President Trump: What would he be like?
By Daniel M. Ryan
Although he has not announced his candidacy, Donald Trump is being treated as if he had. In fact, he's already a serious contender for the Republican Party nomination and the Presidency itself if nominated. I'm under no illusions as to the difficulties Candidate Trump will face in the months ahead should he go through with it. Mr. Trump has already been exposed as a former liberal, and comparisons of him to Ronald Reagan (himself a former liberal) seem stretched. President Reagan first made his national mark as a conservative with "A Time For Choosing." That speech was made back in 1964. At the time he made it, he had been building up his conservative stand for about ten years.
Mr. Trump's Damascus conversion is recent. Consequently, it's easy to knock him as an opportunist: to say that he just smells votes and is adjusting his tune to get them. The kernel of truth in that claim ties in with his undoubted talent as an entrepreneur. Yes, Donald Trump shifted to a conservative stance and "Mr. Birther" as a businessman.
In a nutshell, for what it's worth, Mr. Trump has a success secret that's enabled him to make a huge amount of money in the luxury condo business. I don't know if he got it from his father, or whether he discovered it himself, but it goes something like this: "There's what people say they want, and there's what they really want. People are sometimes ashamed of what they really want, even though they shouldn't be. Find a way to break through the shame, and deliver what they really want, and you'll be rich." This success maxim is precisely what Mr. Trump effected with luxury condominiums. When he was starting out in high-end real estate, luxury condos and co-ops were old-fashioned-tasteful and understated. Rather than advertising or displaying the owners' wealth, they tended to hide it. Donald Trump built condos that showed wealth. He managed to break through the stigma of such condos being "slick" or "ostentatious." In so doing, he built and sold what his customers really wanted but ashamed to ask for explicitly.
He doing so took a difficult kind of daring: the art of being shameless without being tasteless. There are few entrepreneurs who can walk that tight-wire. One of them, ironically enough, is Hugh Hefner. Had Mr. Hefner been no more than Larry Flynt, he would have been drummed out of business by the law amidst the mocking sound of popular applause. Had Donald Trump gone gaudy, he would have been a late-'70s epiphenomenon like Studio 54; nothing more. By being tasteful, he avoided that fate and stayed on the wire.
With regard to his championing the birther issue, Mr. Trump is indeed up to his old tricks. He managed to discern a lot of underground support for the issue that didn't die. He also saw the stigma attached to people like Orly Taitz who shouldered the burden of pursuing what the mainstream media dismissed as a patent falsehood. He saw the consequent opportunity in the birther controversy, and he took it. As a result, he's now a serious contender for the Presidency.
Not just because of his pro-birther stance; far from it. His championing of protective tariffs on goods imported from mainland China shows the same flair. Give 'em what they really want, but don't dirty your hands while doing so; make sure your hands and your brand stay clean. With respect to Chinese trade policy, he's using the currency-manipulation claim to stay clean.
Mr. Trump, of course, has other business talents more easily noticed. He and his many supporters hold them up as strengths. One obvious trait is his toughness. I'm sure he sized up the mainland Chinese rulership as people who'll bend if they're confronted firmly and toughly.
Another is his outspokenness; for it, he's held up as brave. In fact, his populist frankness is precisely the root of his populist popularity. Again, he smells his kind of opportunity: people widely dislike mainstream politicians, but vote for them anyway. They do so because of the stigma attached to voting for people who don't live up to the Washington standard of professionalism. Witness the fate of Sarah Palin.
On the darker side of his success traits, there's his opportunism with regard to legalities. His companies have been no strangers to Chapter 11 and the bankruptcy courts. He has tried to use eminent domain to push out a recalcitrant landowner when he wanted to put a new parking lot beside one of his casinos.
That side to him is ancillary as a businessman, as it's subordinate to giving his customers what they really want. He can point to a product, like a casino, a golf course or a stunning building full of luxurious condominiums, that makes it all worthwhile. The trouble is, that side is not ancillary to a President. The main job of the President of the United States is to head up the executive branch of the United States government. Observing legalities is at the heart of the job.
I'm sure Mr. Trump sees it as being the nation's CEO. It actually isn't, because Congress makes the laws, but someone of his calibre will be tempted to see Congress as his subordinates. Given his thin-skinedness, President Trump would likely engage in at least one feud with Congress: the most probable co-feuder would be the Democrat who most jealously guards the legislative branch's rights. Should Mr. Trump become President, watch for filibusters of the legislation he sends over. More to the point, watch for him using grey areas of the Constitution to his advantage. He will not be a strict constructionist. In the business world, a strict constructionist is a cost-plus Quaker type who had little taste for negotiating.
In foreign policy, his thin skin is likely to be his undoing. Negotiations revolve around stances, which are modified if need be as the negotiation continues. In the world of government, this practice translates into "his word's no good" or "he's blustering." Cagey diplomats and shrewd foreign ministers will treat his demands and pronouncements as little more than negotiating ploys or venting. It's almost a certainly that the high officials of the People's Republic of China will treat his tariff policy as a chip on the bargaining table, at most. Needless to say, it has to get though Congress first.
His nationalistic talk about Middle East oil will be treated in two ways. When the chips are down, the only way to enforce his "oil for the Americans" stance is all-out war. Publicly, he and Americans will be excoriated as imperialists and warmongers. Privately, he'll be sized up as a blusterer. He'll find out quickly that a sovereign Middle East government is not the same thing as a municipality. When heads of foreign governments refer to "mere businessmen," they mean it.
He'll likely be baited on the world stage. Foreigners doing so would be good for his popularity with the voters, and it would generate patriotic feuds, but it won't lead to much done unless he plays by the rules. He'll be sized up as George Bush without the humility.
Unless he does an about-face and becomes another Washington insider, it's unlikely he'll accomplish anything of significance in the foreign-policy arena - unless he decides to press more Yankee tax dollars into foreign hands. He'll have to bend on his more nationalistic goals unless he goes unilateralist. The President of the United States has no standing in foreign governance. It's not that hard for a foreign minister or head of government to say: "then 'we' won't be doing anything at all" and sticking to it. Instead of the tough negotiators Mr. Trump expects to face, he'll face the foreign answer to tough judges. A lot of the tricks used by the striped-pants boys take that lack of standing into account and work around it.
He may succeed in getting some of his domestic plan though Congress even though his techniques don't work on the suspicious, cagey and independent-minded. His tariff plan will not be one of those successes. He putting it to Congress will reveal how many Yankee dollars are coined with cheap Chinese goods, and how many Yankee jobs currently depend on "China Inc." doing its thing. It's too easy for free traders to run an ad that says: "Donald Trump To Wal-Mart Employees: 'You're Fired.'"
Any attempt on his part to slash government spending, or to abolish the Department of Education, will reveal how many Yankee vested interests in government spending there are. Again, there'll be lots of opportunity for him to show his populism with headline-grabbing speeches and feuds. The wheels of publicity will turn 'round and 'round for him; that's for sure. But, given his character and how his weak points will be used, it's not likely that his publicity genius will translate into much of substance. Unless, of course, he bends with the Washington wind and becomes another insider.
Sad to say, the political world – more so the geopolitical world - has a completely different standard of toughness; it's one that Mr. Trump has never faced. At its core, whether rightly or wrongly, is disdain for money. Only that disdain gave President Roosevelt, whether rightly or wrongly, the toughness to lambaste "the malefactors of great wealth."