The Trump Puzzlement

Aging baby boomers remember a far more innocent time. In 1956 it was The King and I – the film adaptation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, with Deborah Kerr as the English governess and tutor to the many children of the stern but befuddled King of Siam, played by Yul Brynner. This was when that part of the world was France’s problem, not ours, and Deborah Kerr was charming. She sang Getting to Know You – sort of. That was dubbed by Marni Nixon, who did the same thing for Audrey Hepburn in the film adaption of My Fair Lady – but no matter. All cultural and political problems could be solved if people just got to know each other. It was quite simple. Yul Brynner, as the King of Siam, was skeptical. This and that would come up. He’d mutter the same thing over and over – “Is a puzzlement” – but he came around. He finally danced with her. It all worked out.

To a nine-year-old kid in Pittsburgh this made perfect sense – but Siam became Thailand and French Indochina became North and South Vietnam and ten years later America was at war there. People got to know each other. They didn’t like each other. It was just a movie.

The problem remains the same. Or maybe it’s a challenge. If people REALLY got to know each other, maybe things would work out. Donald Trump’s average approval rating is now the lowest since Gallup began presidential approval surveys in 1953 – although ninety-six percent of the forty percent who voted for him think he’s doing just fine – but maybe if people really got to know him, those numbers would skyrocket. Deborah Kerr was suggesting something like that. It’s worth a shot. Perhaps that’s why Donald Trump agreed to an extended interview with the Associated Press, but that contained this:

“They had a quote from me that NATO’s ‘obsolete.’ But they didn’t say why it was obsolete. I was on Wolf Blitzer, very fair interview, the first time I was ever asked about NATO, because I wasn’t in government. People don’t go around asking about NATO if I’m building a building in Manhattan, right? So they asked me, Wolf asked me about NATO, and I said two things. NATO’s obsolete – not knowing much about NATO, now I know a lot about NATO – NATO is obsolete, and I said, ‘And the reason it’s obsolete is because of the fact they don’t focus on terrorism.'”

Like the King of Siam, Steve Benen is puzzled:

For now, let’s put aside NATO’s counter-terrorism work and instead focus on Trump’s welcome concession: when he first started publicly discussing his perspective on the alliance, he didn’t “know much” about NATO. After all, his focus was on New York real estate, not international affairs.

He did, however, pontificate anyway, criticizing NATO while seeking the nation’s highest office.

We could, of course, focus on why a presidential candidate didn’t “know much about NATO” in 2016 – it seems like the sort of thing a would-be national leader would have firm opinions on before launching a White House bid – but I’m just as intrigued by the idea that Trump was comfortable publicly criticizing one of the key pillars of global security in recent generations without actually knowing what he’s talking about.

It’s an epistemological mess: Trump is asked a question, then he answers it, then he learns something about the subject matter. At the risk of sounding picky, that’s not the order in which this is supposed to go.

That is a puzzlement, but that is only one example of this sort of thing:

He assumed he could simply tell China to curtail North Korea’s nuclear program, and he said as much many times, but then he had a 10-minute conversation with China’s Xi Jinping, at which point he, in his own words, “realized it’s not so easy.”

Trump repeatedly criticized the U.S. Export-Import Bank, before having a chat with the CEO of Boeing, at which point he said “it turns out” he likes the Bank after all. He talked about passing health care reform without knowing how “complicated” it was. He spoke about U.S. policy towards Syria without understanding Assad regime role in horrific atrocities.

So, America is getting to know him:

His acknowledgement about NATO is a distinct point: Trump is comfortable telling the public that when he gives an opinion about an important subject, it’s possible, if not likely, he has no idea what he’s talking about.

In the president’s mind, this doesn’t even make him appear foolish or irresponsible. On the contrary, Trump seems to believe he can just guess what the truth might be and it’ll all work out in the end.

So now we know the man:

This is more than an ignorance problem; it’s a learning problem. Trump doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, but he’s nevertheless prepared to tell you his thoughts on the subjects he doesn’t understand.

Josh Marshall put that this way:

Ignorance is just the first stage of Trump’s fairly advanced problem. He is not only ignorant but clearly unaware of his level of ignorance. This is compounded by a seeming inability to understand that everyone else isn’t equally ignorant to him.

