Much of the post-election discussion has focused on what the next administration will do, its policies and its personnel. There is, however, a bigger, looming question: How will President-elect Donald Trump temperamentally and intellectually handle the burdens of the presidency?
Trump’s temperament and character were central to the concerns of millions of voters, including Republicans who would not support him. His lack of empathy, intellectual lethargy (he brags he rarely reads a book all the way through), his hunger for approval, his lack of impulse control, his explosive temper and his vindictiveness were evident throughout an 18-month campaign. They remain a threat to his presidency and to the country.
- When the first shooting or terrorist attack comes, will he blurt out, “I told you so!” (as he did throughout the campaign), or will he be able to fill the consoler-in-chief role?
- Will he be manipulated by political opponents and foreign leaders wise to his vanity and thirst for approval?
- Will he be able to learn what he needs to know — especially if he cannot sit still to read? (The most important and heartfelt recommendation we can make would be to put books and briefing books on tape. Some people are visual learners, and others are auditory learners; conscientious staffers will need to adapt to Trump’s style and understand his weaknesses.)
- Will he continue the strategy of micromanaging and bullying he has used in business? (The Post reports that in his own book “he called himself a ‘screamer’ who doesn’t hesitate to berate associates.”)
- Will loyalty and not competence be the primary consideration for his personnel picks?
- Who’s going to tell him he’s wrong?
- When things go wrong, will he blame others, refuse to apologize and attack the messengers?
- Was his vicious assault on the press an act, or does he intend to launch an attack on the First Amendment, operate in secrecy and lie with impunity?
- Is he capable of any self-discipline? (Aides will need to take away social media access permanently.)
- Can he separate the country’s interests from his personal peeves and piques?
- Is he really going to let his kids run his businesses, thereby setting up a horrific web of conflicts that makes the Clintons look like Eliot Ness?
- Will he misuse the instruments of federal power to settle scores and punish enemies?
- Will he make decisions rashly for superficial reasons?
These are not insignificant or imaginary concerns. They assume a 70-year-old billionaire who defied everyone to win the presidency is not about to turn over a new leaf. Presidents are usually undone by their own flaws, which become worse in office. If Trump was intemperate before, wait until he faces the full stress of the presidency.
There are a few things those around him might do to move him in constructive ways. These are no substitute for a president with good character, temperament and intellect, but the country elected Trump, so we will have to improvise here.
The Post has reported on Trump’s lack of decisiveness, his tendency to bounce around and follow the advice of the last guy in the room. That last person better be Vice President-elect Mike Pence or someone stable and sane. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Pence needs to be attached by the hip to the new president.
In addition, Cabinet secretaries, senior White House staff and congressional leaders have to collaborate among themselves and resist his worst impulses. They have to say no and risk being fired when the president wants to do something dangerous, illegal or immoral. The Trump team will be custodians of the presidency; they are responsible for, as President Obama said Wednesday, passing on the baton to the next group.
Aides will learn the art of leaking to foil bad ideas. Kellyanne Conway went on air to get heard by her boss. That’s insane, but if it’s what it takes . . . As someone with virtually no ideological grounding, Trump is easily moved by anecdotal evidence. His struggle framing his immigration policy demonstrated he often is not comfortable with the implications of his own ideas (e.g. throwing out of the country a grandmother who has lived here for 20 years). It will be up to those around him to explain what his ideas mean to the lives of real people.
All administrations become defensive and hostile toward critics. This is the origin of groupthink and the danger of getting trapped in a bubble. Trump’s staff will need to find creative ways to expose him to differing views, and they themselves will need to seek outside advice. They should keep in mind how they perceived Obama — arrogant, dismissive of critics, protected by cronies and loyalists, cut off from average people — and vow not to promote the faults they found in him.
Our biggest worries have never been about Trump’s loony policies (which Congress can resist or which will crumble when they encounter the real world) but with him. There is a heavier than usual burden on those around Trump because he comes to office with zero public experience, a dearth of knowledge and deeply troubling personality traits. Every single day, they must remember they work for the president but serve the American people. We should pray — fervently and often — they are courageous and skilled enough to protect Trump from himself and the country from Trump.