Trump’s Instincts Are The Problem

The president is driven by his own self-interest in what he views as a zero-sum contest that requires dominance.

During Trump’s press briefing on Friday, he was asked what metrics he will use to decide when it’s time to reopen the economy.

When the administration simply issued “guidelines” for responding to COVID-19, Trump ceded the power to both shut down and reopen the economy to the governors. That hasn’t stopped him from trying to exert control now.

We’ll have to wait and see how all of that turns out. At a minimum, we know that many Republican governors will follow Trump’s lead, and that viruses don’t recognize the borders of states any more than they recognize the borders of countries. So if the president decides to reopen the economy with a “big bang” instead of an actual plan, it is likely to threaten all of us—no matter where we live.

Most of the reactions to the exchange in the clip up above expressed a bit of horror at the idea that the metrics Trump will use to make this decision are in his head. But I was reminded of something Michelle Obama said after spending four years in the White House observing what it means to be president.

I have seen firsthand that being president doesn’t change who you are – it reveals who you are.

You see, I’ve gotten to see up close and personal what being president really looks like.

And I’ve seen how the issues that come across a president’s desk are always the hard ones…the judgment calls where the stakes are so high, and there is no margin for error.

And as president, you can get all kinds of advice from all kinds of people.

But at the end of the day, when it comes time to make that decision, as president, all you have to guide you are your values, and your vision, and the life experiences that make you who you are.

Michelle was right. What we are witnessing is how that is playing out for Donald Trump. He will be getting lots of advice from different people, but ultimately, it will be his call. That clarifies the problem with putting these kinds of decisions in the hands of someone like Trump.

What we know about this president’s values is that nothing matters except his own self-interest. Throughout his entire presidency, and especially in the midst of this pandemic, he has shown absolutely no capacity for empathy. So the needs of others never enter his mind. Trump’s vision has always been limited to winning by dominating anyone he views as a threat. That is what his life experiences taught him.

To survive, I concluded from our conversations, Trump felt compelled to go to war with the world. It was a binary, zero-sum choice for him: You either dominated or you submitted. You either created and exploited fear, or you succumbed to it…Trump grew up fighting for his life and taking no prisoners. In countless conversations, he made clear to me that he treated every encounter as a contest he had to win, because the only other option from his perspective was to lose, and that was the equivalent of obliteration.

The only thing inside Trump’s head are instincts driven by his own self-interest in what he views as a zero-sum contest that requires dominance. That is who he was when he was elected and, as Michelle noted, being president has merely put that on display.

Ultimately, the problem isn’t that Trump pointed to his head when asked what metrics he will use to make a decision. It’s what is in his head that is the problem.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.