Understanding President Trump

                                UNDERSTANDING PRESIDENT TRUMP

                                      Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.    3-17

ABSTRACT:  Key observations on how to “make sense” of Pres. Trump’s words and behavior are offered.

KEY WORDS:  Donald Trump, POTUS

Many people, especially those who did not vote for Pres. Trump, are flustered and confused by his words and behavior.  The mainstream liberal media continues to be agog and amazed.  The underlying problem for them is unwillingness to accept that Pres. Trump is a different kind of president, who will never be what people in this day and age “expect” in a president.  Since  he will not be “recalled,” and since he does not seem inclined to change or seek to be like other presidents, a valuable goal might be to figure out how best to interpret his words and behavior, so that one can minimize emotional stress and also see how to contribute to our governance process.  There is now a large enough pool of the President’s behavior since the election to make some conclusions about how he is likely to behave and how to understand him.

Pres. Trump’s promises while campaigning were very ambitious, and anyone familiar with our governmental system should have known that many of his promises were going to be quite difficult to fulfill (despite Republican majorities in both houses of Congress and the President’s commendable and determined efforts to get started quickly in this first four weeks after inauguration).  Repealing the Affordable Care Act without disenfranchising millions of people while still lowering overall costs, is simply impossible, and the solution of giving everyone “access” to insurance while lowering overall costs will require that coverage in many of those plans be much skimpier than under the ACA.  The widespread negative reaction to his Executive Order regarding immigration shows that getting new immigration legislation will be very rocky, and no doubt tax reform will be the same, even though all three of these issues very much deserve our attention and reform.

We can note from his behavior that the President is naturally given to exaggerated speech.  Everything is “incredible” or “awful”, and he employs no nuanced and balanced sentences that attempt to capture the complex reality of any issues.  His proclivity for Tweets supports this, and his stubborn support later for what he has Tweeted indicates, including frequent redefinitions of words used, that he does not seek to make his statements unambiguous or exact. 

We can also surmise from what Pres. Trump has expressed regarding taxes, healthcare, and immigration gives us no evidence about whether he can evaluate complex issues fully and formulate positions that integrate the needs of as many citizens as possible.  If true, this would make him more dependent on advisors and experts, though he seems so far to pick advice on the basis of whether it agrees with his positions rather than critiques and enlarges them.  His accusation that Pres. Obama oversaw wiretapping of his phones, apparently based only on something stated on Breitbart News, might be an illustration of this.

His performance during press conferences shows that even if he grasps the complexity of what he is dealing with, he is unable to put it into words.   Those who voted for him are essentially giving him a “pass” for now on his verbal behavior, waiting to see what he actually does and what he accomplishes, but all of us would feel better if we would just take what he says as a faint indication of what he might be thinking and accept that he can’t or chooses not to tell us any more than that directly.  Pres. Trump does not espouse all of the traditional Republican positions, which is another reason to keep an open mind with respect to what he will say and do.  President Trump, like most politicians, presents only the hoped-for positive results of proposed actions and does not acknowledge to the public the negative points or possible negative results of those actions, which also makes it difficult to evaluate his ability to formulate positions.  (Every governmental action benefits some citizens but not others.)

His first executive order regarding immigration as well as his style of speech tell us that the President does not favor thinking of all the details and arriving at an integration of goal, difficulties, and path to goal before he speaks or acts.  Therefore, citizens must expect bumpy roads in implementation and hope that the unrecognized problems will be ironed out over time.  The recent enhancement of immigrant deportations would have been much more acceptable if comprehensive immigration legislation had first been passed, rather than trying to augment deportations through an executive order.

So far, Pres. Trump gives very little information about how his goals will be reached.  Instead he confines himself to advocating that people follow him and agree with him and trust him to do what is in their best interest.  Prudent voters will watch closely how his first few legislative projects turn out.

