Trump has always been hell bent on publicly proclaiming himself a winner. And for him, being a winner means not just being successful, but being the best. Better than anyone and everything at whatever he does.
It’s not enough to be rich; he has to claim he has more money than he actually does (I’ve actually heard first hand stories about this from a former Forbes journalist). It’s not enough to screw starlets and gold diggers; he has to “anonymously” phone the press so that everyone can know about it. It’s not enough to host a long running, highly rated tv show; he has to claim its failure to win an emmy damaged the emmys’ credibility. It’s not enough to win the presidency; he has to claim he won the popular vote because millions of people supposedly voted illegally, even though they didn’t. It’s not enough to take the oath of office in front of the entire world; he has to claim more supporters showed up at his inauguration than for any other president, despite the all the aerial photographs revealing him to be a infantile liar.
He can’t help himself. He must lie and lie and lie, exaggerating every legitimate success and adamantly denying anything remotely smelling of failure.
No wonder then that of all the many insults that Trump lobs like handfuls rice at a wedding, in his mind the biggest, baddest epithet he can hurl at someone is “Loser!” Because losing is sad.
Factor 2: Donald Trump won the presidency by running an unconventional, populist, outsider campaign in which he endlessly railed against the establishment.
Donald Trump used to be a Democrat. Then he became an independent. Then a Republican. It doesn’t matter which mantle he adopts because all of them are subsidiary to his main agenda: self-aggrandizement. The party is merely a tool for self-advancement.
Sadly, that in and of itself makes Trump no different from many other politicians. But Trump proved himself craftier than the rest. Or at the very least, 2016 was the perfect year for Trump’s one note to resonate harmonically in the ears of tens of millions of wailing coyote voters.
There are plenty of self-serving politicians devoid of real political values. They typically choose the party best suited to their needs, and then use the established party machinery as a lever of self-promotion. But after Donald Trump correctly identified the GOP as the proper party for his run, he promptly set in on fire.
Trump did not make conventional use of the Republican Party to push his campaign forward. He did not organize a cogent ground game, gain prominent endorsements, or maximize its fund raising mechanisms . And none of that really mattered, because he wasn’t running as a conventional Republican.
If anything, Trump infiltrated the party and then essentially ran against it by savaging some of its core policies (free trade, modest immigration reform) and launching an all out assault on fellow Republicans during the primaries. He endlessly insulted and belittled them in ways that far exceed typical political nastiness. All the while, he bragged about being an outsider, not just to Washington, but to the party itself, marking himself as so fundamentally different from every sitting Republican politician that he could even make a man like Ted Cruz, who is so fringe to the GOP that most fellow Republican Senators loathe him, seem like a company man. And in so doing, Trump effectively turned enough of the GOP electorate against the party establishment to win the nomination.
Factor 3: Donald Trump is now firmly part of the establishment.
That’s what happens when you become president of the United States. It really doesn’t get more establishment than that. Every president is not only in the unique position of being the single person in charge of an entire branch of the federal government, but he also serves as the unrivaled symbol of American government both at home and abroad. The president is the face of the system.
In a more practical sense, the president is bound by law and oath to not only uphold the U.S. Constitution, but to operate within the establishment. Wanna constantly complain about how broken the system is? That’s fine when you’re sitting outside it. Easy to rile people up then. But when you’re at the very center of it? Guess what? Now you’re the stone sitting in the belly of the beast. You’re no longer the critic. You’re the guy in charge. And if it still doesn’t work, now it’s you’re fault.
Donald Trump’s response to this development, given Factor 1, is utterly predictable. He just lies a lot. He greatly exaggerates what little victories he achieves. When no actual victories exist, he fabricates phantom claims from whole cloth. And whenever he suffers a political defeat, small or large, he lies egregiously or simply ignores it, hoping that no one will notice.
Trump knows the equation has shifted. He’s well aware that to continue being a winner, he must produce some results. Or at the very least, convince people that he has produced results. But it turns out that’s actually a very difficult thing to do, especially as an outsider who has burned lots of bridges because . . .
Factor 4: The U.S. Constitution created a tripartite national government that is not only girded by checks and balances, but also has moderation woven into its fabric.
The founders despised hereditary aristocracy and monarchy. They yearned for something more meritocractic. However, they did not create a democracy because they feared that it would too easily slip into despotism. So instead they created a republic: a system of government that guards against both, strong, centralized political power on the inside, and the vagaries popular will from without.
The federal government, as laid out by the constitution, is intentionally slow moving and cumbersome. The division of executive, legislative, and judicial branches is meant to keep any one politician or political office from acquiring too much power. Various checks and balances, both between and even within each branch, are meant to prevent rash decision making. Thus, the process by which Congress writes and passes a bill so quite complicated they had to make a School House Rock cartoon about it. Meanwhile, the president can’t write any laws, and instead must simply wait for Congress to send him a bill. He can, with the stroke of a pen, bog the process down even further by vetoing legislation, while Congress must initiate a very difficult process to muster an override. And for his part, the president cannot make any judicial appointments, or even high level appointments within his own branch, with Congressional approval. Nothing is easy.
The president is not a king, and congress is not a corporate board of directors. Governing, even when you know exactly what you want to do, is very difficult. Under normal circumstances, results are often hard to come by and require substantial work and negotiation.
Exacerbating all this are the practical consequences of Factor 2.
Trump had absolutely no experience in government office before assuming the presidency. This, compounded by his own foibles, has exposed a degree of incompetence possibly never seen before in the White House.
