he says it does. When it comes to foreign entanglements, Trump has not just given the military looser guidelines in existing conflicts but can't stop rattling sabers in the direction of North Korea. It's true that Trump has, with the help of Congress, had success rolling back some Obama-era regulations—but that's just standard-issue pro-business Republicanism, not anything unique to Trump.
As for his high-profile executives orders, the most extreme ones—the "travel ban" targeting citizens of several Muslim-majority countries and the attempt to revoke federal funding for sanctuary cities—are having a tough time getting through the courts. Many of the others have PR-friendly names like "Implementing an America-First Offshore Energy Strategy," but are actually merely requests for agencies to study whether regulations (in this case, rules about offshore drilling) can be eliminated.
Looking around the administration, the most unorthodox of Trump's staffers are in retreat. Sebastian Gorka, an under-credentialed national security adviser with ties to the Hungarian far right, is apparently on his way out. There are signs Bannon's influence over Trump is on the wane. Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn is still under investigation. Flynn's old deputy, the hawkish KT McFarland, is out , too. And across multiple federal agencies, Trump loyalists despised by their coworkers are being purged.
With these figures diminished, it becomes easier to see how ordinary Trump's plans are. His healthcare bill will give health insurance companies more power and make it harder for sick people to get care. His tax plan will disproportionately benefit the rich. His Supreme Court nomination was literally picked by the conservative movement. Trump's federal bureaucracy will largely ignore climate change and police misconduct. It's the kind of reflexively anti-regulation, benefit-slashing playbook you'd see from almost any Republican in the game.
Trump burned through the GOP primary and the general election thanks to his ability to create controversy, spin that controversy into coverage, and then denounce that coverage as biased and wrong. More than 100 days into his presidency, he's still in campaign mode—holding rallies, even releasing a TV ad—while his Republican deputies quietly go about advancing their policies and actually running the country. Though he beat the establishment to get the nomination, the establishment has defeated, or at least co-opted, Trump right back since Election Day. He doesn't know how to be a president, he just knows how to play one on TV.
Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.