The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

President Trump is acting unhinged because that’s all he can do

With the midterms approaching, this presidency is now all about branding.

Steaks and chops described as “Trump meat,” along with Trump-branded wines and water, are shown before an event for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign at Trump National Golf Club in March 2016. (Reuters)

Over the weekend my Post colleagues Philip Rucker and Robert Costa had a front-pager about President Trump unleashed:

Fourteen months into the job, Trump is increasingly defiant and singularly directing his administration with the same rapid and brutal style he honed leading his real estate and branding empire.
Trump is making hasty decisions that jolt markets and shock leaders and experts — including those on his own staff. Some confidants are concerned about the situation, while others, unworried, characterize him as unleashed.
The president is replacing aides who have tended toward caution and consensus with figures far more likely to encourage his rash instincts and act upon them, and he is frequently soliciting advice from loyalists outside the government. As he shakes up his administration, Trump is prioritizing personal chemistry above all else, as evidenced by his controversial selection of Navy Rear Adm. Ronny L. Jackson, the White House physician, to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The president leaned into the caricature of him as unleashed on Monday with an all-day Twitter tantrum on topics including Amazon.comDACA and the Department of Justice. Almost everything he tweeted on these issues was a lie factually challenged and sounds worse when one takes Trump’s words semi-seriously. The tweets from this morning suggest that these tantrums, which last year occurred about once a week, are going to be closer to a daily feature of his presidency.

The president regularly goes after the online retail giant, but his claims aren't always valid. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

Behavior like this puzzles most of the political class — including Trump’s own staff, based on the sources willing to talk to Costa and Rucker. The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts offered a partial explanation for Trump’s behavior last month: Trump has said and done crazy things, and the world has not ended. Yet.

There is no secret master plan. Trump is the WYSIWYG president.

There is a more rational explanation for the president’s behavior, however, and it has nothing to do with staff turnover or any Axis of Adults: A politically weakened Trump has pivoted back to branding, because it is his only option before the midterm elections.

It is worth stressing just how little Trump is going to get from Congress between now and the midterms. As Paul Kane noted over at PowerPost, the omnibus spending bill was the last major action by Congress, and that was not exactly a policy triumph for Trump:

There is no rule that says Congress can’t do more this year. But the $1.3 trillion spending bill is probably lawmakers’ last major achievement as they observe what has become a tradition in these hyperpartisan times, settling into gridlock and girding themselves for the midterm elections. …
The political question going forward is whether this spending will help Republicans in the fall as they face an angry electorate. The projects are the sorts that might help with middle-of-the-road voters who want the government to function.
But the conservative base has spent more than a decade railing against big government spending. While Trump begrudgingly signed the legislation, citing the needed military spending, he voiced deep reservations about some of the soaring agency funding.
If those right-wing activists sit out the election, Republicans could be in deep trouble.

Indeed, Trump’s empty threat to veto the omnibus, and the outrage from his base about the spending, suggest how powerless Trump must feel right now on policy issues. He is further beset with legal troubles including emoluments, women rebelling against NDAs and the special counsel.

This must be frustrating to a man who cannot comprehend the virtues of checks and balances or the rule of law. Despite the GOP controlling the House, Senate and Oval Office, the only major achievements Trump can claim are the tax bill and the Neil M. Gorsuch confirmation.

In a gridlocked Washington, what can Trump do in this situation? He could focus on executive branch actions like the transgender ban. Even with that tactic, however, he runs into bureaucratic impediments and legal action. And let’s face it, Trump lacks both the patience and the stamina to see policy implementation through. Even though, in many ways, Trump has inherited an imperial presidency, he lacks the organization and know-how to properly run it.

White House aides can’t stop talking about President Trump like he’s a toddler

Given his political constraints, Trump will do what he did in the private sector when his real estate empire was floundering: switch to branding. When Trump tried to build things like hotels, his track record was mediocre. As a brand, however, Trump pocketed millions with far less skin in the game.

The president’s behavior this past month or so can best be understood as his trying to return to his brand as an angry outsider. He needs to ensure that his loyal base supporters are sufficiently energized to come out and vote GOP in the midterms. An easy way for him to do that is through Twitter rants. Trump will also follow the script of weak presidents by focusing on foreign affairs, such as his planned summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. But the primary means through which Trump will brand is by reclaiming the mantle of anger and railing against the D.C. swamp … which he now runs.

Trump will get little if anything from Congress on the issues he tweets about from here on in. But I am not sure that was his real point. Complaining about things simultaneously reveals Trump’s powerlessness but also fires up his base to try to get him an even more pliant Congress. (It also lets him off the hook for anything bad that happens.)

Democrats enjoy an enthusiasm gap. But if Trump can keep his voters in a sustained frenzy until November, maybe he can close that gap.

Will this strategy work? Probably not. Eight months of Twitter frenzy might bore even his loyal base. But the advantage to Trump is that as strategies go this one is pretty costless (for him, not the country). The president was not going to get bipartisan cooperation on anything. Trump is really good at roiling the political waters through the bully pulpit. Between being silently frustrated by political stalemate and loudly frustrated by it, Trump will opt for the latter every time.

Is Trump unhinged? Yes, absolutely. Is that on brand for him? With no political option left to him, yes, absolutely.