Everyone — and I mean everyone — is trying to figure out President Trump right now.
Is he operating according to a master plan that only he, and maybe Stephen K. Bannon, can see? Or is he just doing stuff and seeing what happens? Is there a method to what looks to many people like political madness?
The best unified theory of Trump I’ve come across is by Sally Jenkins, the legendary Washington Post sports reporter and columnist. Here’s Sally’s explanation of Trump from a tweet last week “An old sports strategy: foul so much in the 1st 5 min of the game that the refs can’t call them all. From then on, a more physical game.”
If you think about the first 14 (or so) days of the Trump presidency through that lens, it starts to make a lot of sense.
The Trump administration is clearly proud of the amount of action it has taken in such a short period of time. At his daily White House press briefing Friday, press secretary Sean Spicer noted that “the administration has already racked up more than 60 significant actions,” adding that the total included “21 executive actions, 16 meetings with foreign leaders and 10 stakeholder meetings.” (In Trump’s first 10 days in office, he signed six executive orders — the most among the 13 presidents who have held office since World War II, according to Smart Politics.)
And it’s not just the actions — it’s the sort of actions Trump has taken. One executive order set in motion the much-promised construction of a wall along our southern border. Another temporarily banned refugees from entering the United States and curtailed all visitors from seven predominantly Muslim nations.
Consider Trump’s moves in light of the Jenkins theory. What Trump is doing by taking on so many controversial subjects so quickly is defining the landscape on which his presidency will be judged. He’s seeing how far he can stretch the system before it breaks and, in so doing, setting the outer limits of what he can do very, very far out.
Putting some names to Jenkins’s argument might help. Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors is extremely hard to stop with the ball in his hands in a one-on-one situation. His dribbling ability, coupled with the quick release on his jump shot, makes him a near-impossible cover. Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers is a very good defender and knows all of that about Curry. So Paul employs a highly deliberate strategy. He starts every game where he is guarding Curry by playing the Golden State point guard very aggressively. Paul grabs Curry. He holds him. He hits him. And he dares the refs to call a bunch of fouls on him. Sometimes they do. Sometimes Paul gets in early foul trouble. But Paul doesn’t stop his aggressive play. And because the refs don’t want to foul out an all-star like Paul in the first half, he gets away with far rougher treatment of Curry than he would have if he didn’t start off so aggressively.
Paul is Trump in the political world. Curry is the political establishment — elected Republicans and Democrats, as well as lobbyists, consultants and the media.
(One major difference with that basketball analogy: Paul can foul out of a game. It’s much harder for Trump to be taken off the court for his boundary-pushing.)
There is outrage right now about much of what Trump is doing and whom he is entrusting with doing it — Bannon, in particular. Protests at airports. Legal complaints being filed. Democrats promising retaliatory action. Republicans wary of saying much of anything about, well, anything.
But if Jenkins is right — and I suspect she is — then that outrage, those protests, those skittish Republicans will all dissipate, or diminish, as Trump’s presidency goes on. What feels like line-pushing now will seem normal sometime soon. By pushing so hard so fast, Trump is redefining what he can do and how the political establishment, and the country at large, will react.
It’s like a building up a muscle. The first time you do bicep curls, you might be able to do only five. But if you do that same exercise every day for a month, you’ll do five reps without even thinking about it. You might not even remember that you once struggled to get to five curls.
That muscle buildup in the political world and the culture more broadly is something to watch very closely as Trump’s presidency continues. He has proved to be someone not only able to push the bounds of conventional wisdom well beyond normal limits but also to escape it without paying any real penalty. Will his “go hard early” strategy keep working as president?