Trump Knows How to Make Enemies, Not Deals

You would think that someone who wrote, “The Art of the Deal” would know a thing or two about how to wield the tools of both power and diplomacy. But as we saw during the campaign, whenever Donald Trump is challenged or threatened, he’s a one trick pony. All he knows how to do is demonize and belittle in an attempt to dominate.

We’ve seen the same thing from Trump since he was elected. Remember how he compared our intelligence services to Nazis? His latest target is the FBI. Here are a couple of his tweets from this morning.

If you didn’t know how our government works, you’d never guess that he is the guy in charge. He sees this as a battle for dominance between himself and the departments that are meant to be resources for his administration.

It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out how people who are proud of what they do and committed to their work are likely to respond to something like this. While it’s true that some might cower in fear and become compliant, for the most part it only fuels their anger and resistance, creating a deeper divide.

But that’s how Trump operates. And it’s why he continues to focus on demonizing those who challenge/threaten him politically – be it the media or Democrats or voters who protest. He is feeding the polarization – making any real deal-making impossible. I am reminded of what Ezra Klein wrote recently.

In the aftermath of Trump’s election, I spoke to top liberals terrified that Trump would outflank them, and quickly. If he had given a conciliatory inaugural address, named some compromise candidates to key posts, filled his administration with competent veterans of government, and began his term by working on an infrastructure bill that Chuck Schumer could support, he would be at or above 60 percent in the polls, the media would be covering him positively, and the Democratic Party would be split between those who wanted to work with Trump and those who wanted to resist everything he did. In that world, Trump might be a big fan of America’s political institutions right now.

Liberals aren’t afraid Trump will outflank them anymore. He launched his presidency with a series of speeches, appointments, and executive orders that have made him radioactive among congressional Democrats. He’s running an understaffed, inexperienced government even as he provokes our enemies and alienates our friends. Trump is burning both political capital and time. It is significantly less likely now than it was a month ago that he will be able to replace Obamacare or pass a tax reform bill…

It is easy to imagine Trump, in a year, cornered in his own White House, furious at the manifold enemies he blames for his failures, and cocooned within an ever-smaller and more radical group of staffers and media outlets that tell him what he wants to hear and feed his grievances and resentments.

In the real world, the art of deal-making is central to the presidency – be it running the federal bureaucracy, working with Congress, or dealing with foreign policy. Trump’s dependence on demonization as a way to dominate means that – contrary to all the promises he’s making – he won’t be making a lot of deals. From civil servants to members of Congress to foreign leaders, they’ll have to decide whether to bend in compliance or join him in a battle for dominance.

This approach to the world is probably what leads to the kind of personal grievance we hear from Trump about China. Obviously he’s had a lot of experience working in that country to further his business interests. To use an Eastern metaphor, Donald Trump is truly a product of the West with his dependence on yang – the light, masculine, overt form of dominance. But in Eastern cultures, there is a more obvious preference for the yin – the shadow, female, covert form of dominance. Given the one trick pony nature of how Trump approaches these conflicts, it is much easier for the yin to figure out how to manipulate the yang. In other words, it is very possible that Trump got played…and knows it. He would be at a complete loss to figure out how to deal on those terms.

That provides both a note of caution for how the United States might get played by China during the Trump administration as well as a potential lesson for those who oppose him. The president is incapable of dealing with a yin approach to power. I suspect that is at least one of the reasons why he never figured out how to deal with Michelle Obama.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.