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Why Trump is so very Trump: a step-by-step analysis

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Shortly before the presidential election, I wrote if we had a Trump presidency, it would most resemble that of his fellow dark horse candidate Franklin Pierce: “Like Trump, Pierce was surrounded by chaos. (Though, unlike Trump, it wasn’t usually of his creation.)”

So far, so good.

It’s hard to remember sometimes, but from a historical standpoint Trump took office during an unusually stable moment in America’s history. We are a nation that’s fought two World Wars, suffered a handful of economic freefalls, seen our President die in office on eight occasions, had the British burn our capital, and for a time splintered apart completely.

By comparison—and this is no way ignores numerous massive problems, such as the fact you can’t refer to our nation’s infrastructure without using the word “crumbling”—America right now is a lazy summer day.

Of course, America doesn’t feel like a lazy summer day: nope, it’s the middle of winter and we’re freezing to death on the tundra, yet somehow simultaneously getting hit by a category 5 hurricane at the same moment the killer bees attack.

In what may be the biggest understatement of all time, there appear to be aspects of Donald Trump that could prove challenging to a successful presidency. Understand: most presidents have qualities or experiences that threaten their ability to lead. Pierce himself witnessed his son die in a train accident shortly before taking office and promptly went on to be a truly miserable Commander-in-Chief. However, we have also seen presidents overcome absurdly long odds to find success, as Lincoln’s struggles with depression and F.D.R.’s battle against polio didn’t stop either from being a great leader.

But if a president had depression and polio and refused to seek treatment for either condition and insisted on making fun of other people with depression and polio… well, that’s our Donald.

Sharks can become so overwhelmed by the variety of targets presented by a school of fish that they freeze up and fail to act at all. Trump is essentially a school of fish crammed into a blue suit: there’s so much happening that he tends to leave both his foes and his friends paralyzed and incoherent.

This is an attempt to separate the school a little and look at specific details of The Donald. In no particular order, these are the things that make Trump so Trump – America finally avoided picking just another typical politician, but it appears we still stepped in something icky.

Trump has no lasting beliefs. It’s not uncommon for a politician to change their party affiliation over a lifetime: Ronald Reagan started out as a Democrat. Trump takes it to an extreme, however, having changed political parties five times. As recently as 2011, he wasn’t a Republican. He enthusiastically endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2008. Even during his brief time in office, he has staked out a number of bold positions only to completely reverse himself on them, including China’s relationship with Taiwan, health care for all, and the importance of coal. It’s been much discussed if Trump will resign from office (either because of the threat of impeachment or because he just gets bored with the job). There’s also a real possibility he’ll abandon the Republican Party again—a prediction that seems a little less bold when you remember he’s done it twice before already.

The upside of this: There is much to be said for a leader who refuses to be limited by pointless party ideology and seeks only to make the correct decision for America.

The downside: To make these bold leaps, it requires a deep understanding of incredibly complicated issues. Which brings us to point #2…

Trump doesn’t do nuance. This is a man who describes everything as THE GREATEST or A LOSER. That’s why Hillary was a “really good person and woman” right up to the moment she needed to be jailed.

The upside of this: It’s always possible to hedge on a position until it loses all meaning. Reagan’s Berlin speech would be less remembered if he cried out, “Mr. Gorbachev, slightly modify this wall!”

The downside: You know where everything is either the best or the worst? Sports talk radio. (Where in any given 30-second block you can learn LeBron James is simultaneously the greatest champion ever and biggest choker of all time.) Believe it or not, being ridiculously simplistic in a desperate attempt to get a rise out of people isn’t necessarily a great approach to governing. Related to this…

It is clear Trump has no experience that’s particularly useful for being president. No one is ever completely ready to be president, but as the first person to have neither held elective office nor served in the military, Trump takes unpreparedness to unprecedented heights. Trump has argued this is offset by his business experience. The Donald is indeed good at business…in very specific ways. He is a masterful promoter: if he wants something to get attention, it shall be noticed, brother. He also seems to excel at running golf courses. Sadly, America already has solid brand awareness – people don’t always love us, but they’ve heard of us – and the Leader of the Free World is rarely called upon to discuss greens fees. (This apparently did not stop Trump from attempting to bring up at the EU summit a topic dear to the heart of every heartland voter: golf resorts.)

The upside of this: There is something to be said for a leader refusing to be trapped by potentially outdated conventional wisdom.

