Restraining Trump: The Prometheus Strategy

by Gary Sick

When Zeus was displeased with Prometheus, he chained him to a rock where an eagle feasted each day on his liver. Prometheus was immortal, so his liver regenerated each day. But even mortals, however immune they may be to criticism and scandal, can be bound so tightly that the harm they can do is minimized—perhaps not forever, but at least for the duration of a presidential term.

President Trump seems to be immune from ordinary criticism. As he said of himself, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” But he is not immune from reality, however much he would like to believe otherwise.

How can this president be prevented from doing permanent damage to the Republic that he now serves as chief executive? There are seven chains that can – and probably will – frustrate his worst instincts:

  • Trump is a transactional man; government is not
  • Many of his promises go against the tide of history; history will win
  • The status quo is not there by coincidence, and it will usually prevail
  • The enemy during the campaign will become a necessary ally for any real achievement
  • His own temperament will limit the lasting damage he might do
  • His base, though durable, is too small
  • Chaos cripples; embrace it

Governing Is Not Transactional

Donald Trump’s business acumen can be reduced to a phrase: The Art of the Deal. If you are a real estate dealer, that may be enough. (Some of his more successful peers might disagree, but let’s not quibble over silver spoons and serial bankruptcies.) But government doesn’t work that way.

Government is coalitions, alliances, trust, trades. Trump may ask, “What will you give me for that?” And in the tactical maneuvering on a bill, that may work on line items. But in the big picture, you need to build a coalition that trusts you to do the right thing and will then follow you, even if the price is high. Who trusts Donald Trump to do the right thing? Who is willing to cast a painful vote in the conviction that Trump knows what he is doing and that it will come out right?

The health-care debacle is a working example. Trump never attempted to master the details, and was surprised to discover just how complicated they were. He apparently believed Paul Ryan and the GOP, who had been proclaiming for years that they could repeal and replace the “disaster” of Obamacare. He was wrong.

He got actively involved in the negotiations at the end, only to discover that there was no consensus at all within the GOP. In the meantime, he had offended every Democratic politician in the country and had no fallback position when the Tea Party Freedom Caucus refused to play. He blamed the Democrats; he blamed the Freedom Caucus; he blamed Paul Ryan; he even blamed his son-in-law who was off skiing. But the reality was that he approached it as a transaction, when what he needed was a coalition with a product it could support.

History Will Win

Repeal of the Clean Power Plan regulation will please people in coal country. It will have almost no effect on the course of events. The reality is that the coal-fired plant is vanishing, not because of Obama-era regulations but because natural gas is a much cheaper, cleaner, more efficient, and more profitable way of generating electricity. Yes, repeal may insure a period of marginally higher carbon emissions and pollution of streams in coal country, but in the end it will be a blip, not a game-changer.

Many of the other executive orders mandating the rollback of Obama regulations do little more than maintain the status quo of last year or the year before. This concerted effort to sabotage the climate-change campaign will do real damage, but it remains to be seen if it seriously impairs the steady march of cleaner energy and renewables. Trump is fighting the marketplace that he professes to believe in. He will lose.

The Status Quo Will Almost Always Prevail

Trump proclaimed the Iran nuclear deal a catastrophe. After winning the election, he looked at the agreement, which prevents Iran from actively pursuing a nuclear weapon for at least 10-15 years, and probably long beyond that. The agreement is working, Iran is in compliance, and all of the other major countries who participated in these lengthy and complex negotiations are satisfied that it is doing what it was intended to do. Tearing it up would isolate the United States from virtually every other country in the world and would do great damage to the U.S. reputation as a reliable partner, while raising the risk of Iranian return to its nuclear program. Every Middle East issue would be made worse by a potentially nuclear Iran.

The Trump administration has announced that it will implement the agreement, with strict enforcement. The case is not closed, since many in Congress are determined to sabotage the agreement. Neglect is also a strategy. But the anticipated explosion on Trump’s first days in the Oval Office didn’t happen.

