When speaking of political positions, “evolution” implies a single change in a single direction. To “flip-flop” implies multiple changes in multiple directions — first to flip, then to flop. Though these have become near-synonyms in political speech, political speech is not accurate speech.
Take Hillary Clinton’s position on gay marriage: After having supported anti-hate-crime legislation, supported domestic partnership benefits and opposed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, Clinton defended traditional marriage as a U.S. Senator. She now supports gay marriage as a candidate for president. Unless at some point in the past Clinton has supported gay marriage but changed her mind and then changed back, she has not flip-flopped on the issue.
When MSNBC’s Chuck Todd, and many others, said that Donald Trump “flip-flopped” on abortion, I struggled to think of another point in Trump’s career when he has opposed abortion as much as he does now. In his 2000 run for president, Trump supported legalized abortion but opposed partial birth abortion. Since 2011, Trump has opposed abortion except in case of rape and incest. Trump’s supposed “flip-flop” on abortion has been in a clearly anti-abortion direction which means it barely counts as a flip and doesn’t count as a flop at all.
In 2000, Trump also supported an assault weapons ban. He doesn’t today. Which is, again, a flip but not a flop.
As for many of Trump’s other supposed flip-flops, they are not contradictory positions because they are not even different positions. When Trump calls Hillary Clinton “the worst Secretary of State in the history of the nation” but “a terrific woman,” he contradicts himself no more than one who says Ben Carson is a delightful man but is utterly unsuited to be president. Opposing the Affordable Care Act while supporting universal medical care (as Trump does) is not to disagree about where to go but how to get there. Trump saying that most people want to pay as little in taxes as possible but that he would nevertheless tax the wealthy more heavily is no contradiction. Neither is saying that you want to work as little as possible while you still show up to work.
Supporting a tougher trade policy not only with China but also with Mexico and Japan, Trump said in one interview that he has “tremendous respect for the Japanese people. I mean, you can respect someone that’s (sic) beating the hell out of you, but they are beating the hell out of this country.” It sounds like something Trump would say on the campaign trail — and it is — but the interview is not from 2016 or 2012. It’s from 1988, nearly three decades ago.
Trump has supported stringent immigration restrictions since at least 2000, a tougher trade policy with China since the 1990s and economic protectionism since the 1980s. Unless one focuses on abortion and guns, then Trump’s deeply held convictions are barely a decade old. But on the issues for which he is best known — immigration, China and trade — Trump has held the same positions for nearly thirty years.
Of the many things Donald Trump is — brash, bombastic, boisterous, etc. — a flip-flopper is not one of them. Those who chide Trump for being fast and loose with his words should not be fast and loose with their own.