The Alt of the Deal

Last week, I resolved to take some time to review the first month of Donald’s presidency in order to present a slightly more cohesive portrait of the administration’s shenanigans, policy positions, and strategies moving forward. Yet even with just a month’s worth of news and noise to sort through, I struggled to take a step back and connect the dots.

Then, as I was working up some ideas for this post, the infamous and horrifying Thursday Press Conference (or “knockdown,” depending on which media you consume) occurred.

After my initial shock (and, frankly, terror) dissipated, I finally realized why I was having such trouble connecting the dots we’ve seen scattered about thus far. Not because I couldn’t see any potential connections — I could and I do. Rather, my befuddlement arose because I am increasingly convinced that there are no dots to connect, at least not when it comes to Donald himself.

After all, Donald Trump does not have a master plan for U.S. foreign or domestic policy. How could he? He doesn’t read; he seems to get his information from cable news programs rather than from his own government agencies; he appears to have no depth of understanding when it comes to politics, economics, history, psychology, sociology, or any other discipline that might inform his views on any topic of substance. This is not just “potato potatoe” territory. Nor is it the down home Texan persona GWB cultivated. No; watching Donald conjures nightmares of my own imagining — like getting dropped in front of a panel of Ivy League professors and asked to defend a dissertation I didn’t write in a discipline I haven’t studied. Only that is his (and our) real life now, every single day, because while those who are qualified for the office of president have spent their years reading and studying and thinking about things other than their number of twitter followers, he has spent his days watching Fox News and trying to pole vault to the top of the celebrity heap.

Pundits constantly analyze and re-analyze his words and tweets and statements to discern what he is “really” thinking. But why bother to engage in such a clearly fruitless task? We don’t even know whether we can take him literally, seriously, or both! How can we possibly guess at his “true meaning” when he likely doesn’t even have one? Remember, he doesn’t resolve his “book smart” deficiencies by actually trying to learn anything or form a coherent policy statement. No; he resolves his deficiences by convincing everyone around him that those Ivy League professors on the dissertation panel are the REAL dum-dums. And biased, to boot! And before you laud him for being an image tactition, recall that all of this is less a product of some magical, mystical, unparalleled media savvy than it is of his deep-seated narcissism.

His detractors and supporters alike talk about his dealmaking and negotiating prowess. But Donald isn’t the dealmaker. And he never has been. “The Art of the Deal” was ghostwritten! As for negotiation, he employs a single negotiating tactic: the “door in your face” technique. Something that has been written about in countless negotiating and persuasion and psychology 101 textbooks. The idea is simple: Ask for something way larger/more expensive/bigger than what you actually want, and then go in with the smaller request when you get rejected the first time around.

His team — notably, his actually-media-savvy political strategist Stephen Bannon — knows this is his favorite way of “negotiating” and they have surely briefed him on their use of this tactic to roll out their various policies. Doesn’t it sound familiar? Immigration ban? Door in the face. Wall? Door in the face. 20% tariff on Mexican imports? Door in the face. So that in the end, they can almost guarantee a still-unacceptable-to-the-left-but-slightly-less-hysteria-inducing immigration policy; millions of dollars poured into border security without a real fight because there’s no more wall to rile people up about (just those pesky nuts and bolts of policy making); corporate tax reform with a border adjustment tax as part of the deal. Etcetera.

To be clear, “door in the face” can be an effective tactic. We have never seen it applied in quite this manner when it comes to government, though, and query how beneficial it is for the country to continuously deploy it. Regardless, it seems clear that until the resistance learns how to effectively counter it, Donald’s team may well be able to push through much of their agenda by continuing to use This One Simple Trick For Running The Country.

But it remains imperative to remember that the agenda itself is clearly not his.

After all, the business arms of Donald’s empire have seen multiple bankruptcies. By many accounts, his actual businesses are failures. Do you know him because of his shrewd real estate tycoonery or because he was the guy who coined “You’re Fired!” on The Apprentice? Even as President of the United States, he remains obsessed with the entertainment arm of his empire; he didn’t hesitate to tweet-shame Schwarzenegger for the new host’s poor Apprentice ratings. Of course, he has to keep the “businessman” image going — it feels more powerful to sit in an office (oval or not) and be the CEO than the media jester, doesn’t it? And he is a narcissist, so surely the image of Donald as Business King tickles his fancy more than the image of Donald as Media Clown. But he is still of the “any press is good press” school. He bragged about it on Thursday, after all: “No, that’s how I won. I won with news conferences and probably speeches.” And all for free!

At the end of the day it didn’t matter whether millions more of us watched only in horror — we watched. And we still do.

Of course, he is still a media whore. And Thursday’s presser confirmed that he remains ready and willing to prostitute himself to the cameras. But it also confirmed that he is a distraction. We knew this already, if we were willing to fully admit it. The conferences he’s held with world leaders have been full and clear displays of his robust ignorance and stupidity. His twitter rants provide more proof of his thin skin and image obsession. Indeed, when I began reviewing the news from his first few weeks in office, the only dots that seemed to connect in a coherent form were those related to Donald’s thoughts about Donald. But Thursday’s presser was astounding in terms of what it revealed about Donald’s shallow pool of presidential knowledge.

So now, the question remains: Who is in charge? Is it Bannon, with his desire for opacity, his lionization of the anti-hero, his dystopic, clash-of-civilizations ideology? Is it Priebus, who felt compelled to get on Sunday’s morning shows and recite his resume to the Donald (perhaps to stave off the Bannon faction in the WH civil war) and who seems to have aligned himself with Pence (perhaps providing a gateway between the Vice President and the GOP “Establishment,” which remains under Priebus’s purview)? Is it Pence himself, who has quietly been working to gain credibility as he takes over the substantive work of running the country? Is it Tillerson and/or Mattis, who seem to be allied in their desire to stay as far removed from the WH circus as possible, and who have both been spreading quiet, under-the-radar diplomacy around the world?

It remains to be seen who the top decision maker is (or will be). Thursday made clear that it is not Donald. Stay tuned for next week’s news roundup, where I will pay special attention to mapping out the various U.S. executive branch factions in play, taken in light of world happenings.

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