A President Without Purpose

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by Paul R. Pillar

Since early in last year’s election campaign, countless pages of commentary about Donald Trump’s presidency have taken the form that policy analysis about U.S. presidents and presidential candidates usually takes. Purported policy objectives are identified, the basis for such objectives is discussed, and the likely strategy for attaining those objectives is explained. Exegesis of speeches and remarks—and in Trump’s case, tweets—is performed to discern doctrine and direction.

Seven months of this presidency is enough time to conclude that such commentary and analysis have badly missed what Donald Trump is all about, and what his occupancy of the nation’s highest office means to him. Unusual in other respects, this first-ever U.S. president with no prior public service is also unusual in lacking the policy ideas and objectives, and sense of mission, that other presidents have had. Even many critics of Trump, as much as many of his supporters, have incorrectly postulated more doctrine, direction, and purpose in this presidency than it ever had.

The enormous inconsistencies in policy, and between policy and rhetoric, that have characterized Trump’s presidency are perhaps the biggest indications of the absence of direction and purpose. The inconsistency is most glaring on domestic matters, in which a campaign centered rhetorically on populist themes has been the polar opposite of the appointments and proposals of the Trump administration, which are oriented far more to the one percent than to the masses. Even the rants and sartorial statements of administration wives have been as non-populist, even anti-populist, as one can imagine.

On foreign policy, the inconsistencies and incoherence have come into view more slowly as events and ongoing operations have forced decisions. A recent major example is Trump’s extension and expansion of the military expedition in Afghanistan notwithstanding his earlier rhetoric about getting out of foreign wars in general and this war in particular.

An alternative explanation fits the evidence much better than the conventional form of policy analysis. This explanation is that Trump’s becoming president is a huge ego trip for an extreme narcissist with a knack for demagoguery. He craves above all else the adulation of crowds and cheers of the moment. What analysts have mistakenly identified as policy direction and objectives is really just a collection of applause lines. The man is not in office to move the country in a better direction, and he is bereft of ideas for defining and setting a better direction.

Much begins to make sense with this way of looking at Trump and his presidency rather than through the usual lens of policy analysis, and not only in explaining the inconsistency and incoherence. There is, for example, the unending self-referential rhetoric; for Trump, this presidency really is all about himself. There is the narrow and obsessive appeal to his “base,” even though such narrowness will never get his poll numbers beyond the mid-to-upper-30s range in which they are mired, much less build the sort of political consensus needed to really move the country in a better direction. But the base furnishes the applause and cheers and immediate adulation, especially at those campaign rallies that Trump continues to hold rather than spending that time governing.

There are also the lies and the disdain for truth and reality. Someone genuinely interested in moving the country in a better direction would accept the truth and foster an understanding of reality, because better policies can only be based on reality. But because with Trump the motivation is instead to sustain the themes and the rhetoric that brought the applause and the cheers, he sustains fictions consistent with those themes and ignores or brushes aside facts to the contrary.

Trump is functioning less as president than as a performer playing the role of president. The situation is somewhat similar to his performance on the television show “The Apprentice,” in which he did not really decide who got fired. 

Influences on Policy

In the absence of true direction from the top, and notably on issues on which Trump especially lacks either strategic sense or detailed knowledge, subordinates may in effect force a decision that represents the least common dominator. The recent decision regarding the war in Afghanistan fits this description.

Where Trump instead persists in a direction even to the point of overruling advisers, it is a direction that is merely an extension of the campaign rhetoric. He is not making carefully analyzed policy but instead clinging to what has gotten him cheers and applause in the past. His actions are aimed at trying to make the rhetoric true even if it is not. If the Affordable Care Act is not really, as Trump asserts, “collapsing,” then he will do what he can to sabotage the program. If the agreement that restricts Iran’s nuclear program is not really, as Trump asserts, the worst deal ever struck, then he tries to destroy it even though international inspectors confirm that the agreement is working and Iran is complying with its terms.

