One of the major problems with President Trump’s impulsivity is its utter predictability.
A recent op-ed in the New York Times by an anonymous administration official accused the president of impetuous, reckless rants, and Trump responded with impetuous, reckless rants (“Treason?”). Bob Woodward’s new book “Fear” recounts a private “nervous breakdown” in the administration and Trump responded with a public nervous breakdown – accusing Woodward of being a “Dem operative” and raising a possible change in the libel laws. Amid this political crisis, Kim Jong Un expressed his “unwavering faith in President Trump” and the president reacted just as the North Korean leader surely knew he would: touting the positive opinion of a homicidal despot on Twitter as a character reference.
If you prick him, does he not explode? If you stroke him, does he not purr?
The president’s form of deception is qualitatively different from the deviousness of Richard Nixon or the smoothness of Bill Clinton. Trump pursues no deep or subtle strategies. He does not even consistently seek his own interests. He responds like a child or a narcissist – but I repeat myself – to positive or negative stimulation. It is the reason that a discussion on “Fox & Friends” can so often set the agenda of the president. It is the reason that Trump’s lawyers, in the end, can’t allow him to be interviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller. It would be like a 9-year-old defending a doctoral dissertation. Or maybe a rabbit jumping into a buzz saw.
This lesson can’t be lost on foreign intelligence services, which can pre-order a comprehensive account of the president’s psychological and political vulnerabilities for $18 on Amazon. (Note: Woodward now owes me.) Here is the increasingly evident reality of the Trump era: We are a superpower run by a simpleton. From a foreign policy perspective, this is far worse than being run by a skilled liar. It is an invitation to both manipulation and contempt.
The main response of Trump and his supporters is to point to the polls. Whatever the president is doing, most Republicans want more of it. As one apologist argues, “His personality is a feature, not a bug. Many Americans are comfortable with that.” Put another way, a motivated group of Americans – which largely controls the GOP nomination process – is enjoying Trump’s reality-television version of presidential politics. And you can’t argue with the ratings.
I can, and do. What we are finding from books, from insider leaks and from investigative journalism is that the rational actors who are closest to the president are frightened by his chaotic leadership style. They describe a total lack of intellectual curiosity, mental discipline and impulse control. Should the views of these establishment insiders really carry more weight than those of Uncle Clem in Scranton, Pennsylvania? Why yes, in this case, they should. We should listen to the voices of American populism in determining public needs and in setting policy agendas – but not in determining political reality.
We should be paying attention to the economic trends that have marginalized whole sections of the country. We should be alert to the failures and indifference of American elites. But we also need to understand that these trends – which might have produced a responsible populism – have actually, through a cruel trick of history, elevated a dangerous, prejudiced fool. Trump cannot claim the legitimacy of the genuine anxiety that helped produce him. The political and social wave is very real, but it is ridden by an unworthy leader. The right reasons have produced the wrong man.
The testimony of the tell-alls is remarkably consistent. Some around Trump are completely corrupted by the access to power. But others – who might have served in any Republican administration – spend much of their time preventing the president from doing stupid and dangerous things. Woodward’s book recounts one story in which economic adviser Gary Cohn heads off the American withdrawal from NAFTA by removing the notification letter from Trump’s Oval Office desk. Think on that a moment. A massive change in economic policy was avoided – not by some brilliant stratagem, but by swiping a piece of paper and trusting in Trump’s minuscule attention span.
This turns out to be the best argument for the author of the Times op-ed – and others like him or her – to stay right where they are. The manipulation of the president in a good cause actually works. And those who engage in this task boldly and consistently are both losing their reputation and serving their country.
Michael Gerson, a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group, was President George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter from 2001 to 2006 and a senior policy adviser. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.