Paul Pillar

A President Without Purpose

Since early in last year’s election campaign, countless pages of commentary about Donald Trump’s presidency have taken the form that policy analysis about U.S. presidents and presidential candidates usually takes.  Purported policy objectives are identified, the basis for such objectives is discussed, and the likely strategy for attaining those objectives is explained.  Exegesis of speeches and remarks—and in Trump’s case, tweets—is performed to discern doctrine and direction.

Seven months of this presidency is enough time to conclude that such commentary and analysis have badly missed what Donald Trump is all about, and what his occupancy of the nation’s highest office means to him.  Unusual in other respects, this first-ever U.S. president with no prior public service is also unusual in lacking the policy ideas and objectives, and sense of mission, that other presidents have had.  Even many critics of Trump, as much as many of his supporters, have incorrectly postulated more doctrine, direction, and purpose in this presidency than it ever had.

The enormous inconsistencies in policy, and between policy and rhetoric, that have characterized Trump’s presidency are perhaps the biggest indications of the absence of direction and purpose.  The inconsistency is most glaring on domestic matters, in which a campaign centered rhetorically on populist themes has been the polar opposite of appointments and proposals of the Trump administration, which are oriented far more to the one percent than to the masses.  Even the rants and sartorial statements of administration wives have been as non-populist, even anti-populist, as one can imagine.

On foreign policy, the inconsistencies and incoherence have come into view more slowly as events and ongoing operations have forced decisions.  A recent major example is Trump’s extension and expansion of the military expedition in Afghanistan notwithstanding his earlier rhetoric about staying or getting out of foreign wars in general and this war in particular.

An alternative explanation fits the evidence much better than the conventional form of policy analysis.  This explanation is that Trump’s becoming president is a huge ego trip for an extreme narcissist with a knack for demagoguery.  He craves above all else the adulation of crowds and cheers of the moment.  What analysts have mistakenly identified as policy direction and objectives is really just a collection of applause lines.  The man is not in office to move the country in a better direction, and he is bereft of ideas for defining and setting a better direction.

Much begins to make sense with this way of looking at Trump and his presidency rather than through the usual lens of policy analysis, and not only in explaining the inconsistency and incoherence.  There is, for example, the unending self-referential rhetoric; for Trump, this presidency really is all about himself.  There is the narrow and obsessive appeal to his “base,” even though such narrowness will never get his poll numbers beyond the mid-to-upper-30s range in which they are mired, much less build the sort of political consensus needed to really move the country in a better direction.  But the base furnishes the applause and cheers and immediate adulation, especially at those campaign rallies that Trump continues to hold rather than spending that time governing.

There are also the lies and the disdain for truth and reality.  Someone genuinely interested in moving the country in a better direction would accept the truth and foster understanding of reality, because better policies can only be based on reality.  But because with Trump the motivation is instead to sustain the themes and the rhetoric that brought the applause and the cheers, he sustains fictions consistent with those themes and ignores or brushes aside facts to the contrary.

Trump is functioning less as president than as a performer playing the role of president.  The situation is somewhat similar to his performance on the television show “The Apprentice,” in which he did not really decide who got fired.

In the absence of true direction from the top, and notably on issues on which Trump is especially lacking in either strategic sense or detailed knowledge, subordinates may in effect force a decision that represents the least common dominator. The recent decision regarding the war in Afghanistan fits this description.