Dealing in Pain

The discussions in the faculty room back in the late seventies were depressing, and entirely predictable. The head of the English department would upbraid this young teacher or that. We weren’t really in the business of teaching these kids how to write well, and think well so they could write well. We were here to teach these kids about consequences – so there’d be no second chances – none of these kids would be given the chance to rewrite a paper to get it right – they’d have to live with the consequences of screwing up. There are no second chances in real life. That was a valuable life-lesson so never offer encouragement. Threaten pain, and deliver it. That’ll grab their attention. That’ll make them grow up. And if they have questions, as kids do, tell them to figure out whatever that was on their own. Just walk away. Years later that would be called “tough love” – but back then this was simply preparation for the real world – where no one is going to do a damned thing for you, ever. That’s what we had to teach, and of course this young teacher or that would fire back – teaching these kids how to write well, and think well so they could write well, was the job. That other stuff is beside the point, and it was no more than gleeful and rather sadistic bullying. Then the rest of the faculty would take sides. And it really didn’t matter much. Each teacher did the job that he or she thought that he or she was supposed to do and the kids did what kids do – they went through adolescence and did what was necessary to eventually graduate and get the hell out of there. This teacher is big on pain. That teacher is big on encouragement. They adapted and shrugged. That’s what they learned.

That’s what everyone has to learn. That plays out all the time. Obama was big on encouragement. Trump is big on pain. That’s what the Washington Post’s Damian Paletta and Josh Dawsey explain here:

The 800,000 federal workers who are expected to miss their second paycheck in the coming days are the most extreme example yet of a negotiating tactic President Trump has used repeatedly since taking office.

He creates – or threatens to create – a calamity, and then insists he will address the problem only if his adversary capitulates to a separate demand.

Trump has described this approach as creating leverage and negotiating, but Democrats and other opponents have said it amounts to “hostage taking.”

“It’s sort of like bartering with stolen goods,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday.

And it’s that faculty room argument all over again. This is about teaching consequences:

Trump has used the same playbook during confrontations with Canada, Mexico, Japan, China, South Korea, North Korea and the European Union in the past two years with mixed success.

He imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from a host of nations, saying it was necessary to force changes in other countries’ trade practices. He threatened to rip up the North American Free Trade Agreement if Canada and Mexico didn’t agree to a new trade deal, a move that potentially could have crippled both of their economies.

He said he would withdraw the United States from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization if other countries didn’t spend more money on their militaries, a move that eventually helped pave the way for the departure of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

It is a well-worn tactic from Trump’s business career…

That is, Trump will sue. Trump will ruin you. Give in or face legal costs that will exceed the net worth of Switzerland. Even if you win, you lose, so give up now. Just think of it this way:

“It’s a Trumpian way of negotiating,” longtime friend Larry Kudlow told a radio interviewer last year before joining the White House. “You knock them in the teeth and get their attention. And then you kind of work out a deal.”

Cool, or not:

There is mounting evidence that the firm resistance from Democrats is forcing Trump to take his threats much further than he thought necessary. There are signs the lengthy shutdown is starting to damage the U.S. economy, as consumer confidence has fallen to its lowest level of Trump’s presidency, and a growing number of federal workers are expressing exasperation at being required to continue working without pay.

Many have visited food banks and are accepting free meals, while others have begun selling possessions online and are bracing for mortgage payments due next week.

It seems this is a bit different than screaming sessions about air rights for a new skyscraper in Manhattan or refusing to pay the contractor who installed the plumbing:

Trump’s strategy of using such a large segment of the U.S. workforce as leverage has never before been used on such a scale. Presidents typically rely on the federal workforce to keep the government open, seeking to protect them from partisan fights. But Trump has told advisers he thinks the shutdown gives him the leverage he needs to force the appropriation of money to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. He thinks Democrats will back down before he is forced to.

There will be pain. He can make that pain unbearable. They will cave and he’ll get everything he wants, all of it. That is universally applicable and quite harmless:

In the early months of his administration, Trump repeatedly told top aides, including then-National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, that imposing tariffs on imports was a way to create leverage and force other leaders to make concessions.

