Fundamentally, Donald Trump runs the country like a guy drives a bumper car at a carnival.
When you drive a bumper car you just smack into whatever is right in front of you, deal with whatever is immediately in view, and have no idea or concern where you’re going. That’s the way Donald Trump governs.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Leader Chuck Schumer absolutely got the best of him in their White House negotiation over the short-term debt ceiling/continuing resolution.
That was partially because Pelosi and Schumer are simply better negotiators and tacticians than “the great dealmaker” Trump.
Partially it was because Schumer and Pelosi can hold their caucuses together better than Trump’s GOP allies Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. So Trump has apparently decided, not without good reason, that he can’t trust Ryan and McConnell to deliver when the chips are down.
Trump, Ryan and McConnell wanted to take Democratic leverage away by passing a Continuing Resolution for spending and a debt ceiling increase that expires in 18 months – right after the next election. Democrats wanted an extension of only three months, so that they could use the leverage of the debt ceiling and spending bill that expires right before Christmas to press for concessions on Democratic priorities – like including a DREAM Act and ACA market fix as part of an overall “must pass” package.
When Treasury Secretary Mnuchin suggested in the meeting that the “markets” could not stand the uncertainty of having such a short debt ceiling and federal spending extension, Pelosi is reported to have replied that, while Secretary Mnuchin may know a lot about the “markets,” the coin of the realm at the Capitol was votes – and that unless he had 218 votes for his plan, it would be a three-month extension, period.
At that moment, with the deadline closing in, Trump badly wanted to get a spending and debt ceiling extension passed. So he decided – apparently on the spur of the moment and without any consultation with his erstwhile allies ― to abandon his ally’s position and fold his cards. He made an impulsive decision to get through the next few weeks – even if it massively strengthens the hand of the Democrats over the next three months and will undercut Trump’s ability to get Congress to pass his own program.
As a progressive Democrat I am thrilled at his collapse. But it represented just the most recent example of Trump’s “bumper car” mentality – react impulsively with the short term in mind regardless of the long-term consequences of his decisions. Deliberate he is not.
In this situation Trump’s impulsive, shoot-from-the-hip approach may have undermined his own interests. But there are many other circumstances where his erratic, impulsive, defensive, petty, short-term approach to decision-making could endanger humanity.
In its discussion of the leadership skills needed by four-star flag officers, the National Defense University says:
Top-level leaders are responsible for the strategic direction of their organization within the context of the strategic environment-now increasingly global. The term “strategic” implies broad scale and scope. It requires forward vision extending over long time spans - in some cases 50 years or more. So strategic leadership is a process wherein those responsible for large-scale organizations set long-term directions and obtain, through consensus building, the energetic support of key constituencies necessary for the commitment of resources.
That means you have to have the capacity to understand and consider the long- term consequences of your short-term decisions.
If this quality is necessary for four-star flag officers – generals and admirals – in the military, you’d think they would also be necessary for the commander-in-chief. But there is no evidence whatsoever that Trump has any long-term vision.
In fact, one of the people close to him is reported to have confided that he lives life 15 minutes at a time.
Trump’s petty, impulsive threats in the nuclear confrontation with North Korea are a key example.
Were it not for the vision, sound judgment and long term thinking of President John F. Kennedy in 1962, millions of people would have likely died in a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union during the Cuban missile crisis. We now know that Soviet commanders in Cuba had been ordered to respond to an attack on the Island with a nuclear strike on the United States without further instructions from Moscow.
Kennedy’s self-confidence and vision gave him the strength to stand up to the advice of his top military advisers who wanted him to launch just such an attack. What would Trump have done? What will he do if he faces a similar decision in the future?
Trump has no long-term vision. His pettiness and defensiveness betray an underlying lack of confidence that is frightening. And as a result – more than anything else – he fears being perceived as “weak.”
Trump is the classic bully – the kid in school whose own self-doubts and fears are manifest in his need to bully and dominate others, and a constant need for attention and affirmation.
And those traits are complicated further by Trump’s complete unfamiliarity with history. He has no appreciation for the consequences of past decisions or the wars that resulted. Trump has no “sense” of history – no appreciation for the phases of our own social evolution – and as a result, no vision for the future.
The presidential historian Michael Beschloss has said that, “Not all readers are leaders, but all real leaders are readers.”
There is no evidence that Trump has the attention span to read a lengthy daily intelligence briefing – much less the biographies and histories that have been devoured by former presidents like Kennedy and Obama.
These traits are weaknesses that can be exploited by adversaries – just as they were by Pelosi and Schumer. But they’re not state secrets – they’re out there for everybody to see. So they can also be exploited by foreign adversaries like Kim Jong Un.
And of course, one of the other key traits of successful leaders is trust. It is the trust others in the group have that the leader will do what is in their best interests – even at the sacrifice of his own. People need to believe that their leader will keep them safe and secure even if it means sacrificing himself in the process. A captain is always the last person to leave a sinking ship.
Great leaders project that sense of trust to their own team, to their followers, and to their allies.
Self-sacrifice, profiles-in-courage, trust – these are not words often spoken in the same sentence as the name “Donald Trump.”
Buckle up. Unless he is impeached or resigns, we have over three years left of his presidency. At least it won’t be boring and predictable – except in one respect. You can be certain that Donald Trump will always make decisions that he believes at the moment will benefit one person: Donald Trump.
Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on Amazon.com. He is a partner in Democracy Partners and a Senior Strategist for Americans United for Change. Follow him on Twitter @rbcreamer.