Will his actions speak louder than his words?
by Lawrence J Fedewa, April 15, 2018
In language, style and actions, Donald J. Trump is commonly described as “a different kind of President”. His advocates tend to believe that he is “still learning how to be a politician”. He detractors believe that he is now and ever will be an incompetent President. As the great ethicist, H. Richard Niebuhr, used to say, “People are generally correct in what they affirm, and wrong in what they deny.” In the case of Mr. Trump, it is true that he is learning, but not how to be a politician. It is true that he is not going to change, but wrong that he is incompetent.
The basic truth about Mr. Trump is that he is deal-maker. What he is learning is not how to become a politician, but how to make deals with politicians. He has publicly scorned the deal-making capabilities of politicians, but he is now in their world, so he has to learn how to make deals with them. A more conventional description of this process is “building a coalition “around each major initiative.
He has learned that the sweet spot of most politicians is their electability at the time of an election. He has already indicated that he intends to have a very active campaign schedule for the 2018 mid-term elections. To the extent that his campaigning is successful, of course, he will build political capital. The opposite is also true. Unlike most of the politicians he interacts with, his core competence is making deals rather than attracting voters. The fact that he has done as well as he has with attracting votes is a tribute to his natural charisma and his experience as a media personality rather than his political know-how.
So, what is different about a deal-maker? The script for Mr. Trump’s approach to dialog is contained in his book, The Art of the Deal.
The most basic factor is how he talks. His every transaction begins with a statement of the objective of the interchange. Trump “starts high” – you can always come down, he notes, but rarely can go up on your initial offer. The opening shot is almost always surprising, even outlandish. This approach has the effect of calling attention to the issue, stating the worst possible outcome for the adversary, cautioning the opposition as to what they are up against, and demanding that they think about what they are willing to offer to avert the threat that Trump has voiced.
Examples abound: he first introduced the immigration issue with the threat to deport all the illegals. He knew that was impossible, but he certainly got everybody’s attention. He started the tax reduction debate by calling for a 15% cap on corporate income taxes. He settled for 22%. He said he might have to terminate NAFTA, and the negotiations are still ongoing. He said he was going to impose high tariffs on steel and aluminum, then he made exceptions, etc. He sees the world in transactional terms.
The press plays right into his hands with this strategy. They always take his opening statements literally and proceed to put chapter, verse and speculation around every threat. They end up helping the President “start high” so he can come down as needed. In the end, the winner is the one who gets what he wants and leaves the opposite party thankful for what they ended up with – which is never as bad as the opening shot. This is indeed an unusual President. He plays his cards very close to his vest.
He may be miscalculating in one regard, however. As a private businessman, he sees success as getting what he wants, and his bottom line is the measure by which success or failure is measured. In public life, however, the ultimate measure of success is public opinion, as expressed in elections. The public is guided to a significant extent by the press, and the press seems to be more – much more – attentive to the opening shots than to the conclusive results. This naivete sets the stage for their caricature of Mr. Trump based on his opening of negotiations rather than on his successes. Thus, the headlines are always sensational, and frequently extreme, statements. When the negotiations are completed many months, or years, later, the outcomes are old news.
Thus, the cumulative effect is one drastic statement after another as new initiatives are addressed, and little attention is paid when the final die are cast. The President is therefore portrayed to the public as radical, unstable, and overly flexible in his positions. Since his initiatives tend to take extended periods of time to conclude, the constant drumbeat of negative headlines diminishes rather than supports his accomplishments.
Only time will tell whether all the abuse he has taken in the process of setting up his negotiating positions will have been worth the sometimes-spectacular results he is starting to produce. And, more importantly, perhaps, whether the public begins to think in terms of those results rather than the dramatic beginnings of the deal making.
The first big test is coming in November 2018.
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