Flit over to Twitter and the same government media echo chamber that was loudly defending the Iran deal is concern trolling about strong inspections of North Korea’s nuclear program and worrying that President Trump’s suspension of military exercises is far too great of a concession to the tiny tyrant.
The clever ones ask, “What’s the difference between the Iran deal and the North Korean negotiations”? Isn’t Trump’s stated willingness to meet with dictators a lot like Obama’s no preconditions pledge?
And then there are the trade wars. What is he thinking by upsetting the Chinese and the Europeans?
It’s 2018. And after spilling several small rivers of black ink (digital and virtual) analyzing, smearing, belaboring, insulting and fact checking President Trump, the media still doesn’t understand him.
That’s not surprising. The media has been writing about America for much longer than that and has even less of a clue about how people live outside its preciously hip urban and suburban bubbles.
But there are 5 simple rules for understanding President Trump. They define how he’s lived his life until now. And what still drives him at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. If you understand them, you will get what he’s doing. If you don’t, there’s always a job waiting at the New York Times.
1. Act, Don’t React
Trump hates reacting, he loves taking the initiative and forcing others, rivals, competitors, media syndicates or foreign dictators, to react to him. That’s the essence of strategy and he nails it the way few have.
When UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson muttered that there was a “method to his madness”, that was it.
The method is becoming the driving force in an escalating conflict. Instead of reacting to attacks, Trump forces his attackers to react to him. He takes the initiative and leaves his opponents sputtering.
That’s how he became the President of the United States. It’s what he’s doing internationally.
By acting, Trump takes control of each encounter. What happens next may not be ideal, but Trump cares more about maintaining the initiative than about forcing a specific outcome. He doesn’t see politics as a chess match, but as a boxing match. He doesn’t get locked into predetermined goals. Instead he lets the kinetic confrontation create opportunities by exploiting his opponent’s reactions.
Picking a fight with the North Korean dictator, led to a peace summit. A trade war with China has already led to some serious concessions. A trade shoving match with Europe and Canada offers potential wins.
Unlike previous administrations, Trump isn’t satisfied with the status quo. And that means that he tries a lot of things.
That takes us to Rule 2.
2. Try Everything
Critics have poked fun at Trump’s failed business ventures. But you don’t succeed without trying and failing.
Trump is comfortable with failure. He knows that if you’re willing to knock on 100 doors, you might get 1 sale. His approach to politics is trying a lot of different approaches and policies to get to a win.
When Obama expressed a willingness to meet with dictators and terrorists, it’s because he was already sympathetic to them. The seeds of the Iran deal were always in him. The negotiations just took him where he already wanted to be. Trump however isn’t meeting with Kim Jong-un because he likes him. He’s doing it because it might pay off. Or it won’t and then he’ll try something else.
Obama needed Iran. Trump doesn’t need North Korea. He can take it or leave it. He’s hungry for wins, but he also sees the potential for them everywhere so he doesn’t overcommit to any individual deal.
Political professionals scoff at that scrappy attitude. They insist on the importance of posture and position. Trump knows all about posture and position, but he refuses to be its prisoner. He can insult Kim one day and flatter him the next. Politics is just business with countries instead of companies.
Trump’s approach is the same to both politics and business. Do whatever it takes to get the deal. And then decide if the deal is worth taking.
3. Chaos is Power
Most people want to minimize chaos. Countries and companies spend fortunes, fight wars and dedicate decades to reducing chaos. Trump however thrives on chaos. Instead of trying to control chaos, he generates it, causing uncertainty and then offering a sense of security in exchange for a good deal.
That’s what Trump is doing with trade. It’s what he did to China and North Korea.
Trump tries everything (Rule 2) and escalates confrontations (Rule 1) so that his opponents have no way to counter him except by escalating the confrontation and creating more chaos. And then Trump forces them to negotiate by proving he can function in a chaotic and uncertain situation better than they can.
That’s how he got North Korea to the table. After decades of the Norks intimidating previous administrations by creating chaos with their threats, Trump topped those threats. The media warned that a nuclear war would break out. Instead China and North Korea chose a peace summit.
The summit may come to nothing, but Trump had already broken the Nork ability to intimidate us.
China, Europe and Canada don’t want a trade war. They have nothing to gain and plenty to lose. By creating economic chaos, Trump also became the only man who can end the chaos and restore security.
Chaos is power.
When the United States became a world power, its administrations emphasized stability over everything. Trump welcomes chaos because it’s a much more effective negotiating strategy. Entities that seek order can be intimidated with chaos. But politicians who seek chaos can’t be intimidated.
Trump doesn’t seek order. He wants victory.
4. Never Show Your Hand
Conventional politicians have a narrow window of agenda items. They’re very clear on what they want, what they don’t want, what they’re willing to do and what they’re willing to give up to get it.
Trump has always been ambiguous. Parse his sentences and you can read them three different ways. Each assertion eventually uncovers a contradiction. That’s confusion. Tactical confusion.
As Trump has mentioned plenty of times, he loves being unpredictable.
Trump is the only president in a century who is able to go into negotiations with a completely unpredictable outcome. And the roster of competing figures around him only creates more chaos.
To truly create chaos (Rule 3), you have to be unpredictable. That creates insecurity. It forces your opponents to read things into every move you make. And then to be stymied by the futility of it.
Ambiguity leaves the other side unable to assess what the United States would actually settle for. Instead it ends up offering far more than we would settle for just to restore that sense of security.
Trump is the most famous man in the world. And yet his decision-making remains mysterious.
5. Don’t Be Afraid to be the Bad Guy
If Americans have a fatal flaw, a weakness that undermines our domestic and international politics, it’s a need to be liked. Most other countries don’t wonder whether the rest of the world likes them.
Blame Hollywood, dime novels or comic books, but as Americans we see ourselves as the heroes. And our enemies, foreign and domestic, know that they can break us by making us question our goodness.
It’s how they did it in Vietnam, in Iraq and too many foreign policy debates to count.
One of Trump’s great strengths is that he’s not afraid to be the bully, the heavy and the jerk. He can flatter Kim Jong-un, Trudeau and any other leader. Or call them names.
He can say shocking things and take unacceptable positions if it gets him what he wants.
That’s the attribute that upsets and infuriates Never Trumpers. But it also gives the United States far more negotiating leverage and freedom than it ever had before. And that’s why the people chose him.
Trump embodied all the things that had been going unsaid and all the truths that needed telling.
Past presidents valued their personal relationships with foreign leaders. But Trump is willing to throw a punch at the boy band leader of Canada if it gets a farmer in Wisconsin a better deal for his dairy.
On the global stage, President Trump has forced North Korea, China, Europe and Canada to react to him. He’s trying everything. He’s creating chaos. He’s hiding his hand and he’s winning.
The media shouts that Trump is isolated. If he were isolated, the world wouldn’t be revolving around him. The world doesn’t stop when Putin or China’s Jinping issue a statement. But a single Trump tweet can upend the priorities of international diplomacy for days, weeks and even months.
Trump isn’t reacting to the world. The world is reacting to him.
And as long as he can keep the world reacting to him, he’s the one setting the agenda for the world.