Cohn would argue that tariffs imposed on U.S. allies actually made it harder for the White House to build an alliance to counter China, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal internal White House deliberations.

Trump also insisted that he would pull U.S. troops off the Korean Peninsula if South Korea didn’t agree to modify a trade deal to make it better for the United States.

Trump often talks about leverage and power in private meetings with aides. He has said he uses these tactics to make sure “everyone else has to come to the table,” according to a person who has heard his comments and spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the president’s strategy.

“He’s not afraid to make any threat,” this person said. “He assumes everyone else is thinking like he is.”

That may not be the case:

One foreign diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal how some foreign leaders perceive Trump, said the U.S. president at first unnerved European leaders and scared them with his rhetoric. “Now you just know what he’s going to do and you kind of shrug it off. You can’t totally ignore him because he’s the president of the United States. But he doesn’t scare people like he used to.”

It’s easy enough to imagine the scene. “Give me what I want or I’ll ruin you all, forever!” One or two at the table shrug and another one yawns. Nancy Pelosi shakes her head. And now America is stuck with this shutdown:

“This guy is not really good at thinking his way out of the problem,” said Timothy Naftali, a clinical associate professor of public service at New York University. “He just ups the ante and hopes the pain he causes others pushes them beyond their pain threshold.”

But that’s not happening:

Trump has followed the same script at least eight times before. He threatened to withdraw from NAFTA if Canada and Mexico did not agree to major changes. This prompted a forceful retort from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“We’re polite, we’re reasonable, but we also will not be pushed around,” Trudeau said in June.

Trump threatened to impose tariffs on all automotive imports from Europe unless European leaders dropped tariffs on U.S.-produced cars.

“We won’t talk at all with a country if it is with a gun to our heads,” French President Emmanuel Macron said in March.

Trump has used the tactic most often with China, slapping duties on $250 billion of goods imported from China and threatening to go even further if China does not agree to major changes in the way it trades with the United States.

“How could you negotiate with someone when he puts a knife on your neck?” China’s deputy trade negotiator, Wang Shouwen, said at a news conference in September.

They’re not impressed, and sometimes it’s just a bluff, or a joke:

Trump has embraced this tough-guy persona. During a news conference last year, he told a Japanese reporter, “Say hello to Shinzo,” referring to Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe. “I’m sure he’s happy about tariffs on his cars.”

Trump has not moved to impose tariffs on Japanese cars, but he has continued threatening to do it unless Japan makes it easier for U.S.-made cars to be sold in Japan.

Was he just kidding? Who knows? But there is history. The art of the deal in foreign policy has had nothing to do with humiliation. Get what you can and give up what you must – and never humiliate the other party. Deep resentment ends in war. Think of the Treaty of Versailles that humiliated Germany. Hitler kept pointing to that treaty. That didn’t end well.

Don’t deal in pain:

Neither Democrats nor Republicans said they felt certain how the shutdown would end and whether Trump would eventually back down. White House officials are also looking for clues, but no resolution appears to be within reach.

“Trump is trying to harness the drama of political theater to get what he wants,” Paul Winfree said. “The problem is that once you shake things up, it’s difficult to control the outcome.”

Winfree was deputy domestic policy adviser at the White House until leaving last year. He saw the writing on the wall.

Frame all strategy in terms of pain and odd things happen:

White House press briefings, in steady decline even before the partial government shutdown, have now ground to a halt as a prolonged power struggle among President Donald Trump’s aides leads to a muddled messaging strategy, people familiar with the matter say…

In the 32 days since the government partially shut down, the lack of a cohesive strategy emanating from the White House communications team has frustrated people throughout the West Wing who have deemed the press shop “irrelevant.”

Two years into his presidency, Trump remains his own communications director, eight current and former officials noted. Asked who’s in charge of messaging at the White House, press secretary Sarah Sanders told CNN in a statement: “It’s the President’s message.”

But there’s more to this:

Trump himself declared the concept of a daily press briefing all but dead Tuesday.

