Machiavelli advised leaders that while it would be nice to be both loved and feared, when one has to choose, it’s better to rely on fear. This is clearly the approach President Trump is trying to take. As his administration wallows in a crisis of policy, a crisis of politics and a crisis of management, he’s issuing threats left and right, to anyone who wins his displeasure. Governing by threats might work sometimes — if you can back them up. But no one is frightened of Trump right now, and all those impotent threats only demonstrate how little he understands about power.
Let’s begin with some of the people he’s threatening. While Trump has been eerily quiet on Twitter so far today, over the weekend he tweeted, “If a new HealthCare Bill is not approved quickly, BAILOUTS for Insurance Companies and BAILOUTS for Members of Congress will end very soon!” Briefly, the first “bailout” he seems to be referring to is the cost-sharing reductions that pay for things such as co-pays and deductibles for low-income people; if the administration cuts those off, insurers will exit the individual market, premiums will rise, and a “death spiral” could well take hold. The “bailout” for members of Congress is merely the fact that the government, like many employers, pays for part of their health coverage. So he’s saying that if they don’t pass a bill, he’ll make them pay more for their insurance (though it’s unclear whether he has the power to do so). The first threat is alarming; the second one is merely petty.
In another pair of tweets, Trump threatened China for not taking care of the North Korea problem: “I am very disappointed in China. Our foolish past leaders have allowed them to make hundreds of billions of dollars a year in trade, yet they do NOTHING for us with North Korea, just talk. We will no longer allow this to continue. China could easily solve this problem!” Trump appears to have already forgotten how, over “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake you’ve ever seen,” Chinese President Xi Jinping explained to him that, in Trump’s own words, it’s “Not that easy. In other words, not as simple as people would think. They’ve had tremendous conflict with Korea over the years.” What does he mean when he says “We will no longer allow this to continue”? Are the Chinese actually intimidated?
One more: Before the votes on Republicans’ health-care bill, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke reportedly called both of Alaska’s senators, Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, to tell them that if they didn’t vote for the bill, the administration would punish Alaska in some fashion or other. It’s unclear whether he did so on his own initiative or at the president’s behest, but either way, this “Nice state you’ve got here; it’d be a shame if something happened to it” approach was absurdly ham-handed, since Sullivan’s vote was never in doubt and Murkowski was more likely to react by being even more likely to stick to the opposition she had already publicly declared. The threat failed.
Meanwhile, the president pushed out his chief of staff and brought on a new communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, who channels Trump’s style more fully than any aide before him. Scaramucci had barely moved into his office before he began threatening to fire people.
This all adds up to a president who is incredibly frustrated that no one is doing what he wants, yet has no idea how to change the situation because he still doesn’t understand Washington. In the business world, Trump utilized threats often, especially threats to sue people. Given that Trump is one of the most litigious people on the planet (he has sued other people more than 2,000 times, according to one count), this was a threat you might be scared by — particularly if you were someone with less money and influence than him. But when he made the same threat to those with a comparable level of resources, it wasn’t so frightening. Remember when he threatened in October to sue the New York Times because it reported that multiple women were accusing him of unwanted sexual advances? The paper was not afraid and didn’t change how it reported on him, and the suit never materialized.
When he was only a businessman, things were straightforward and easy for Trump to understand: He can intimidate little guys, but not big guys. But power in Washington is much more complicated. Power is diffuse, spread across many individuals and institutions. And it changes as circumstances change.
Just look at what happened during the health-care debate. Once Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Murkowski announced their opposition to the Republican bill and there were no more votes to spare, every other GOP senator had enormous power, if they chose to take it. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) did, using his vote to command the spotlight and put a dagger in the heart of his party’s top legislative priority.
Power in Washington is also built on alliances, because in order to wield it you often need the cooperation of many others. Trump has been unable to build those alliances, not only because he came into office trumpeting his contempt for everyone who was already there but also because he can’t be bothered to understand what other people are really after. For all that he trumpets himself as a dealmaker, he has been utterly unable to persuade people to come along with him. He’s not selling anything they want to buy, and with Trump’s approval ratings in the 30s, the thought that he might criticize them or oppose them isn’t very frightening.
When he ran for president, Trump said over and over that any failures in Washington were the result of leaders who were stupid and weak, and that the force of his personality would be enough to achieve any goal. He was even naive enough to think that being president would be easier than running his brand-licensing firm, as he admitted in April. Now he’s discovering that Washington is more complicated than he thought, but instead of trying to learn from his mistakes and adapt, he’s just lashing out with threats. How long will it be before he realizes that it’s not working?