The downside: There’s also something to be said for a leader grasping the conventional wisdom in the first place, which has led to moments like Trump getting a history lesson on North Korea from the Chinese President that inspired him to muse, “After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” and his proclamation, “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.” This all seems to tie in with a general problem…

Trump has no interest in doing stuff Trump doesn’t like doing. Trump clearly enjoys riding on his plane and speaking at rallies where people cheer. Indeed, he likes this so much he went on a post-election “thank you” tour where he kept campaigning in states he had already won instead of, for instance, getting up to speed on what it actually means to be president. Even now Trump has reportedly shown so little interest in briefings that aides resort to adding his name to them in an attempt to hold his attention. This has resulted in moments when Republican congressmen tried to talk health care specifics with Trump – legislation impacting millions of Americans that could torpedo the political futures of a generation of Republicans – only to be told to forget the “little shit” because he needed a “win.”

The upside of this: It’s easy to get bogged down in minutiae and feel that, as President, everything is worthy of your attention: Jimmy Carter inexplicably became involved in personally booking White House tennis courts. Trump will not have this problem.

The downside: Sadly, governing is a job where small details have big implications. One of the great fascinations of Robert Caro’s classic The Power Broker is seeing how deeply Al Smith and Robert Moses could mold the state of New York largely because both men prided themselves on having an encyclopedic knowledge of the law and thus understood how to change it most effectively. Details matter. Of course, the macro matters too, and it’s worth noting…

Trump is capable of recognizing major trends a step ahead of everyone else. Over the decades, Trump has made some genuinely keen insights. He understood there was a fortune to be made in casinos, so much in fact it might leave an ex-wife a billionaire (though, it should be noted, not one of Donald’s). He understood in the 1980s that pro football teams were only going to skyrocket in value. He saw that pretending to be a businessman on TV could be as rewarding as being an actual businessman. And above all, he recognized just how fed up Republicans voters were with the establishment, to the point that even today Jeb Bush is still hiding in a corner, whimpering.

The upside of this: A leader needs to recognize where the world is headed—there comes a point you shouldn’t be making buggy whips, even if they’re the best damn buggy whips in town.

The downside: It’s easy to get so fixated on the big picture you lose sight of the little things that matter. I’m a Bayern Munich fan, and in recent years I had to watch as the New York Yankees of German soccer installed a “revolutionary” offense under Pep Guardiola, which would have been great except they stopped playing defense. (After all, any team can play defense!) The result was a Golden Generation squandered. Related to this…

Trump is strangely incapable of actually cashing in on his insights. Credit where credit is due. Fortune estimated Trump cleared $82 million from his Atlantic City casino empire from 1995 to 2009. Indeed, Trump has bragged about this performance.

Here’s where it gets less impressive:

  1. He “earned” this money as his casinos posted over a billion in losses and eventually ceased to exist.
  2. His father’s money and connections were the primary reason he got everything up and running in the first place. (For those unfamiliar with Fred Trump, he was the son of a successful brothel owner, moved into real estate, was worth an estimated $300 million at the time of his death in 1999, was accused by his tenant Woody Guthrie of keeping blacks out of his properties, and there’s strong evidence he was once arrested at a Klan rally and let’s just say he wasn’t there heroically standing up for oppressed African-Americans.)
  3. There actually was a frightening amount of money to be made in the casino game. Casino mogul Sheldon Adelson is worth over $30 billion. Steve Wynn has earned so much money both he and his ex-wife wound up billionaires.

To recap: Trump saw a chance to earn billions, utterly failed to earn billions, and had all his properties go bust as his employees lost their jobs and his investors were decimated. It would have been better off for everyone if the first time Donald hit up dad for millions to back the gaming idea, Fred said, “Donnie, what do you say we just open a savings account?”

Similarly, back in the 1980s Trump recognized the growth potential of pro football. (Today, the least valuable franchise in the NFL is worth $1.5 billion.) And again, this insight led to nothing. How bad was his experience with the United States Football League? It was so bad Trump can’t figure out how to brag about it… and this man can brag about anything.

Trump convinced the growing USFL to take on the NFL directly—they had previously played at a different time of year—and promptly got crushed, with the nadir coming when Trump launched a lawsuit against the NFL that earned the USFL an award of… $1. (In fairness, it was ultimately tripled to $3.) After the verdict, the NFL’s lawyer scored a legal burn for the ages when he pulled out his wallet and asked if they wanted to be paid immediately.

Even The Apprentice went to hell while Trump was still hosting it, peaking in its first season and plummeting to about a third of those viewers in Trump’s final season, staggering in at #67 in the ratings. (Arnold Schwarzenegger, of course, finished driving it into the ground this year.)

The upside of this: If these other endeavors had lasted, Donald Trump might not have had time to go into politics. (Note: Jeb Bush and a few other people may not consider this an upside.)