The same process seems to be at work with NATO, China, trade policies, the composition of the NSC, and many other issues. Every administration comes into office confident that it can change the world and convinced that its predecessors were blind and willfully wrong. I went through two contentious transitions in the White House, and the new team inevitably learns that there are good reasons why things look the way they do. There have been decades of evolution of these issues. The status quo may not be admirable, and there is good reason to take a hard, fresh look at existing relationships. But just as teenagers often come to sympathize with their parents as they grow up and become parents themselves, each new administration goes through a learning process. The outcome almost always resembles more closely the policies they inherited than it does the high-flown rhetoric and easy promises of the campaign.

Former Enemies May Later Be Needed as Allies

Real estate deals are normally done one at a time, and the cast of characters is constantly changing. But in government, the “friends” or “enemies” that you encounter on any one issue, may come back in a very different form on the next issue. The cast of characters remains drearily rigid, but their roles can change. Those who opposed you on one issue may turn out to be your best allies on another.

In Trump’s transactional framework, you castigate enemies to intimidate them or to punish them for non-cooperation. The GOP (or for that matter the Democratic Party) is clearly not a coherent and consistent whole. When the Tea Party Freedom Caucus refused to cooperate on the new heath-care plan, Trump let loose with a series of tweets declaring war on them. But when he needs to get legislation extending the debt limit or pushing tax reform or building The Wall, he will need their help. Burning bridges, which comes so naturally to him, is a losing strategy in Washington.

Relations with the media are always contentious, regardless of the leadership. Trump’s declaration of war on the media, which far exceeds any administration in living memory in acrimony and venom, has a perverse twist. He may denounce the “failing” New York Times, but when he wants maximum effect from a policy announcement, that is where he must go. His denunciations get him publicity, which he craves, but it also amplifies the voices he says he wants to silence. CNN daytime viewership is up by more than 50% and prime time viewers have grown more than 70% in the past year despite (or because of) Trump’s denouncing them as fake news; CNN’s $1 billion profit this year is the best in its history. The share price of New York Times stock is up 35% in just the last 5 months. The resurrection of The Washington Post, much despised by Trump, has been simply miraculous (assisted by a timely infusion of capital from Jeff Bezos). Anti-Trump Stephen Colbert and “The Late Show” have started dominating late night TV. Donald Trump has done more to rescue his antagonists in the ailing mainstream media business than anything that has happened since the beginning of the digital revolution.


“I tweet therefor I am” could be Trump’s motto. But the early-morning barrage of 140-character blasts also defines the limits of the man.

There was cautious hope at the beginning of this administration that the man who had been elected president would respond to the daunting challenges of his job by becoming more presidential. The evidence to date suggests that was wishful thinking.

Max Weber famously described the politics of governing as “the slow boring of hard boards.” Trump seems constitutionally incapable of such focused attention on a specific task. What would it take to develop a health-care plan that would provide the excellent care at reduced cost that he says he favors? The answer is not a tweet. How would you alter the Iran nuclear deal to insure that it continues to be effective two decades from now? That involves some lengthy and complex negotiations. How do you build an effective barrier to unwanted immigration? A hasty travel ban and a campaign slogan, however enticing, will not suffice.

Nothing about government at the presidential level is easy or immediate. Either you focus and devote sustained attention and effort to a problem, or the problem will not go away. We are only weeks into this presidency, but the evidence to date suggests that Donald Trump is personally and institutionally incapable of such systematic thought and action. He may do a lot of temporary damage, and he may on occasion benefit from impulsive improvisations, but he seems incapable of creating anything that will endure.

His Base Is Too Small

Trump ultimately commands a base of support that is in the neighborhood of 35 percent or less of the American voting population. A similar percentage of Russians reportedly continue to support Stalin. There seems to be an irreducible minimum of citizens in any country that are attracted to bold and swaggering leadership, even when it produces practical results that are inimical even to the supporters themselves. The image of “greatness” is irresistible to many.