It seems clear now that participating fully in the global economy is the path to greatest wealth for the country, but economists admit that it benefits the rich and not the working class.  On the other hand, moves to limit imports (the “border tax”) will result in a slightly lower standard of living than would full participation in a free market, since this is the predictable result of all trade restrictions.  It will be a measure of their straightforwardness whether politicians acknowledge the undesirable outcomes of both courses to the public.  This is not to suggest which path is “right,” since it depends on one’s values, but if all citizens are to benefit from the global economy, the country would have to engage in some additional internal redistributions of wealth (from rich to poor).  This is anathema to conservatives, but to claim otherwise is to lie to “the American people.”  It will be noteworthy whether Pres. Trump acknowledges these economic facts to the people.

The President has made no visible moves toward being President for all citizens equally, except saying that he intends to do that, but he has not made any discriminatory moves either, and we cannot tell yet how much he is concerned about the welfare of citizens in general (as opposed to his base of supporters).

Fears of catastrophic changes in society due to Pres. Trump’s actions are unfounded.  Some citizens may be harmed, and policy directions, such as those regarding climate change, may be set back, but these will not be catastrophic over the course of one Presidential term.  What actually happens will be a product of his intent, the difficulties of formulating workable policies (viz., the immigration order), the reactions of the judiciary sworn to keep everything constitutional, the reactions and assertions of members of Congress who must get re-elected, and the reactions of the public.  Congress is starting to show some willingness not to just go along with everything the President proposes.  Clearly, in the administration’s struggle to restate the first immigration executive order after input from the courts and the public, we see that things can shift significantly “between the cup and the lip.”  His course corrections in interactions with the Mexican president also illustrate that he is capable of changing course.

Many are put off by his brash and combative personality (though some love it), but the country has survived similar presidents before and probably will again (as long as his personality does not lead to launching nuclear weapons).  Again, it will help the digestion and sleep of many to see his behavior for what it is—an attempt by this particular personality to gain favor and be effective in the world–just like the rest of us, but with an unusual approach.  The dislike of him by the “not-my-president” citizens is unlikely to result in personality change.  He is the way he is, and he likes the way he is (so far, anyway).

Pres. Trump wants people to like him and think highly of him, though this is hidden most of the time beneath his brash bravado and squinting eyes.  This makes it especially important that citizens convey their policy wishes to him.  Insulting him is counterproductive and will always push him back toward the voters who elected him, as he searches for a greater sense of security.

His personality (mercurial, charming when he wants to be, frightening when he wants to be) may be useful in certain kinds of negotiations, but we must wait to see how world leaders deal with him.  Unfortunately for him, presidents don’t usually do the front-line negotiating (which can take weeks or months full-time) but must rely on telling underlings how to proceed, so his force of personality will not have as much effect on our international “deals” as it otherwise would.

His habit is to ensure triumph over obstacles and enemies regardless of cost, and he pursues this goal with energy and stubbornness.  This could be to others’ advantage if his goals are the same as his, but if you criticize or turn on him, he is likely to attack you back.  Those who like this behavioral style could lead us in the direction of a strong-man takeover of the government, especially if the citizenry in general do not do anything about seeing all Americans as being equally deserving of good

His combative reaction to criticism or disrespect suggests a sensitive ego.  People will do much better with him by treating him with respect, as befits the office of President.  This will require that questioners and supplicants excise from their speech and demeanors any amazement and expectation that he “should” be different.  This is probably the primary issue in his criticism of “fake news,” since the people speaking or writing on more liberal news outlets still evidence (clearly) the same amazement and contempt that they had for him before the election. 

Even if you don’t see him as particularly smart or principled, you can still accord him the basic respect as a person that all of us deserve from each other in a civilized society.  To give someone basic respect and courtesy does not imply or require that you like or agree with him, nor does “respect” mean to obey and not criticize (which many parents misuse when they demand respect from their children).  

In spite of personality elements that some dislike, Pres. Trump’s wife and children, by their demeanor and accomplishments, suggest that Pres. Trump can have positive influences on others he cares about, and it is clear that he can be generous and loyal.  If he has similar feelings in the abstract for the citizens of the country, this would bode well for overall outcomes.