The downside: The longer he’s involved in things, the worse they become. That is the definition of a worrying trend. Related…

Donald Trump has no memory or no shame or no self-control or none of the above. During the campaign, Trump repeatedly attacked Obama’s golfing. The implication was Trump would not golf himself because he would be too busy working in Washington. (We know this because he said, “I just wanna stay in the White House and work my ass off, make great deals, right?”)

It would be reasonable to assume, for a little while at least, Trump would stay off the links.

Trump instead played golf with 15 times the frequency Obama did.

(It’s not an isolated occurrence: Trump was once a critic of executive orders and called the Electoral College a “disaster for democracy.”)

In general, faced with making a small personal sacrifice or preserving his integrity, Trump gets in the golf cart.

The upside to this: As a player, Kobe Bryant was capable of missing shots from anywhere on the floor. (Career shooting percentage: .447, including a historically bad .358 in his final season.) But he kept shooting and the Lakers won five titles. Sometimes being shameless is a key to winning.

The downside: The Lakers also missed the playoffs in Kobe’s final three seasons as L.A. experienced the worst stretch in franchise history. Sadly, sometimes utterly failing to learn from your failures can be great way to keep failing. Kobe also got flack for allegedly only being interested in getting his quota of shot attempts, even as his body broke down and his team went to hell. Incidentally, growing older is important because…

Time is not on Trump’s side. Our oldest President will soon turn 71. Our second oldest President, Ronald Reagan, may have suffered from Alzheimer’s while still in office. Fred Trump suffered from it as well. Beyond this, Trump has stated a human being is healthiest when they avoid both exercise and sleep. On the plus side, this allows him to reportedly watch—based on his own tweets—about five hours of TV daily.

The presidency is a genuinely crushing job: it literally killed James K. Polk after just one term. (Albeit a successful one: he fulfilled all his campaign promises and died.) At the time of his death Polk was 53, nearly 18 years younger than Trump is now. Quite simply, aging is the wild card that has the potential to turn the Trump White House from a semi-functional circus into a circus that’s actively on fire.

The upside of this: With age comes wisdom.

The downside: So does dementia.

There are other concerns with Trump as well, of course, ones that are devoid of even theoretical upsides. There are an almost Cosby-esque number of sexual assault allegations and his charity fraud, not to mention Russia in general. While I generally don’t care about a candidate’s personal life, Trump’s is uniquely gross. He has described the period he was cheating on his first wife with the woman who became his second (and eventually abandoned for the current version) as “a bowl of cherries”—perhaps his pride in betraying the mother(s) of his children makes more sense when we remember a mere two generations ago the Drumpf family was still pimping in Canada. (Incidentally, for a gritty look at Canadian pimping, watch these Kids in the Hall sketches immediately.)

Then there’s the fact this is a President who spends much of his time playing a character: loud, brash, insulting. (Some of Trump’s happiest moments in the White House seem to come when he denounces the “fake media” to their faces and then waits to see how they respond, which is all part of the game.) It’s almost like something out of pro wrestling.

In fact, it’s exactly like something out of pro wrestling, as anyone who remembers Trump’s “Battle of the Billionaires” with WWE owner Vince McMahon will recall. (It’s worth watching for the moment when the announcer declares, “Donald Trump is in a world he is not familiar with,” which I suspect is the voiceover that plays non-stop in Trump’s head nowadays.)

So forget the character: let’s go deeper. Once you look behind that blustery façade, you find someone who’s… odd.

Trump is the man who defended himself against charges he engaged in activities involving Russian hookers and urination by pointing out he struggles with a phobia of germs so severe he goes through phases where he can’t shake hands.

Trump is the man who, with his wife and child living in New York while he worked in D.C. all week, made a point of going to Florida each weekend so he could be even further away from them.

Trump is the man who spent much of his adult life pretending to be Swedish.

In short: At least to this point, Donald Trump is a man who seemingly lives his life with a single-minded focus on making both Barack and Dubya seem much, much more sympathetic and dignified in hindsight.

Trump has a great deal of time left in the White House. History has shown Presidents often subvert all expectations. Herbert Hoover was arguably the most successful and qualified man ever to reach the presidency: now his name is forever associated with makeshift slums. Harry Truman was a failed haberdasher at a time when, let’s face it, even being a successful haberdasher was nothing to brag about: today both parties respect him. (All the more ironic considering that, for much of Harry’s time actually in office, neither did.)

The Trump administration will doubtless be filled with many surprises to come: it is possible some of them will be of the non-traumatic variety. Right now, though, it’s hard not to think of Franklin Pierce’s alleged musing as his time in office approached an end: “There is nothing left to do but get drunk.”

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