You might not have noticed this, but President Trump is feeling liberated. And for almost-but-not-really good reasons.
Columnist after columnist is attempting to explain why Trump is firing folks like Rex Tillerson and alienating other folks like Gary Cohn into resigning. The basic thesis is Trump feels like he has grown into the presidency.
Now maybe one could understand Trump’s behavior if he was doing nothing but winning — except that he isn’t. Most of the coverage suggests Trump feels liberated in particular by his decisions to levy steel and aluminum tariffs and plan on a summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. But let’s review those two moves. The former is bad policy and bad politics, and it failed to win the Pennsylvania special election for the GOP. The latter may or may not happen, but it is very likely to not end well. Nonetheless, as Politico’s Ben White notes, “Trump is even more fed up with strong-willed advisers who tell him he shouldn’t declare trade wars, or take it so easy on Russia, or decide on a whim to stage a summit with a nuclear-armed North Korean dictator who, it turns out, might never have extended the invite in the first place.”
My Post colleague Michael Gerson sums the paradox of the situation best:
The best interpretive framework through which to understand Trump’s leadership is psychological rather than ideological. One would think that a president with historically low poll numbers, facing an investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III of growing seriousness, heading (in all likelihood) toward a disastrous midterm repudiation that could lead to his impeachment, and presiding over an administration run on the management principles of Maximilien Robespierre might be acting out of desperation. On the contrary, White House insiders indicate that Trump’s increasingly flailing decisions are the function of a president gaining in confidence. Having decided that he has gotten the hang of the job, Trump has lost patience with opposition and constraints. He seems not frightened but giddy.
How can Trump feel emboldened when there is almost no evidence that he’s winning? The explanations for this behavior range from fear of Mueller to straight-out narcissism. The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has a pretty simple explanation for Trump’s confidence: The world has not yet ended. Or, to put it another way: Trump feels he’s winning because he is not losing as much as everyone has claimed.
To understand what I mean, let’s look at another Ben White column about why the stock market seems happy with the Trump administration. Even though the president is a chaos muppet, the markets seem pretty chill:
White House staffers have been counseling presidents against rash actions since the invention of White House staff. The way they do this is by warning of dire consequences if their advice is not followed. Indeed, this was the tactic that Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin used to try to forestall the tariffs.
In the end, however, they were wrong. Trump has such a short-term worldview that if something calamitous does not happen immediately after he does something, it bolsters his assumption that he’s bulletproof. Despite doomsaying predictions of a crashing economy if he was elected, the economy is still chugging along. Despite dire warnings that the tariffs would trigger a trade war and a global economic scare, that has not happened yet, either. Despite much clucking about the impropriety of shifting from “maximum pressure” on North Korea to a planned summit, no alliance has been torn asunder.
Let me be very clear here: I am not saying any of Trump’s moves are great ideas. But they haven’t triggered immediate catastrophes either. If an adviser keeps warning you that bad things will happen and then they have not yet come to pass, you would start to doubt their worth as well.
The key word in that last paragraph is “yet.” There are many, many ways that this administration’s policies could go south real fast. If Trump thought about it he would probably realize some of his self-initiated moves, like firing James B. Comey, have been calamitous. And as White acknowledges, it is possible “Trump really does pose a massive systemic risk, and markets just can’t see it or can’t price it.” A botched summit could lead to war on the Korean Peninsula. All of Trump’s myriad miscues could come back to haunt him in the midterms.
But nothing bad has happened yet, so Trump will continue to feel emboldened. Essentially, he is acting like he is invincible. And people who think they are invincible tend to find out they are not in the harshest way possible.