INTEL REPORT--One of Trump’s most admirable qualities, according to his supporters, is his “strength.” Nate Silver has written that this attribute seems “fundamental to his appeal.” In a paper for the Journal of Social and Political Psychology, Thomas Pettigrew isolated five psychological factors driving Trump support: the first two on his list being authoritarianism and social dominance orientation, two phenomena indicating high valuation of strength and toughness. The data bear this out. Throughout Trump’s presidency, he has retained positive polling numbers on the attribute of “strength” from a majority of Republicans, even as his overall support has dipped.
Yet the strength Republicans perceive in Trump is merely a facade. Trump’s actions may at times take on the appearance of strength, but—unlike the truly strong—he exhibits that strength only when the repercussions will be levied against someone else.
Take, as an example, his televised meeting with incoming Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) in the Oval Office on Tuesday, December 11. The whole thing was bizarre, but at one point, after being cornered by Schumer, Trump snapped back, “I’m proud to shut down the government.” Was this a Kinsley gaffe? Unlikely, given that it was received positively by his base, and given that Trump probably sensed it would be. Some of his elected Republican allies, like Lindsey Graham, had urged him to “dig in” on the issue of the wall. The result was a theatrical standoff with Pelosi and Schumer in which the president expressed great enthusiasm toward the prospect of shutting down the government. Not from a principled, Reaganite “government-is-the-problem” kind of conservatism, but as a tactic to pay for a pet project—an enforcement tool that experts say won’t solve what Trump wants it to solve.
Was this a projection of genuine strength? Obviously, the presidency is unrivaled in terms of the power it bestows the individual occupying the office. But that’s available to anyone who ascends to that position. Focus, instead, on the attribute of strength—was Trump exhibiting it? Actually, he risked nothing by saying what he said. Trump wasn’t risking his money, his reputation (his support and opposition are both well-solidified at this point), or anything else of personal consequence. The people who would suffer the repercussions of his rash threat to partially shut down the government include the hundreds of thousands of government employees who would have to find a way to get by without paychecks during the holiday season.
Trump has also exhibited faux toughness on the matter of tariffs and trade. His businesses will continue to thrive; he will not lose his shirt. He risks the stability of our economy and the incomes and well-being of countless citizens (many of whom voted for him). It’s easy to “get tough on China” when it’s others who feel the brunt of the consequences. As this report from The New York Times, entitled “The American Casualties of Trump’s Trade War,” painfully depicts: true strength and courage is a small-business owner trying to navigate an economic landscape our president holds hostage in order to execute counterproductive geopolitical aims.
Strength is not real strength when you stand to lose nothing. This behavior by Trump is nothing new. He has employed this technique his entire life, even before he became president: behave aggressively, but only when you’ve got nothing to lose.
In business, Trump ensured that tough talk and risk taking — both perceived to be displays of strength — only affected others, while he walked away mostly unscathed. There are numerous examples of this, most notoriously his raking in millions from his failing Atlantic City casinos, while his investors, partners, and stockholders suffered massive personal and professional losses. The same is true of his building a Trump Tower in Toronto—Trump guaranteed the venture would be a success, claiming he had injected, and would continue to inject, his own money into the project. But he never came through, continuing to collect money from others without contributing a penny.
At the beginning of his term, as the Great Depression was raging, FDR mandated a federal pay cut. Trump, instead, has leveraged the political spotlight to serve his business interests. As an in-depth Forbes piece puts it:
Since his unexpected ascent to the White House, Trump has tried to leverage the trappings of the presidency to benefit his commercial projects, from visits to his golf courses to hosting summits at Mar-a-Lago to launching a new hotel-licensing business aimed at his voters.
Trump makes no more of an attempt to shoulder potential consequence when he engages in explicitly illegal behavior, furthering the reality that his tough-guy routine is simply a charade. He sends others out to do his dirty work, making sure not to memorialize his orders in text (so as to avoid any potential liability), then throws them under the bus when the fallout comes barreling his way. Look no further than two recent examples. Trump had Michael Cohen, his lawyer and fixer, threaten journalists and arrange hush payments to women he’d had affairs with. As soon as the justice system caught up with Cohen, though, Trump immediately distanced himself from him, claiming he had nothing to do with any of Cohen’s actions. Trump also cut and run when Donald Trump Jr.’s infamous Trump Tower meeting came to light. To this day, Trump maintains he knew nothing of the meeting, going as far as to lodge this very denial in his responses to the Special Counsel’s questions.
It’s unfortunate that Trump’s base fails to see past the simple exterior — the forward displays of aggression, the threats, the machismo. The primary problem with calling any of this “strength” is that it doesn’t take any strength or nerve to gamble with the house’s money. It’s easy to issue ultimatums, threats, and demands when there’s no personal stake in the matter.
Trump isn’t strong, powerful, or tough — he’s a guy who starts a fight at a club, knowing he rolled in with a security detail.
(Avi Bueno is Director of Policy Advocacy at The Loyal Opposition, Healthcare Administrator, Philosopher and posts at Medium.com)