Donald Trump says his strongest qualification for being president is his genius. He cites as evidence his business prowess, great wealth, and amazing success at fixing problems no one else has been able to fix. Since his own statements are his primary source of proof, and many believe whatever he says, a more objective look is needed.
First, let’s acknowledge his admirers’ claims that handily defeating all challengers in the 2016 elections, using methods that theretofore would have been disqualifying, was pretty amazing. Tapping into voters’ resentments and bigotry might have been brilliance, though I suspect it was mostly coincidence–the right attitude at the right moment in history; but we can admit few others could have (or would have) cultivated such a large base of virulently angry support.
It’s also true that long sought conservative goals like appointing a libertarian judiciary and rolling back restraints on capitalist ambition have been advanced significantly during his term in office. These, I would argue, have been legislative accomplishments belonging primarily to the Federalist Society and Mitch McConnell, but the President was smart enough to trade those issues for blanket Republican Congressional support.
Finally, let’s recognize Mr. Trump’s advanced instincts for bullying. His abilities to force attention to his agenda, and to marshal resources, including all the powers available to the office of President, to retaliate against critics and intimidate opponents, are second to none. Whether those instincts reflect a kind of genius I’ll leave to psychologists.
So, what about the President’s own claims for genius–his wealth and supreme negotiation skills?
The first is hard to judge. Since he won’t release tax returns and threatens litigation against anyone who reveals business or tax records, we know little for sure beyond generic financial disclosure forms, his public bankruptcies, and documented lies to get himself on Forbes list of wealthiest people.
As for negotiation skills, we should look to achievements since he took office.
Domestically, we have his promise to restore the coal and steel industries. Despite boasts to the contrary and discredited claims of a new steel mill being built, there is little to no evidence of improvement in rural, coal-based economies, and, when it comes to coal, no serious economist thinks there can or will be. Similarly, his promised pressure on American corporations to bring capital and jobs back to the U.S., following a debt busting tax cut that he said would pay for itself but we now know won’t, appears to have failed entirely.
A better arena in which to evaluate Mr. Trump’s negotiation skills is international affairs. By keeping top government positions unfilled and cabinet secretaries in a neutered “acting” capacity, and removing experienced professionals from the leadership of the intelligence agencies and State Department, he stays solely in charge and is able to work the global stage virtually alone, without challenge. How is that going?
Well, we don’t know what benefits his love affairs and secret meetings with Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, and Mohammad bin Salman might have reaped for him personally, but Russia’s political interference in American elections, North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and long range delivery systems, and MBS’s murderous rule are continuing, apparently unabated, to threaten American interests despite bi-partisan objection from Congress. There is no evidence of successful negotiation on America’s behalf there.
The President’s “easy to win” tariff wars are harming small farmers and businesses sensitive to import costs, so far without any benefit. Only billions in taxpayer-funded subsidies have prevented widespread farming bankruptcies. Mr. Trump’s repeated claim that other countries are paying the U.S. through these tariffs is as demonstrably false as his promise that the border wall would be paid for by Mexico. His unilateral withdrawal from the Paris Accords, NAFTA, and the Iran nuclear deal has undermined coordinated multi-nation responses to climate change, needs for multi-national trading rules, and Iran’s nuclear weapon development. So far these bold moves have provided nothing constructive in return.
Mr. Trump’s principal negotiation strategy of threatening, suing, and inflicting harm on negotiation partners for “leverage” has so far succeeded only in embittering U.S. adversaries and trading partners alike. He might be succeeding in weakening the Chinese economy with tariffs, but there has been no capitulation, only reciprocal tariffs. Even as inverted bond yields warn of a coming global recession, the President is doubling down with threats of more tariffs on China that threaten multiple economies, including our own.
So, why do people believe this President when he boasts of his business and negotiating prowess?
Among the tools and conditions relied on by con artists and sociopaths, people who lie constantly and convincingly, are their self-confidence and the eagerness of their marks to believe them.
Eagerness to believe can be motivated by simple greed, or by the need for clarity in the midst of ambiguity, or a path forward when feeling threatened, stuck or lost. These common human desires make us susceptible to believing conspiracy theories that explain mysteries, and confident offers of ready solutions to intractable problems.
Some of us are more susceptible than others. People with confidence in their own abilities generally prefer leaders who will gather, organize, and apply their disparate talents to collectively solve problems; people who lack such confidence are more likely to accept leaders who claim to know everything and be able to do it all themselves. Leaders like this, like our president today, demand unlimited authority and unquestioned loyalty, and followers who want that kind of leadership eagerly give it to them.
A significant number of Americans are hooked on the President’s form of leadership, and will believe and defend him no matter where it might lead. This is extremely dangerous. We are so polarized that a cataclysm of some kind is beginning to look inevitable. Donald Trump has released and become figurehead for the darker aspects of our national and individual natures, and appears increasingly to be compelled by his own psychic demons to ride the power of those forces as long as he possibly can.
I believe the surprising powers of Donald Trump lie not in genius as we normally think of it, but in his extraordinary self-confidence, born of a pathological compulsion to create and believe his own reality, and a ruthlessness enabled by his complete lack of empathy for others. We must encourage more of our friends, neighbors, and political representatives to begin seeing the strength of Donald Trump for what it is—if genius, a dark one, and to recognize the need to protect ourselves from it.