So far, we’ve witnessed probably the weakest new president ever. Between the leaks, the spontaneous Twitter pronouncements, controversial executive orders, losses in federal court, and historic difficulties in getting a cabinet approved, I think I can safely say that American history has never seen a president so bad at his job, at least this early in his administration. I’m a little surprised by this. I knew Trump would enact policies I would disagree with, but I never would have guessed he would have been so incompetent at it. Why on earth is this?
There are a lot of potential causes, and they are not mutually exclusive. Reality, as I’ve tried to explain, is always going to be more complicated than our limited senses can understand. The first is obvious to his detractors, he’s a newbie. With no governmental experience whatsoever he was bound to run into situations that he would have no idea about. The next is obvious to his supporters. As an outsider who heavily campaigned on a platform of completely changing government, he was bound to run into a heavily entrenched beauracracy which would fight his changes at every step. Both of these are right, but there’s more to it.
The biggest clue into why Trump is flailing so wildly comes from his own language. If you asked him, before he won the election, what does he do, his answer would be simple. He wins. In terms of business, women, and lifestyle in general, he picks a fight then wins it. That sounds nice. Don’t we want a winner in charge? And doesn’t his career arc generally suggest that he usually wins his fights? But being myopically focussed on winning means you don’t see its limitations.
The first problem is that winning anything requires someone else to lose. In a wildly diverse society, any decision an executive makes is going to guarantee a great deal of people disagree with it. To Trump, a guy who already got the lower number of total votes, this means all his decisions are all going to be bad according to the majority of voters. This is a problem, but the nature of our government means that you don’t need to consult the majority for every decision. Trump could get over that, but guaranteeing losers is only part of the problem.
The other part is the fact that in order to win you need a clearly defined enemy. In negotiations that’s easy. Whether you’re negotiating with banks, employees, other developers, whatever, if you can see your enemy you can analyze his strengths and weaknesses and make a plan based on them. Trump’s plans usually involve some kind of chaotic technique. Some kind of unpredictability. This is great as it keeps your enemy off balance and makes their next move a lot less obvious. But what do you do when you have no specific enemy? During the campaign Trump did great. In the primaries and the general he could always point to a specific person and fight them, and his chaos was very effective at knocking them on their heels. He’s a great campaigner. But those skills not only don’t transfer to governing, they are completely antithetical to it.
A president has no one adversary. Even on a single policy there are so many overlapping points of view that there is never a clear path. And when you have policies piled on policies there are never clear paths that lead to victory. It just can’t happen. Who does Trump need to beat now? Who is his primary enemy? The democrats? Elizabeth Warren? Chuck Schumer? The protestors? Putin? China? Mexico? Not only are none of these entities his enemies, all of them are partners to some degree or another. If he beats any of them that will only make governing harder.
As long as Trump keeps his binary view that every interaction is a contest to win, he will always have a severe disadvantage in governing. He’s 70. I’m not optimistic that he is capable of changing at this point. The only good news is that it’s going to make it a lot harder to get anything accomplished. Given that I disagree with him on almost every policy, I take some comfort from that.