The Trump Presidency Makes Complete Sense
In a recent article in the New York Times, 60 advisers, associates, friends and members of Congress were all interviewed to give an account of how the President views his job. The consensus? Trump believes “every day is an hour-by-hour battle for self-preservation”.
As early as the transition, it was reported Mr. Trump told top aides to think of each presidential day as an episode in a television show in which he vanquishes rivals, likening his new job as an extension of his previous one as a reality television star. While this may seem like a departure from traditional strategies to approach the Presidency, the rationale behind leaning heavily on these tactics of fighting and counterpunching are not completely flawed since they are precisely the ones that got him elected.
“The problem he’s going to face,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, “is there’s a difference between running for the office and being president. You’ve got to find that sweet spot between being a fighter and being president.” But, all signs point to him doing what’s served him well so far.
A year into the Trump Presidency, pundits and commentators alike are pausing to take stock of the highlights and lowlights. Special Prosecutor Robert Muller’s indictments and the guilty pleas of four Trump insiders to the Russian investigation, along with articles of impeachment introduced by the Democrats might suggest that we are seeing the beginning of the end. However, that is not necessarily the case.
There are compelling reasons to believe that the Administration is producing the precise results it was designed for and is getting stronger over time.
Elected Office: A Unique Circumstance
The position of elected official is a wholly unique circumstance. Representative government empowers the public to have their say, and thus, the scale of the constituency is unparalleled; millions of citizens expecting their interests to be served. It is for this reason that our elected officials are the best reflection of us.
They are elected in our own image.
Take the example of Republican endorsements in the recent Alabama Senate race. When accusations of Roy Moore’s sexual misconduct with minors first broke, party leaders made their stance firmly clear: these values were not of the Republican Party and he should step aside. However, in his insistence to keep his campaign going, polls showed a surprising result: the voters of Alabama weren’t as appalled at Mr. Moore’s behavior as his compatriots in Washington. Soon thereafter, President Trump gave a resounding endorsement. Party leaders all followed suit and walked back their previous assertions. This stark contrast serves as a reminder that our elected leaders are nothing more than conduits of our preferences.
Previously, I discussed the relationship between authority and power. Power is one half of a transaction, traded in exchange for services of authority. There is probably no more explicit representation of this exchange than elected office where there is no confusion as to the terms of the arrangement. All parties know that power is being conferred by the electorate to officials for the explicit purpose of serving the public.
Thus, the core of Mr. Trump’s power is derived from the authorization he receives from his constituency.
Implications of the 2016 Election
The Trump campaign was one of the most unusual campaigns by modern standards. The rhetoric, proclamations and tenor were unconventional to say the least. However, two specific aspects of the unconventionality are most notable: expectation setting and the conditioning of Trump supporters.
In more traditional cycles, elections are won in two phases. First, primary elections are won by appealing to the more ardent members of a political party (the base). Then, candidates adapt their platforms and rhetoric to the center for the general election to appeal to a more moderate audience and garner enough swing voters to be successful.
The Trump campaign’s message during the general continued to be similarly divisive, bombastic, and theatrical as it was during the primary. Additionally, Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, was not sufficiently moderate and relatable in her demeanor to overwhelmingly attract swing voters. This unconventionality is also why polling and estimates were so widely inaccurate. The models didn’t incorporate these variables because they’d not been seen or anticipated.
Representing such a divisive and extreme candidacy through the entire election resulted in two notable consequences
An anchoring expectation set to the constituency for the Presidency
A desensitization or normalization of outlandish behavior.
Many on the left shake their collective heads in disgust whenever a tweetstorm erupts, a tone-deaf comment is made, or international diplomacy is conducted in less-than-diplomatic fashion. They simply can’t fathom the rhyme or reason of actions by the President that appear to be so un-presidential. It’s also not uncommon for the President’s behavior to be diagnosed as symptomatic of some underlying mental disorder, often by people who have no medical training.
But, what if Mr. Trump’s actions are perfectly sensible, if not strategic?
Mr. Trump achieved a virtually impossible feat on election day. He won the presidency by the slimmest of margins. Less than 80,000 votes in three states were the deciding factor between a Trump Presidency and a Clinton one. Essentially, he threaded the political needle (though, the record for closest election is still held by the 2000 Bush / Gore election at 540 votes).
Looking ahead to re-election, Mr. Trump knows he’s going to have to do it again. That is, he’s going to need to either keep those same 80,000, do a one-for-one swap, or grow the divide. If you knew that your unusual, divisive style had resonated with a specific constituency to gain victory by a slim margin, would you abandon it in the hopes of attracting moderate voters? How would that even work; appealing to those who are looking for a more traditional style, while at the same time to those who are appreciating Trump’s unique style. Because this election spread the chasm in divided politics so wide, there’s no going back. The political calculation must be to appease those who signed up for his middle-of-the-night, never-back-down, facts-don’t-matter bravado.
We always knew that above all else Mr. Trump was a master marketer. That’s not changed. It’s only that his megaphone has become more far-reaching. For those of us who feel we’ve jumped into an alternate reality, we’re simply not the target market or psychography.
He’s intentionally not speaking to us because to do so would risk eroding that 80,000.
Between Now and 2020
In a 60 Minutes interview earlier this Fall, Trump supporters were asked how they felt about their decision a year into the Presidency. Overwhelmingly, they said they were happy with their decision and they would do it again. The two things that would make them feel differently going forward were if the economy was adversely affected or if there was a military action that put the US in danger. A Pew Research report concurred, stating the top three topics affecting voting behavior were economy, terrorism and foreign policy.
Not surprisingly, as Americans we want to have a stable income and to feel safe at home and abroad.
By these criteria, the Trump Presidency is fulfilling expectations. The Dow is hitting record marks in 2017, the S&P 500 had added $2 trillion as of September, and tech is up nearly 30%. While Trump policies might not be responsible for this growth, they are noteworthy. And, turnabout is fair play. The economic gains attributed to the Clinton Administration in the mid-to-late 90s had less to do with Clinton policies as they did a lingering effect from the Bush Presidency.
So, what does this all mean? Three things.
Trump must continue “being Trump”. Trump created a divide in American politics and must pander to the slim majority that got him elected. It is unwise to think that those who were turned off by his behavior and see it as morally reprehensible can be wooed into his camp. That’s a product of the divide. He simply can’t convert as many as he might lose. He has the potential for some upside, but significant downside.
By normalizing his outlandish behavior, the collective tolerance for his style is only growing. Ordinarily, an uprising by the masses would be a concern by such divisive politics, but the American public seems to have been largely conditioned. While cable news anchors display increasing dismay at the opposing party, nothing seems to be over the line. This means that the bar for outright revolt and unrest is pretty high.
The Trump Presidency most critically depends on two things: a robust economy, and military stability. If these continue the status quo, his base will continue to be loyal and his boorish style will be forgiven by those who are on the fence.
The first year of the Trump Presidency has been a divergent and disruptive time. While some have described 2017 as a chaotic, confusing time filled with turmoil, the strategies being using by the Trump Administration can be explained by understanding the way the unique set of puzzle pieces interlocked to win the election. And, knowing this gives us insight into the necessity for the seemingly bizarre tactics the President must employ, how these are working to his advantage, and what he must protect above all else.