It is a natural tendency to examine presidential decisions for what ideological content or policy direction they indicate. What does the removal of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signal about President Trump’s view of U.S.-Russia relations? What does the sudden acceptance of a summit with Kim Jong Un reveal about Trump’s approach to diplomacy and military force?
The answer to these and similar questions: Not much. They assume a process of reflection and planning for which there is no evidence. Trump seems to fire people when they defy him, displease him or look bad on television. “This guy never gets a good story about him,” Trump is reported to have complained of Tillerson. Trump’s shift in North Korean policy was, by all accounts, a spur-of-the-moment sort of thing — less like a high-stakes diplomatic gambit with nuclear implications and more like, hey, what the hell, let’s have breakfast for dinner. The decisive White House meeting with South Korea’s national security adviser Chung Eui-yong began with flattery of the president (what White House meeting doesn’t?) and included an assurance from Chung that Kim was “frank and sincere.” This was enough for Trump to accept a summit on the spot.
We should hope that Mike Pompeo is wonderful at his new job and that a new approach to North Korea ends up succeeding. But it is difficult to view either change as evidence of something bigger. Trump’s guiding principles are a disdain for precedent, a preference for institutional chaos and an invincible trust in his own instincts.
This means that 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.
What does this mean for Trump’s presidency? Paradoxically, the man with complete trust in his own instincts is easily manipulated. Because Trump lacks historical and ideological grounding for his views, the content of his instincts often seems determined by the last person who captures his attention. This was true of Chung, who could quickly sell a massive change in U.S. diplomatic strategy in East Asia to a leader who knows little about diplomacy, strategy or East Asia. But Trump came away from the meeting convinced, I imagine, that the whole thing was his idea. The rootless are easily shifted, as everyone from the leaders of China to the hosts of “Fox & Friends” has discovered.
The most damaging implication of all this is obvious. The world is a complex and chaotic place. People in the White House, including the president, need to control what limited amount is under their control. And this requires a working White House policy process, giving the most serious possible scrutiny to presidential decisions. The failure of past decisions is not an excuse for the reign of randomness. It is absurd to argue that, because the past 30 years of Korean policy haven’t succeeded, a new policy should be chosen by throwing a dart at a dartboard.
Trump unbound is having one further effect. It is adding to a squalid atmosphere of autocracy from which the United States has traditionally been exempt. The president insists on humiliating those who displease him. And everyone, eventually, displeases him. Those who delay this fate the longest are bootlicking mediocrities — the survival of the sycophants. The surest path to political advancement is to be a member of the ruling family or to praise the president on television. Loyalty matters far more than competence or character. And even that, in the end, is never enough.
At the center of the presidency is a total vacuum of idealism. And always there is a cloud of chaos surrounding the president, who revels in the kind of power demonstrated by breaking and mocking.
Republicans can no longer dismiss this as evidence of inexperience. It is getting worse as a failing president becomes more confident of his own judgment. And more disconnected from reality.
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