Okay, now America knows that, and Slate’s Jamelle Bouie adds this:

Each president brings with him more than just his agenda to Washington. He also brings personal qualities, those traits of character that shape and define his time in office as much as any event or policy. For Barack Obama, that quality was a confidence – or, critics might say, aloofness – exemplified by the nickname “No Drama Obama.” For George W. Bush, it was a resolve that crossed into stubborn rigidity. For Bill Clinton, a malleability that sometimes – or even often – skirted principle.

Donald Trump has just three months in office, but even now, we can see what he brings to the White House. Not the strength or mastery he works to project with every public appearance, but its opposite: insecurity. As president, Trump is profoundly insecure: insecure about his electoral victory, insecure about his public standing, and insecure about his progress as chief executive.

That is what the interview showed:

Throughout the long and meandering exchange, Trump repeatedly turns from questions of policy and program to the obsessions and insecurities that seem to consume his attention. When asked, for example, if he’ll reject a bill to fund the government if it doesn’t include funding for a border wall, Trump pivots from the issue at hand to a discussion of the Electoral College. “You know, it’s funny. The Democrats, they have a big advantage in the Electoral College,” said Trump, later adding that “the Electoral College is very difficult for a Republican to win.”

This focus on the Electoral College – and how difficult it’s supposed to be for Republican presidential candidates – is a regular tic for Trump. “You know, look, the Democrats had a tremendous opportunity because the Electoral College, as I said, is so skewed to them,” said Trump in response to questions about his White House team. “The Electoral College is so skewed in favor of a Democrat that it’s very, very hard.”

This was a bit odd, or maybe not:

It’s difficult to discern the exact reason for these digressions. But the best explanation is that Trump remains self-conscious about his failure to win the national popular vote or is possibly already worried that he might lose re-election. Harping on difficulty of an Electoral College victory is a way of saying that he accomplished the hard part of an election and of creating an excuse for any potential future failure – which is tied to another aspect of Trump’s insecurity: his childlike need for constant affirmation.

“I have learned one thing, because I get treated very unfairly, that’s what I call it, the fake media,” said Trump, in a long non sequitur that came after the AP asked about his work building relationships with Democrats.

That’s telling:

With the 100-days marker, Trump dismisses it as an “artificial barrier” and says voters shouldn’t judge him on it, while simultaneously arguing that he has accomplished most of the items on his list for the period. It’s as if Trump knows he is far behind on his agenda – that, a Supreme Court justice aside, he has done relatively little as president – but that he also has to affirm his self-image as a historic, consequential leader. That’s why, when the topic turned to his February address to Congress, Trump turned immediately to extreme hyperbole. “Some people said it was the single best speech ever made in that chamber,” he said.

No one has yet found those people, but it’s easy enough to see this:

With any given issue and on any given concern, Trump turns immediately to how he’s perceived; whether the press is unfair, whether he is getting his due. And while he denounces outlets like MSNBC and CNN, he is clearly preoccupied with the cable news and hyper-attentive to what’s said about him. “By the way, I’m 10–0 for that. I’ve called every one of them,” said Trump about his early statement describing the recent attack in France as “terrorism” before all the details were known. Once again, here, he’s complaining about press criticism, eventually ending his digression by affirming his position as president. “Whatever. In the meantime, I’m here, and they’re not.”

He says that a lot, but perhaps he shouldn’t:

One imagines he sees it as a statement of confidence. In reality, it’s the boast of someone who protests a bit too much, who feels less secure in his station than he might project.

Bouie sees trouble ahead:

Presidential insecurity isn’t harmless, especially for a commander in chief who is obsessed with winning and who seems to see life as a dominance game, where someone or something has to be a loser. What happens when the insecure president can’t move his agenda through Congress? What happens when his plans fail? What does he do to ensure that, above all, he isn’t a loser? If our recent national adventures with Afghanistan, Syria, and North Korea are any indication, we have a good, and worrying, answer for that question.

There’s that song from the move – “Haven’t you noticed, suddenly I’m bright and breezy, because of all the beautiful and new things I’m learning about you, day by day?”

It’s not like that, and Chris Cillizza notes these two items:

The Washington Post’s Ashley Parker and Bob Costa reported Monday on a recent working lunch at the White House where the topic of press secretary Sean Spicer came up – specifically whether Trump was considering firing the sometimes-embattled mouthpiece. “I’m not firing Sean Spicer,” Trump said, according to an attendee who relayed the encounter. “That guy gets great ratings. Everyone tunes in.”