Besides the campaign rhetoric, there are Trump’s own personal financial and legal interests. Consistent with his concept of the presidency as being all about himself, he has thrown ethical principles in the trash, disregarded all precedent regarding transparency of personal finances, and unhesitatingly profited from his office on fronts ranging from membership fees at Mar-a-Lago to foreign governments patronizing his hotel in Washington. If his domestic policies, inconsistent with the faux-populist rhetoric, are mainly in the interests of the one percent, that is not so much an ideological statement as a reflection of Trump being part of the one percent.

Then there is the matter of Trump’s personal connection, with financial and legal implications, to matters involving Russia. Some of the latest items in the stream of revelations on this topic over the past several months have continued the larger pattern of blurring lines between political and business interests. We don’t yet know, of course, where the investigations of the special counsel and congressional committees will lead. One can say, however, that no grand strategy or ideology or coherent policy perspective can explain the strange pattern of Trump unhesitatingly ripping into all manner of people—Democrat or Republican, domestic or foreign, ally or adversary—with the conspicuous exception of the president of Russia. Under the alternative view of the Trump presidency described above, plausible explanations for this pattern begin to be possible.

Foreign governments have been watching the entire Trump phenomenon very closely, of course, and at least some of them have reached the accurate conclusion that the best way to influence a president on an ego trip is to stroke the ego. The Saudis were especially adept at doing so during Trump’s first foreign trip as president.

For those of us back home trying to understand, not to mention live with, the Trump presidency, the first step is to realize that ordinary forms of policy analysis do not take us very far in assessing this non-ordinary president. Psychologists and psychiatrists may have more useful things to say in explaining Trump than policy analysts do. The psychiatrists and psychologists have been hesitant to get out in front on the subject of Trump, invoking the Goldwater Rule against trying to put a politician on a couch from a distance. But it does not require a clinical diagnosis to discern the fundamental nature of this self-centered presidency and how different it is from other ones.

Dereliction of Duty 

The impact on the republic goes beyond the policy incoherence and the destructive acts that are part of the effort to reify false rhetoric. The United States today has a president who is not interested in performing most of the duties of president. Donald Trump did not yearn to be president; he yearned to win the presidency, which in his perspective is something much different. The job of governing does not seem to interest him. The slowness in making executive branch appointments is but one indication of this. In some respects this slowness is related to an effort to tear down parts of the government—in a direction consistent with the campaign rhetoric, as in eviscerating the EPA—but mostly it reflects how Trump just doesn’t care. Perhaps because of his wealth, even the material perquisites of office do not hold much appeal to him. He already had his own airliner-sized private plane, he spends much more time at his own clubs than at Camp David, and he has called the White House a “dump.”

Nor does Trump warm to the presidential duty of serving as leader, unifier, and empathizer-in-chief of the entire nation. His failure to do so after the ugly events in Charlottesville may be one more instance of narrowly appealing to his base. But he failed to perform the duty again after Hurricane Harvey, when there was no issue of pleasing the alt-right. His first public remarks in post-storm Texas featured exaltation about the size of the crowd in front of him and a shout-out to some of his Republican political allies but nothing about the suffering that ordinary Texans were enduring.

Because Trump is not enjoying the duties of president, he is unlikely to run for a second term in 2020, if he lasts that long. He already is the oldest person ever to be inaugurated as U.S. president. He does not want to go out as a loser—the ultimate Trumpian pejorative. He is smart enough to realize that four years will be enough time for the divide between faux-populist rhetoric and non-populist performance to become apparent even to the Rust Belters who put him over the top in 2016.

Photo: Donald Trump (Gage Skidmore via Flickr)

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Paul Pillar

Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy. He retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community. His senior positions included National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, Deputy Chief of the DCI Counterterrorist Center, and Executive Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence. He is a Vietnam War veteran and a retired officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Dr. Pillar's degrees are from Dartmouth College, Oxford University, and Princeton University. His books include Negotiating Peace (1983), Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy (2001), Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy (2011), and Why America Misunderstands the World (2016).

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