Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Trump is Not a Generic Republican: The Inevitable Crisis

Something bad will happen during a Trump Presidency.  It won't be his fault.  In fact, it will have nothing whatever to do with who is in the White House.  It's just that two inevitable constants are (1) shit happens, and (2) changing the government will not affect (1).  But it will happen on his watch. He will be held responsible for it.  He will be expected to respond.  His response may improve the situation.  It may make it worse.  Or it may be something completely beyond his power to affect, like the BP oil spill.   What Trump's first crisis will be is impossible to predict.  Equally unpredictable is how he will respond.  But his behavior to date (meaning for the first 70 years of his life) has not been encouraging.

For a while, I though that Donald Trump would be the Teflon Don and that nothing he did in a crisis could hurt him.  After all, a crisis tends to create a rally-round-the-chief effect and boost any President's approval ratings.  Americans tend to support whatever the President does in a crisis, whether it makes any sense or not, so long as he acts boldly and decisively and give an impression of "leadership."  Who can doubt Trump's ability to act boldly and decisively and reasonably impersonate a leader.  My conclusion, therefore, was that any crisis would redound to his favor.  That would be so even if he badly mishandled it and made the crisis worse, a strong possibility.  His mishandling would no doubt be forceful and create at least the impression of strength.  If he made the crisis worse, that would just increase the rally-round-the-chief effect and make him even more popular.

I offered the example of something like the BP oil spill -- something the President had no power to affect, but was still held responsible for.  No Drama Obama made speeches expressing his sympathy for the people of the Gulf Coast, but did little more because there was little more to be done.  For that he was criticized for lacking leadership.  He should get angry and yell, pundits said.  That would express the anger the American people were feeling.  And if there is one thing Donald Trump excels at, it is expressing anger.  If the BP oil spill happened on his watch, he would yell and pound the table.  It wouldn't do the slightest thing to stop the oil spill, but at least it would create the impression of doing something.  Maybe he would yell, "You're fired!" at whoever was in charge of stopping the leak.  That would probably seriously hamper efforts to contain it, but it would create the impression of bold and decisive action.  As a result, he would get credit for stopping the oil spill even though he had nothing to do with it.

Of course, it also occurred to me that milking a crisis only works for so long.  After a while, when the crisis continues that the President seems powerless to resolve it, people turn against him.  It happened with Jimmy Carter and the Iranian hostage crisis.  It happened with George W. Bush and the Iraq War.  And if a crisis drags on long enough under a Trump Presidency, it will happen to him, too.  The trouble is that he can do an immense amount of damage in the meantime.

But granting that a mismanaged crisis would eventually go against him if prolonged long enough, I wondered if there was anything Trump could do in a crisis that would not benefit him in the short run. Well, now I have the answer.  He can lock himself away and unleash a barrage of petulant, self-centered tweets about how unfair it is that he's being blamed and why does BP have to make him look bad.*

When I first contemplated the possibility of a Trump presidency, I hoped that in a crisis his staff would handcuff him, stuff something in his mouth, and lock him in a closet until it passed.  I still hope they do that.  But as a second best, can they at least confiscate his Twitter account?

*I should add here Politico's report that Authentic Real Americans everywhere love Trump's tweets and only a handful of out-of-touch liberal elitists object.  But notably his tweets did hurt him at times during the general election and he did best when his staff shut down his account.  And I can't imagine that anyone would care for really self-centered petulance in a crisis.

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