After Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, the most incisive analysis concluded that “his critics had taken him literally, but not seriously, while his supporters took him seriously but not literally.” It has become clear that neither view is correct: Trump must be taken both seriously and literally, regardless of the consequences of his thinking. The new president said he would challenge and defeat the “Washington establishment.” While his commitment to “draining the swamp” can be questioned, his readiness to disrupt the status quo cannot. Trump thrives on chaos and sees advantage in it. The world must prepare for four years of disruption and disorder.
In his first week, the new president laid out a vision of his country that was darker than any previous inaugural address and rejected many of the principles that had guided U.S. foreign policy throughout the postwar era, embracing an unapologetic “America First” position. He followed that with a public fight over reporting of the crowd size at his inauguration, a speech at the CIA that made little or no sense, a TV interview that was virtually incoherent and a diplomatic spat with Mexico that resulted in the cancellation of a visit by that country’s president.
Meanwhile, throughout the week he issued a series of executive orders that surprised many of the people charged with implementing them and lacked the usual vetting by legal authorities in the administration. He ordered a wall to be built along the border with Mexico and insisted that his southern neighbor would pay for it. His new ambassador to the United Nations warned that “For those who don’t have our backs, we’re taking names.” Trump publicly endorsed torture, claimed without evidence that as many as 5 million people voted illegally in the election, and laid down benchmarks for health care reform that no one thinks are possible. He antagonized Democrats and Republicans, although the latter are loath to say so out loud. The week concluded with an executive order that bars citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. for 90 days and suspends the U.S.’ refugee system for a period of 120 days. This repudiates one of America’s most hallowed principles — “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free,” a creed that is engraved on the Statue of Liberty.
As winner of the election, Trump earned the right to pursue his policies, and nothing that he has said or done is inconsistent with his campaign pledges or behavior. His narrowly bounded nationalism was on display throughout the campaign and many of his supporters back the steps he has taken. (Many of them also delight in the outrage with which they have been greeted; that is for them a feature, not a bug, of the Trump presidency.) Disruption is to be expected when Trump’s vision for the country is one that rejects core principles — enlightened self-interest, internationalism and the promotion of ideals on the global state — of previous domestic and foreign policies.
Trump’s readiness to pick public fights with the media is another dimension of his proclivity for disruption. Trump demands attention and approval, which means he is acutely sensitive to the way he and his policies are portrayed. He sees the media as his opponent and will deal with them accordingly.
Trump’s battles with the press are intensified by his disregard for facts that challenge his beliefs. After being questioned about the size of his inaugural crowds — and despite substantial evidence to back up claims that his were not the biggest in history — he sent his spokesman out to meet the press with patently untrue claims in his defense. When pressed, another counselor resorted to an Orwellian phrase, insisting that Trump is merely using “alternative facts,” a claim that would be laughable if the implications were not so dangerous. The president of the U.S. is the most powerful man in the world, whose decisions can impact the lives of countless millions, if not billions, of people. The idea that he is not wedded to reality as experienced by everyone outside his bubble is terrifying.
Related to his confrontational approach to the media — or at least those outlets that challenge him — is his disdain for those opponents. Rather than reach out to those who oppose him and build a larger coalition of forces to pursue his policies, Trump has rejected compromise and instead doubled down on division. His record to date, in which he has confounded the critics and skeptics, gives him reason to go with his gut. But the stakes are bigger and his opponents are now taking him both seriously and literally. When his inexperience catches up with him, he can expect no help from those he has consistently denigrated and marginalized. For a man who believes strength is everything, he will be in big trouble when he is weakened.
The final component of the Trump approach is his continuing resort to tweets to communicate with the world. Of course, a president who considers the media to be an adversary will want to speak directly to his supporters, unfiltered or mediated by the opposition. But Trump does not understand that his words have assumed new weight and the ill-considered impulses that spur him to tweet are no substitute for reasoned policy. Some speculate that there is method in his madness, and that his tweets are intended to distract from more important policies or developments. If correct, then the media must not rise to the bait and focus on the more important things that the president says and does. No matter what the truth, Trump poses unprecedented challenges to those who want to make sense of him and his presidency; much of that is by design.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.