“Look,” a Republican friend said to me recently, “President Trump needs time to show what he can do. We elected him because we thought he’d shake things up – fix things. No more Washington ‘Business as Usual.’ You have to give him a chance. That’s only fair.” (I resisted asking how “fair” Republicans had been to President Obama when he took office.)
So let’s honor that request.
We’ve had ample opportunity to take the measure of President Trump’s operating style. It reflects his family and upbringing, his innate personal character and values, and his experience. That experience was forged in the nasty, dog-eat-dog world of New York real estate development, captured in his book The Art of the Deal, and dramatized on his TV show “The Apprentice.”
Its essence is the testosterone-driven battle of confrontational bargaining. It’s a zero-sum game: somebody wins, somebody loses–there’s no middle ground. It’s narrowly time-limited: no long-term view—win today’s battle, whatever it takes, and go on to the next one, always with the same question, “Did I win or lose?”
In the kind of transactional, win/lose battles Donald Trump built his life and career on, “Truth” is whatever you say it is–at the moment–in order to gain advantage. There are no “rules,” no overriding ethics, moral principles, or even compassion. You get what you want by brute force, fear, intimidation, and dissimulation … or outright lying.
A world like this, devoid of guiding principles, is a world without consequences. Of course, nobody wins all the time in a world of unrelentingly constant battles: witness Trump’s multiple bankruptcies and business failures. So if a deal goes sour, blame somebody else for the loss. If you wind up having to walk away, stick the people who backed you with the loss (investors, customers, suppliers, employees, contractors). That’s just their problem.
This is not just what President Trump does—it’s who he is. That’s how he ran for and won the Presidency. “This is who I am. This is what I promise to do. If you like it, vote for me. If you don’t like it, lump it.”
The struggle itself defines one’s worth and character: “Winners” are “good,” and “strong.” “Losers” are “bad” and “weak.” As President Trump acknowledged in reversing himself yesterday on the issue of separating families from children, “If you’re really, really pathetically weak, the country is going to be overrun with millions of people, and if you’re strong, then you don’t have any heart,” he said. “That’s a tough dilemma. Perhaps, I’d rather be strong.”
A dilemma indeed. In Donald Trump’s mind, either you’re pathetically weak (remember that the word “pathetic” has its roots in “sympathy” and “compassion”) or heartlessly strong. Damned if you do; damned if you don’t.
What’s missing is any sense of creative balance: being compassionate without sacrificing essential objectives like meaningful border security, achieving sustainable positive solutions to real problems while also deeply respecting human values. It’s called “win/win.” Instead of fighting over equally-damaging extremes, agree on a workable common ground.
So back to the question.
We know now how President Trump operates. Is it working? Where are the “so many wins” we were promised we’d get “tired of?” No less an authority than Vladimir Putin recently endorsed President Trump by saying “He keeps his promises.” OK. So, how’s he doing? What promises is he actually delivering on? Are the accomplishments he does claim sustainable over time? What potential longer term negative consequences do those “accomplishments” trigger?
Maybe the real issue is that President Trump is simply over-matched. Maybe the problems challenging our country internally– like income inequality, immigration, affordable health care, a collapsing social safety net, a rational, sustainable national budget–are too difficult and complex to be solved by ego-driven win/lose transactional bargaining. “Who knew,” President Trump remarked after the failure of the ACA repeal and replace effort, “that health care was so challenging?” (Answer: every other president since Nixon.)
Maybe the dramatically changing global environment of technological change, complexly intertwined international economics and trade, world-wide political instability, terrorism, and the refugee crisis it generates, and climate change—maybe dauntingly complex challenges like these are simply beyond Donald Trump’s capabilities to deal with. Like over-hyped college quarterback stars (Johnny Manziel, Tim Tebow) he’s just not equipped to make it in the pros. He’s a fight club counter puncher who’s gone up a class—and is getting pounded.
The thing is, we’ll know. And we’ll know by November.
If the president can’t deliver, then we need a Congress that can truly lead and produce sustainable results and real solutions. To be blunt, that will mean replacing as many of the self-serving, pocket-lining, narrow-minded rigidly-political extremists in the House and Senate as possible. That’s our job.