Captain Willard: They told me that you had gone totally insane, and that your methods were unsound.
Colonel Kurtz: Are my methods unsound?
Captain Willard: I don’t see any method at all, sir.
—Apocalypse Now (1979)
There’s a debate brewing over Donald Trump’s emerging presidential style. Is he a disorganized mess, tweeting any notion that pops into his head and demanding his administration and party move ahead rapidly with ideas that are either unworkable, unconstitutional, or patently false? Or is he a devious genius, distracting his opponents with dispensable controversies while he clandestinely enacts his policies?
To be sure, there’s ample evidence for both views. On the messy side, you have evidence that Trump is, as his Democratic opponent alleged last year, “a man you can bait with a tweet.” His outburst over violent crime in Chicago, for which he threatened to “send in the Feds,” came quickly on the heels of a Bill O’Reilly segment on Fox News that cited the exact same statistics. He announced a 20 percent tariff on goods from Mexico to pay for a border wall, only to have his spokesperson walk that back minutes later when critics noted that meant American consumers would pay the price.
Perhaps most damning, Trump seems absolutely and comically obsessed with evidence of his own popularity. He sent Sean Spicer into his very first meeting with the media as press secretary to directly lie about the size of the audience at the inauguration. Trump has brought up the size of his inaugural audience at numerous occasions, including various meetings with congressional leaders and during his speech at the Central Intelligence Agency. He even called the head of the National Park Service to complain about released photographs showing his audience was smaller than Barack Obama’s in 2009. He later described his CIA speech as “a home run,” “a big hit,” and “one of the great speeches,” compared himself to Peyton Manning and Abraham Lincoln, and insisted that he received a lengthy standing ovation. His own advisers are describing him as child-like.
Add to this Trump’s Friday night executive order barring immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. Even if one agrees with the purpose of the action, its crafting and implementation were performed haphazardly, disrupted hundreds of thousands of people’s lives, generated substantial political political pushback, and are now provoking a constitutional crisis. As Noah Rothman reports:
The order banning even longtime residents from seven suspect countries in the Middle East and North Africa was signed on a Friday evening without forewarning. The local authorities and agencies tasked with implementing this sweeping policy were given little guidance from the White House and, as such, were forced to improvise. The result was utter chaos.
On the other hand, maybe this has all been by design. Trump made substantial policy changes in his first week, giving some credence to the idea that he’s distracting his detractors. One of the best examples of this approach is his his tweet from two months ago threatening flag burners with jail time. No one was talking about flag burning at the time, of course, but his tweet ignited a firestorm on both sides. Jonathan Chait suggested that this was just to distract from some of his more extreme cabinet picks and the massive business conflicts of interest Trump seems determined to keep. And maybe all the noise over the tariff on Friday was just to distract people from the coming executive order on immigration. Further, maybe that executive order was just a distraction from Trump’s restructure of the National Security Council, demoting the Joint Chiefs of Staff and elevating Steve Bannon. It’s hard to keep up.
Second, while Trump and his immediate advisors have little Washington experience between them, he has substantial experience in the business world. Perhaps what looks like a completely chaotic governing style is reflective of unorthodox, but effective, negotiations tactics in business.
Finally, supporters will note his stunning come-from-behind victory in last year’s presidential election despite being outspent two-to-one. In both the general election and the primaries, he was consistently underestimated and nonetheless came out on top.
So which is it? Is he a hot infantile mess or a clever magician? On balance, I’d say the evidence leads toward the former.
For one thing, as he or his advisers must have some concept of, this behavior is damaging to him. It’s generating terrible press coverage and irritating allied elected officials and interest groups. His approval ratings were historically low for a new president and appear to be heading south from there. This doesn’t necessarily threaten his re-election prospects just yet, but it does raise concerns for Republican members of Congress. They have so far been willing to back him even on issues on which they normally disagree with him, but if they start to worry that being tied to him will hurt their own re-election prospects in 2018, they’ll drop him like a bad habit. Trump doesn’t necessarily mind standing alone, but obviously he needs Congress to enact much of his agenda and, well, not impeach him.
Second, the idea that he’s really a clever genius doesn’t hold much weight upon reflection. It’s worth remembering that he largely became wealthy thanks to a massive loan from his father and the lucky purchase of New York City property when it was relatively cheap. His investment approach over the years has massively underperformed index funds. What we know of his tax records show that he lost roughly a billion dollars in 1995 and was bailed out repeatedly with family money.
As for the presidential campaign, on balance it seems he won despite his campaign rather than because of it. He underperformed what the fundamentals suggested he should have won. He was a poor fundraiser and a toxic campaigner, and he allocated many of his resources wastefully. By polling consensus, Hillary Clinton routed him in three successive debates. And, yes, he lost the popular vote by nearly three million votes. He managed to defeat many experienced and better funded candidates in the primaries and caucuses thanks to the GOP being hopelessly divided. Yes, to be sure, he won, but, at least in the general election, a more disciplined and organized Republican nominee probably would have won by considerably more.
Also, the theory that Trump is distracting his critics with one thing while doing another rests on the assumption that politically astute people can only be angry about one thing at a time. The Tea Party movement demonstrated that this is untrue, and Trump’s critics are getting better at attacking him on several fronts at once with each passing day.
Trump’s style as president is very new and still taking form, and we’ll all have quite a bit to adjust to as we interpret it. But the preponderance of evidence thus far suggests that, if he appears disorganized, volatile, and self-absorbed, it’s probably because he is.