In order to be maximally able to handle the President well and take care of the country, citizens can look inside themselves and become clear on why they feel as they do about the President.  Those who are angry toward him should figure out why they are angry.  Is it simply change?  Are they embarrassed for the country to have such a President?  He hasn’t actually done much of anything yet, so why the anger?  Is it fear?  Why, exactly (given that what he says is not a reliable predictor of what will actually happen)?  Are they really angry at themselves for not getting out to vote? 

The President is aiming to increase deportations, but only according to the law.  Should he be criticized for that?  Whose fault is it that we have not enforced our existing law for so long?  Even with the increase in deportations, there has been no serious discussion among citizens or in the media of the actual issues in immigration, such as amnesty, open borders, and an appropriate and reasonable path to citizenship.  Do those seeking to protect and defend undocumented persons actually think that anyone who wants to live in this country should be permitted to do so?

Those who are happy with him should figure out why they are happy.  Is it because he will be able to “stick it to” the elites or liberals for a while?  Is that really how we want to treat our fellow citizens?  Those who voted for him had what to them were good reasons for doing so, and if we hope for any sort of working together, people on both sides must treat those on the other side as citizens and basic equals in our democracy.  (See my essay on how to talk with those you disagree with on www.livewiselydeeply.com under “politics.”)

The press is making much of how important a free press is, but the media is almost as divided and biased as the citizenry.  We have become used to the clear bias in the rantings of Hannity and O’Reilly, but we are not used to (yet) the subtle undercurrent in CNN of looking down on the President.  Perhaps media outlets should declare who they are—liberal, conservative, moderate, Republican, Democrat, Libertarian–because then it will be easier for the public to correct for that bias when viewing or listening.  Unfortunately the media have moved toward biased positions in the quest for market share and because people like to have their biases confirmed rather than brought into question.  In this situation, there would be advantages for people not to watch those news outlets that agree with them and instead try harder to understand people who don’t agree with them.  For news outlets to try to please only a section of the market (citizenry) is a guarantee of bias.  It does not help our democracy for CNN to trumpet itself as “the most trusted name in news” if it cannot stay objective in reporting. 

The advice for citizens herein applies as well to the Democratic Party, since the party will benefit the country as a whole more by respecting and working with the President than it will by seeking every way possible to criticize and obstruct.  Endless nit-picking may support negative energy on the part of party members toward the President, but a competitive and positive policy platform will get more votes.  A positive platform will do more for Democrats in the next election than a history of opposition.

To treat the President with basic respect and try to find compromises productive for the country, rather than opposing him on all fronts, does not mean giving up strongly protecting the values that you believe in if you differ from him.  It simply means to remain objective, work hard to promote your positions, and accept, even with its disappointments, that democracy is our choice of a political system and that no one group in society gets its way all the time.

Advice For Citizens:

1. Don’t take Pres. Trump’s words seriously.  Know, as you listen to him, that things are likely to change from what he says.

2. Try to see the big picture.  What are the President’s advisors steering him toward?  What are the implications of Steve Bannon’s desire to “take down the administrative state”?  What would smaller government really be like?  What would the country really be like if the states had more power relative to Washington?

3. Treat the President with basic respect, while at the same time telling him, courteously, what you want in terms of policy.  E-mail him at “www.whitehouse.gov.”  Especially if you are convinced by his words and personality that he doesn’t favor your values or what you want, it is incumbent on you to tell him what you do want and why that will be better for the country.  Just “protesting” is not enough, either.  You must try to figure out how the country can work best for everyone and communicate this.

4. Be objective in evaluating his performance.  Give him praise for things he does well, even if you didn’t want him to be your President.  You’ll get more of what you want by having a good relationship with him than by being obstructionistic or demeaning.

5. Strongly urge Congress to take more responsibility for the country.  Pres. Trump won the election partly because Congress has not been able to work cooperatively on the big problems for years.  Think seriously about whether fighting between two sides is going to be more productive than compromising.

6. Work on bringing citizens together from both sides, if you really believe in democracy.  All citizens must benefit from federal policy, not just one side or the other, which is what will happen if we cannot respect each other and work together.