In an interview with The Associated Press, Trump was asked about why he hasn’t been more successful in changing minds of those who disagree with him. “I seem to get very high ratings,” Trump responded. “You know Chris Wallace had 9.2 million people, it’s the highest in the history of the show. I have all the ratings for all those morning shows. When I go, they go double, triple.” Trump then noted that his appearance on CBS’s Face the Nation got the program its highest ratings “since the World Trade Center – since the World Trade Center came down!”

Okay, that’s three thousand dead, followed by two major wars and the whole Middle East falling apart – but he’s bigger than that. Look at the ratings.

That makes him a bit of a moral monster, but Cillizza understands:

Success for Trump is people talking about you. People watching you. What they say about you is less important. It’s that they say anything at all. And if they do, you win.

But this had to happen:

For those (still) wondering what forces in our culture produced Trump, I would suggest that reality TV (and the mindset it has created) is the single most important factor to understanding not only where Trump came from but how he imagines the world to be.

In the world of self-conscious reality TV – so everything after the first year of MTV’s “Real World” – the key is to make a name for yourself. It’s not about proving yourself to be a “good” person or “staying true” to who you are. It’s about creating a personality that people are drawn to – either out of love or hate.

And, the way you gauge whether or not you have succeeded is simple: 1. Do people watch you, and the related corollary: 2. Are you famous?

It may be that simple:

Trump is, in many ways, the logical evolution of a society that prizes fame – as translated through Twitter followers, Facebook friends and TV ratings – over all else. The fame is the thing. Everything else is secondary – or not even thought about at all.

That’s exactly how Trump judges himself and those around him. Are people paying attention to me? Are people watching? If so, then all of this talk about how I am not succeeding is pointless and based on a misguided understanding of how people think.

And this:

He’s not totally wrong. In fact, Trump understood better than anyone else during the 2016 election that what people were looking for was a show, a spectacle that they could watch, laugh at or roll their eyes over. They didn’t care that Trump ran his rallies like a circus – in fact, it endeared him to them. How could a guy who says and does so much outlandish stuff possibly be a traditional politician? Plus, he makes me laugh – skewering “low energy” Jeb Bush or “Lyin'” Ted Cruz or “Crooked Hillary” Clinton!

And, for those who hated him – well they still watched, didn’t they?

QED – Quod Erat Demonstrandum – “that which was to be demonstrated” – those are the words you put at the end of a mathematical proof. Case closed – but Paul Waldman sees this:

One way or another, Donald Trump will end up being a transformative president. But Republicans who voted for him probably didn’t predict that he’d encourage a renewed desire for big government among Americans.

Waldman cites the latest NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll on this:

In November, voters gave control of the White House and Capitol Hill to the party traditionally associated with reducing the size of government. But now, a record number of Americans say that the government should do more – not less – in order to solve the nation’s problems.

A new NBC News/ Wall Street Journal poll finds 57 percent of the public saying that the government should do more to solve problems and meet the needs of Americans, versus 39 percent who said the government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals.

That’s the highest share yearning for a more active government since the poll began asking voters about the role of government in 1995. And it’s a significant shift even since 2015, when 50 percent said that the government should do more while 46 percent complained that it was too active.


Looked at in the right way, this makes perfect sense. To begin, we should understand that Americans have contradictory beliefs about the proper role of government. This is a finding in political science that goes back half a century; in their 1967 book “The Political Beliefs of Americans: A Study of Public Opinion,” Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril argued that the public is “ideologically conservative” but “operationally liberal.” They like the idea of small government in the abstract, but they also like almost all the particular things that government does. If you ask them whether they want to spend less or more on a list of programs, they’ll say we should spend more on just about everything (the exceptions are usually welfare and foreign aid, in part because people wildly overestimate how much we actually spend on them).

Both parties understand this, and it’s reflected in their rhetoric and the political challenges they face. Republicans tend to talk about broad principles, while Democrats tend to talk about specific programs. Republicans struggle to justify their actual plans (if they have them) for things such as Medicare or environmental protection, while Democrats struggle to craft appealing overarching messages.

