After a tumultuous and chaotic two weeks of the Trump presidency, we are now seeing a new raft of counter-intuitive articles ranging from ‘Does Trump Even Want to Succeed as President?’ to ‘How Trump Has Everyone Just Where He Wants Them and Is Kicking Ass.’ We should all bear in mind that while generally unpopular, Trump has extremely high levels of approval among Republican voters and continues to maintain near lockstep allegiance from congressional Republicans. But on Trump, in trying to figure out what and how he’s doing, we should keep it simple. Because at this point we know Trump quite well.
1: Trump is a Damaged Personality: Trump is an impulsive narcissist who is easily bored and driven mainly by the desire to chalk up ‘wins’ which drive the affirmation and praise which are his chief need and drive. He needs to dominate everyone around him and is profoundly susceptible to ego injuries tied to not ‘winning’, not being the best, not being sufficiently praised and acclaimed, etc. All of this drives a confrontational style and high levels of organizational chaos and drama. This need for praise and affirmation and a lack of patience for understanding the basic details of governing are a volatile and dangerous mix. They catalyze and intensify each other. Perhaps most importantly, the drive to be the best and right drives promises, claims and policy pronouncements which may contradict his already existing positions or be impossible to fulfill. Often, because of this, they are simply forgotten. That is because the need to be right, best and praised drives everything. Everything else is subsidiary and subject to change in an evolving situational context. Once this is clear, much of the chaos becomes logical and predictable. It’s folly to imagine that Trump might pivot or grow up or simply be normal. It is no more likely that a chronically anxious adult would suddenly become serene or a charisma-less person would suddenly grow a charisma organ. This is Trump and he will never change.
2: Trump is a Great Communicator: Trump has an intuitive and profound grasp of a certain kind of branding. It’s not sophisticated. But mass branding seldom is. It is intuitive, even primal. ‘Make America Great Again’ may be awful and retrograde in all its various meanings. But it captured in myriad ways almost every demand, fear and grievance that motivated the Americans who eventually became the Trump base. It is almost certainly the case that MAGA is entirely Trump’s invention, not the work of any consultant or media specialist but from Trump himself. The Trump Trucker baseball cap, a physical manifestation of Trumpite branding, is similarly ingenious. In conventional design terms it is almost ridiculous. Loud red, simple font and campaign motto on an intentionally cheap design. But you cannot see that cap, even at a great distance, and not know what it means. It embodies as an artifact what Trump represents. Despite his manic temperament, impulsiveness and emotional infantility, this acumen gives him real and in some ways profound communication skills. The two don’t cancel each other out. They are both always present. They grow from the same root.
3: Trump’s Hold on His Base Is Grievance: People continue to marvel how a city-bred, godless libertine who was born to great wealth could become and remain the political avatar of small town and rural voters of middling means. The answer is simple. Despite all their differences, Trump meets his voters in a common perception (real or not) of being shunned, ignored and disrespected by ‘elites’. In short, his politics and his connection with his core voters is based on grievance. This is a profound and enduring connection. This part of his constituency likely amounts to only 25% or 30% of the electorate at most. But it is a powerful anchor on the right. His ability to emerge undamaged from an almost endless series of outrages and ridiculousnesses is based on this connection. To paraphrase McLuhan, with Trump, the medium is the message and Trump is the medium.
4. Trump is Possible Because of Partisan Polarization: Partisan polariziation is profoundly important for Trump. In a less polarized partisan environment Trump never would have been elected and, if he had, might already be looking at possible impeachment. I think the greatest single explanation of Trump is that his politics profoundly galvanized a minority of the electorate and only a minority of the electorate. Almost everyone who wasn’t galvanized was repulsed. But once he had secured the GOP nomination with that minority, the power of partisan polarization kicked in to lock into place perhaps the next 15% to 20% of the electorate which otherwise would never have supported him. The fact that partisan identification proved stronger than that repulsion is the key reason many, including myself, wrongly discounted Trump’s ability to win. As long as Trump remains “us” to Republican voters I see little reason to think anything we can imagine will shake that very high level of support he gets from self-identified Republicans. That likely means that, among other things, no matter how unpopular Trump gets, Republican lawmakers will continue to support him because the chances of ending their careers is greater in a GOP primary than in a general election.
5: Trump is Surrounded By Extremists and Desperados: Trump is primarily driven by impulse, grievance, the need to dominate and the need to be praised. There are core political beliefs Trump has had for decades which we should expect him to stick to. They almost all turn on being taken advantage of by other countries – whether in terms of trade or defense. The common thread is a deep belief in zero-sum relationships, whether in business or foreign affairs. As business columnist Joe Nocera put it after decades of observing Trump: “In every deal, he has to win and you have to lose.” But if Trump’s ideology is fluid, he has drawn around him advisors who can only be termed extremists. I believe the chief reason is that Trump’s authoritarian personality resonates with extremist politics and vice versa. We should expect them to keep catalyzing each other in dangerous and frightening ways.
What does all this mean? We should not think in terms of counter-intuition or 12 dimensional chess. Trump wants to be President and he wants to win and be the best. But he is generally unpopular, has a policy agenda which has great difficulty achieving majority support and a temperament which makes effective governance profoundly difficult. That mix makes the praise and affirmation he craves as President extremely challenging to achieve. Like many with similar temperaments and personalities he has a chronic need to generate drama and confrontation to stabilize himself. It’s that simple. It won’t change. It won’t get better.