But the United States is not Russia, and Trump is not Putin. It is becoming evident that Trump does not command the Republican Party. He does not command the Freedom Caucus. He has energized the Democratic Party and scores of grass roots issue-oriented advocacy movements. Those who casually dismissed him are no longer so cavalier. They are mobilizing. The opposition has not yet tested its strength, and perhaps it is less than it appears. But Trump has tested his own base in the Congress and found that it was quite willing to walk away from him on ideological grounds.

This is a contest that will have to play out in the coming months and years of this extraordinary administration. But if Trump is to win, he must do a much better job than he has done thus far.

Embrace Chaos

There is no reason to believe that the perpetual chaos of the Trump administration will subside. It is likely to be a permanent fixture. Observers are already learning the signals. If there is failure, create a distraction. If there are charges of impropriety, accuse your opponents of the same. Denigrate at will, without regard for evidence or respect for those in the crosshairs. Find scapegoats. Keep everyone off balance. Churn the staff constantly. If you’re not family, your job is at imminent risk.

These are uncommon allegations to be directed at the presidency. It took the mainstream media some time to begin to label falsehoods and deliberate inaccuracies as “lies.” In the past, it was unthinkable to apply such a label to a U.S. president. Today it has become commonplace.

When the president himself refuses to respect traditional boundaries of truth and courtesy, he lowers the bar for everyone else. His words and actions liberate progressives and other opponents. The system may be unaccustomed to chaos, but we are learning that it works both ways. The president who casually denigrates others, opens himself to the same treatment. We don’t know where this is going to lead, but it is going to be a hell of a ruckus.

So Should We Relax?

Presidential power is immense, but not unlimited. In a normal presidency, there are natural and institutional restraints that prevent some of the most egregious abuses of power. In the current abnormal presidency, some of those constraints become even more pronounced, as suggested above. However, citizen vigilance and timely media attention can deter and delay even those actions benefiting most from presidential leverage, such as regulatory change by decree or deliberate neglect by government agencies.

The most perilous area of concern is the national-security realm. Over the past several decades, we have seen how a determined administration can take the country to war. Trump was relatively consistent during the campaign in proclaiming that he had no intention of starting another war—in the Middle East or elsewhere. But that was before he actually had responsibility for U.S. foreign policy, and we know he can turn on a dime.

His order to strike a Syrian airfield with Tomahawk missiles in retaliation for Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons was widely popular, at least in part because it was the kind of impulsive action that his more thoughtful and cautious predecessor resisted. But Syria resumed bombing raids from the same airport within 24 hours. Republican hawks would have seen such a calculated snub as evidence of weakness in Obama. Does Trump have an answer to the “What next?” question? A one-off strike is not a strategy. It is, however, a reminder that in our system the president has extraordinary powers to act in foreign affairs. In recent history, U.S. unilateral military intervention has tended to be more a problem than a solution.

The investigations about Russian interference in the election and possible Trump campaign collusion are on-going, and the outcome is unpredictable. The Syrian strike moved the United States away from a strategic association with Russia, but it will probably do little to slow the investigatory process.

American democracy is typically regarded as a right, and all too often it is taken for granted as firmly established and essentially cost-free. For most Americans, that easy assumption is seldom tested. This is a clear moment of citizen responsibility. The restraints that must be put in place must be forged link by link, not by Zeus but by the collective actions of a concerned citizenry.

The next months and years will determine whether the voice of the people is able to be heard over the din arising from this White House.

Painting of Prometheus by Theodoor Rombouts

Gary Sick, a scholar at Columbia University, served on the National Security Council under Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and was the principal White House aide for Iran during the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis.

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  1. And his narcissism works against the compromise necessary to forge coalitions. Everyone around him has to say, “Donald, you are so great!! He will get tired of his deep personal needs not being catered to. Ladbrokes in GB has been giving 2-1 odds that he will not last out his term, and maybe not even this year.

  2. Great post! Captures all of the inertia and status quo issues I have been trying to lay out for my hysterical friends. Thank you!

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