If you’re a Republican president, the most advantageous place to be is one in which you preach the small-government gospel and praise Americans for their can-do spirit and rugged individualism, while not actually threatening the government programs they rely on.

And Trump is neither, so no one knew him:

During the 2016 campaign, he made a lot of conservatives uneasy by saying that he wasn’t going to touch the programs Americans love, such as Social Security and Medicare. But he also made far more ambitious promises about government – not just that he’d do specific things such as build up infrastructure, but that if we gave him the presidency he’d solve every problem anyone faces. Despite some occasional criticism of regulation, Trump didn’t use the traditional Republican rhetoric about “empowering” people by getting government out of their way. He didn’t characterize Americans as a force waiting to be unleashed; in his telling, the only active force was Trump himself, and once he had government power at his disposal he’d bring us so much winning we’d get tired of winning.

So what you had in 2016 was two candidates advocating for a strong government actively working to improve Americans’ lives. But now, Trump is in many ways governing like an ordinary Republican: gutting the EPA, hoping to remove regulations on Wall Street, and targeting the social safety net. The controversies around these moves have the effect of drawing public attention toward the popular things government does.

That is what the bald king would say is “a puzzlement” and so we get this sort of thing:

For years, “Obamacare” was unpopular in the abstract, despite the fact that almost all the law’s provisions garnered extraordinary support. Millions of people would say they opposed this thing called “Obamacare” that they only vaguely understood, yet also say that they loved the fact that you can’t be denied coverage because of a preexisting condition, Medicaid was expanded, young people can stay on their parents’ insurance plans, and so on. As long as Republicans were just criticizing the law in the abstract, they were fine. But once they tried to repeal it, news coverage focused on the particular things they were trying to take away, and the result was that the popularity of the law soared, and their replacement plan crashed.

And expect more of that from Trump:

He’ll be pursuing a typical Republican agenda, but he won’t have the ideological ballast to make the case for it – and he’ll have to be the primary salesman for every policy change Republicans attempt. We saw it in health care, where occasionally he’d blurt out things such as “We’re going to have insurance for everybody” when they most certainly wouldn’t, a mistake that an ideologue like Paul Ryan would never make. That only had the effect of establishing a promise he would quickly break, discrediting the whole effort. He can pretend that letting energy companies dump coal ash in streams will bring back all the mining jobs, but that’s a scam that can work for only so long before people realize that the jobs haven’t come back.

So Trump has encouraged voters to believe that government’s job is to solve their problems, but when it doesn’t, he won’t have arguments about liberty and the free market to fall back on. If you change people’s expectations, you’d better be able to deliver on them.

Don’t expect that. People are getting to know the man, and he doesn’t deliver. There won’t be a wall, as Josh Marshall notes here:

Late this afternoon Trump signaled that he is giving in and will either accept non-wall money and pretend it’s like a wall or just give the whole thing up entirely and try again in the fall, which likely means never.

That’s what the Washington Post was reporting:

With a Friday deadline looming to pass a new spending bill, the Trump administration projected confidence that a shutdown would be avoided. In the face of fierce Democratic opposition to funding the wall’s construction, White House officials signaled Monday that the president may be open to an agreement that includes money for border security if not specifically for a wall, with an emphasis on technology and border agents rather than a structure.

Trump showed even more flexibility Monday afternoon, telling conservative journalists in a private meeting that he was open to delaying funding for wall construction until September, a White House official confirmed.


As you can see, White House officials were telegraphing a less confrontational stance – metaphor wall money. But Trump himself couldn’t help caving even more aggressively, apparently openly discussing where the White House assumes it will end up, which is getting nothing at all. So White House officials pitch new bargaining position, and Trump, allowed to talk, says no, let’s just lose completely.

This does fit the pattern with the earlier Obamacare repeal debacle – aggressive stance, bluster, confidence followed by abject surrender.

That’s what this is:

When you surrender there’s pretty good reason to be confident there won’t be a fight. How can there be? That’s not how it works.

How does it work? Donald Trump agreed to an extended interview with the Associated Press. Maybe if people really got to know him, his record low approval numbers would jump up. It was worth a shot. All cultural and political problems could be solved if people just got to know each other – but only in Hollywood, in the fifties. People did get to know him even better. He’s still a puzzlement.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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