The Essence of Trump

People are having a hard time understanding Donald Trump.  Why is he so confrontational?   Why does he constantly troll the media?  When will he learn that foreign policy is complicated, and that policy-making requires tact and compromise?

The answers are actually easy to state; one only has to look at Trump’s life and his approach.  It is marked by consistency over decades, and that has carried over into how he runs his Presidential administration.

First, Trump is a very poor businessman who nonetheless has achieved great success.  His business record is actually one of bad investments, poor treatment of investors and contractors, and huge losses.  Legitimate banks will no longer do business with him.

Trump’s success comes from two factors.  First, he has been repeatedly bailed out by people who supported him despite failure (his family) or by people who saw that they could use Trump for their own ends (Russian money-launders and mafiosi).  Second, Trump is a great showman, and achieved considerable success in his television career on “The Apprentice.”  This career not only earned him money, but created an international brand for “Trump” that allowed the Trump organization to gain branding rights and attract development partners for projects to which Trump only contributes a name  but receives considerable revenues.

Second, to cover his anxiety about his underlying failures, Trump has developed in his own mind the persona of a brilliant, exemplary success.  He lies about and exaggerates his accomplishments because he must; to do otherwise is to start to admit doubts about his own role in his success.  In Trump’s mind, he will always be the smartest person in the room, always the greatest success, always the person who has done the most and more than anyone else in his situation.  This is how he presented himself in the past (“Star of the #1 show on television,” which it was not) and presents himself now (“biggest election crowd ever;” “Best speech ever given in [any given setting]”; “most accomplished by any president in first 6 mos.”; “Most presidential” etc.)

This view leads to a simple view of the world and policy-making.  If something is not going great, it must be because his predecessors, less smart and less skilled in business, made “bad deals.”   If these are just tossed out and replaced with “better deals,” then everything will be great.  And since he treats his predecessors as stupid people who made “incredibly bad deals,” it will be “easy” for someone as smart and great a deal-maker as Trump to come up with something “much, much better.”

For Trump, the details of history do not matter; the fine lines of policy are irrelevant; compromise is a dirty word and sign of weakness. What Trump believes works well, based on his own internal story of his business success, greatly reinforced by his fluke victory in the Presidential election, is demanding, bullying, playing to the crowds, pushing for a “better deal,” and then claiming victory.

Trump therefore treats the leaders of other countries (as shown in his transcripts of conversations with the leaders of Mexico and Australia) as he would a potential business partner or contractor in a real estate deal.  Their history, the complexities of their own situation, etc. do not matter.  All that matters is that Trump needs to make a better deal.  And they had better go along, or else.

The same is true in domestic politics.  In health care and tax reform, Trump believes his predecessor made bad, stupid deals.  It will therefore be easy to make much better ones and claim victory.  When such a simple-minded approach fails, he lashes out at those who won’t go along, accusing them of obstruction and cupidity.  He seems constitutionally unable to grasp that some things (e.g. achieving a political settlement in Iran, crafting national health care policy, making peace in the Middle East) are far more complex than signing a deal to put up a building in Chicago or Baku and getting credit for putting his name on it.

Much else follows from this world view.  Putting his son-in-law Jared Kushner in charge of China, the Middle East, government efficiency, and much else is OK because it’s just about making a better deal, and hence not that complicated.  No policy or international affairs experts are needed because they know nothing about making business deals.

Seeking out loyalists and family and running things in a fun, leisurely way, was a path to Trump’s business success and the Presidency, so of course he believes he is much smarter than the people in Washington who have “failed” to solve the important problems of Middle East Peace, providing health care, and restoring good-paying jobs to blue-collar workers.   That centuries of religious conflict, the problems of insurance in a market with asymmetric information, or automation make those problems highly resistant to solution are dismissed as excuses or a cover-up for weakness.

When Trump is faced with setbacks he does not see that he has to learn; he lashes out at scapegoats or seeks to distract attention (the Obama spied on me, Rice illegally unmasked people, and endless Hilary Clinton crimes gambits).  The more he faces setbacks, the more he exalts his accomplishments and blames others, and tries to get the media to frame him as the hero and others as villains.

This is what worked in his show-biz career and election campaign; I cannot imagine that he will abandon this approach now.

The result is that we have a President who is simply the person we elected — an overblown TV celebrity with ties to Russian money-launderers who thinks he is brilliant and all the US and world’s problems can be easily solved by making a better deal.   Truly smart and experienced advisors may try to get him on track, and occasionally frustrate Trump’s worst impulses.  But they are unlikely to last long, as Trump simply discards those whom he thinks do not fit into his story of his own brilliance and success.  So far, Trump has fired his Deputy AG, FBI director, National Security Advisor, Press Secretary, Director of Communications (twice) and Chief of Staff.  His Secretary of State has been largely marginalized and ignored; other cabinet secretaries (Ben Carson, Rick Perry) are figureheads wholly ignorant of the programs they lead, or as with Tom Price at HHS and Scot Pruitt at EPA, charged with dismantling the programs they head.  Whether it is appointing a family wedding planner to a major urban housing position or a talk radio host with no science background to the top science position in the Agr. Dept., this is a “no need for expertise” Presidential administration and is likely to remain that way.

Trump’s approach to governing has already done serious damage to both the US’s international standing and influence, and the capabilities of the US government.  It has not yet damaged the economy (which is always less dependent on the President than on myriad other factors) or caused a major international conflict.  We can only hope that Trump is somehow removed from active decision making before more harm is done to US influence and the US government.  And we must pray that the economy does not slide into recession or that a major international conflict arises; for if either eventuality arises, those deficiencies in US influence and capabilities will truly start to hit home.

 

 

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About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
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