Calculus: I’m not an alarmist who thinks Donald Trump is, or is destined to be, the worst president of all time. Not when there are already ethnic cleansers and war mongers on the roll; he has a very long way to go before passing the likes of Richard Nixon or Andrew Jackson. However, I do think it’s reasonable to consider the chances that Trump may very well end up as one of the most incompetent presidents of all time. Someone who gets lumped in with Herbert Hoover, James Buchanan, and Andrew Johnson whenever historians discuss chief executives who did not rise to the challenge or accomplish much of anything.
You can love or despise effective presidents like Ronald Reagan, Lyndon Johnson, and Franklin Roosevelt. But there’s no ignoring the fact that they are important, in part, because they were seasoned politicians who knew how to assemble a staff and get things done in Washington, even if they had never served in Washington before (Reagan) or had never been an executive before (LBJ). Of course no incoming president has presidential experience, so they all need to learn on the job. However, some presidents are practical, adaptable, and politically experienced. They show up and do what’s needed to push through their (somewhat compromised) agendas.
Donald Trump certainly has a practical side. For example, he seems quite willing to compromise, illustrated by his recent trysts with Democratic congressional leadership. He’ll do whatever’s necessary to look like a winner.
However, Trump’s lack of experience, combined with his intellectual and personal shortcomings, have thus far shown him to be incredibly ineffective at pushing his agenda forward, despite having his party control both houses of Congress.
In other words, to date, he is most certainly not “winning.”
That’s particularly bad news for Trump since the first two years are supposed to be the easy ones. That is typically when presidents get a lot of things done before suffering setbacks in the midterms and decline during the second term, if they gain one.
Yet here we are, ten months into Trump’s presidency, and The Donald has nothing to show for it. The only thing he can reasonably try to claim is the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, but event that that was really Mitch McConnell’s fetid victory, stealing the nomination from Barack Obama a year before the 2016 election.
The truth is, after feeding his supporters red meat throughout the election cycle, Trump has since been unable to satiate their ravenous bloodlust. To date, there’s no wall, no immigration reform, and no miraculous return of manufacturing jobs, but there’s still NAFTA, ObamaCare, the Iran nuclear agreement, and the specter of Kim Jong-un’s haircut mocking him.
Thus, Trump finds himself in a vise. On the one hand, if he moves beyond rhetoric and goes full throttle on his populist agenda, he will further alienate the party establishment and lose whatever fragile alliances he has on Capitol Hill, which he desperately needs to get anything accomplished. But on the other hand, compromising with Republican brass alienates his base by making him look like a sellout, just another tough talker who got coopted up by the Washington establishment once he stumbled inside the beltway.
The most recent example of Trump getting squeezed in this vise came during the Alabama Republican primary race to replace the world’s nastiest muppet, Jeff Sessions. The establishment wanted Luther Strange, the incumbent appointed to Sessions’ seat by then-governor Robert Bentley. But the Trumpists had their own ideas. They supported notorious, Christian right winger Roy Moore, the twice defrocked judge most infamous for insisting that the Ten Commandments be part of his courtroom decor and central to his jurisprudence.
Moore simply pulled a page from Trump’s play book, running against the Republican establishment. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whom Trump periodically lambastes, urged the president to support Strange. He did. Moore won anyway.
How did Moore win despite Trump’s endorsement of Strange? It’s simple: Trump’s cult of personality is minimal. Anyone who ever equated him to Hitler or Mussolini greatly over estimated Trump (or grossly misunderstood the paramount fascists). Trump’s not a truly charismatic leader, much less a brilliant strategist. He’s not actually brilliant at anything except being born rich and doubling down on lies. He’s president only because he was the right guy at the right time, someone who caught lightening in a bottle by capitalizing on white, largely male, anger and discontent. He’s little more than a stand-in for some people’s fury and frustration.
And Luther Strange represents none of those things. He’s just the next Republican in line. But Roy Moore is exactly the kind of firebrand who can effectively capture white voter discontent in Alabama: a social conservative who infuses right populism with Protestant Christianity. And he played it the hilt. Moore is so Trumpian that he was avidly endorsed by none other than former Trump advisor and White House staffer Steve Bannon, the patron saint of right wing populism.
In the end, Roy Moore out-Trumped Trump.
Publicly backing a loser has apparently sent The Donald into a major tizzy. After all, he can’t lie his way out of this one. Sure, he can delete all his pro-Strange tweets, but this is a history he can’t erase in the short term.
Everyone knows that in the Alabama primary, Donald Trump was a loser. And he also exposed himself as the establishment guy, as the GOP stooge who did the hopeless bidding of NAFTA-loving beltway insiders like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan.
No wonder he’s losing his shit.
So after sinking into a rage/shame spiral, what’s Donald Trump’s next move? The predictable answer is, desperation.
In just a week’s time, he has possibly crippled Obamacare, and rattled his saber with regards to the Iran nuclear deal, coal-plant emission limits, and the Mexican border wall. All the while, he has vigorously ramped up feuds with the news media, senior Congressional Republicans, and the NFL.
In other words, for the most part, it’s back to business as usual: lots of bluster with little to show for it.
And Trump’s most serious action last week (the de-funding of ObamaCare subsidies for the poor) comes with a hefty price: the prospect of serious backlash from his own base. Because no less than 70% of the people who rely on those subsidies live in states Trump won in 2016.
As we approach the second year of the first half of Donald Trump’s term, his destiny is at hand. The Donald stands at a fork in the road. Will he work with establishment Republicans to pass typical GOP legislation, thereby infuriating and alienating his base and damaging his already tenuous reelection chances? Or will he be a symbol of loudmouthed futility, ramming his head against a wall and getting nowhere with his radical populist agenda?
On some level, perhaps it doesn’t matter. Because either way, Donald Trump will be a loser.
This essay originally appeared at 3QuarksDaily.