“The reason Sarah Sanders does not go to the ‘podium’ much anymore is that the press covers her so rudely & inaccurately, in particular certain members of the press,” he tweeted. “I told her not to bother, the word gets out anyway! Most will never cover us fairly & hence, the term, Fake News!”

Trump has framed this as punishment. The press corps was mean to Sarah? No more press briefings for you! You people get no information at all! There ARE consequences!

But this was a long time coming:

Though press briefings in the Trump administration were once must-see television that garnered high ratings, the press secretary has not taken questions from reporters in the briefing room since mid-December. It is the longest an administration has gone without an on-camera briefing since they were first aired during Bill Clinton’s administration.

The previously daily briefings got shorter and less frequent during Sean Spicer’s rocky tenure after Trump told him to stop conducting them, privately lamenting that every time he briefed reporters the coverage only got worse.

By contrast, the President has built a warm relationship with Sanders and praises her regularly in private. Her colleagues often compare her relationship with the mercurial boss to the one he had with Hope Hicks, his onetime communications director who during her tenure acted as Trump’s closest White House confidante.

This has befuddled multiple senior White House officials who told CNN they don’t understand why Sanders no longer holds formal briefings, which could help drive the White House’s message, if the President has no problem with her defending him on camera.

Who cares about driving the White House’s message? This is about consequences. The media has to learn its lesson. So there will be no more briefings. Take THAT!

No, no, that’s beside the point:

And on Tuesday this drew the ire of the White House Correspondents’ Association, whose president said in a statement the decline in briefings amounted to a “retreat from transparency and accountability” that “sets a terrible precedent.”

“Being able to question the press secretary or other senior government officials publicly helps the news media tell Americans what their most powerful representatives are doing in their name,” said Olivier Knox, the group’s president.

No, these people have to learn about consequences. They insulted Sarah. Pain follows. No one gets a second chance here. It’s over.

That does sound familiar, but now there’s a book about this particular instance of the familiar. Philip Rucker previews the book:

President Trump watched on television, increasingly angry as House Speaker Paul D. Ryan criticized his handling of the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. He held the remote control “like a pistol” and yelled for an assistant to get the Republican leader on the phone.

“Paul, do you know why Democrats have been kicking your ass for decades? Because they know a little word called ‘loyalty,'” Trump told Ryan, then a Wisconsin congressman. “Why do you think Nancy [Pelosi] has held on this long? Have you seen her? She’s a disaster. Every time she opens her mouth another Republican gets elected. But they stick with her… Why can’t you be loyal to your president, Paul?”

The tormenting continued. Trump recalled Ryan distancing himself from Trump in October 2016, in the days after the “Access Hollywood” video in which he bragged of fondling women first surfaced in The Washington Post.

“I remember being in Wisconsin and your own people were booing you,” Trump told him, according to former West Wing communications aide Cliff Sims. “You were out there dying like a dog, Paul. Like a dog! And what’d I do? I saved your ass.”

The man does like inflicting pain:

The browbeating of the top Republican on Capitol Hill was one of the vivid snapshots of life inside the Trump White House told by one of its original inhabitants, Cliff Sims, in his 384-page tell-all, Team of Vipers, which goes on sale next week… Sims, who enjoyed uncommon personal access to Trump, recounts expletive-filled scenes of chaos, dysfunction and duplicity among the president, his family members and administration officials.

And it’s all good stuff:

The author reconstructs in comic detail the Trump team’s first day at work, when the president sat in the residence raging about news coverage of the relatively small size of his inauguration crowds, and White House press secretary Sean Spicer scrambled to address it.

Spicer had worked the team “into a frenzy” and it fell to Sims to write the script for his first statement to the media. Nervously chewing gum, Spicer dictated “a torrent of expletives with a few salient points scattered in between.” At one point, Sims’s computer crashed and he lost the draft, so it had to be rewritten. And in their rush to satisfy the impatient president, nobody checked the facts. Spicer, he writes, was “walking into his own execution.”

Everyone was running scared, for good reason:

Sims depicts Trump as deeply suspicious of his own staff. He recalls a private huddle in which he and Keith Schiller, the president’s longtime bodyguard and confidant, helped Trump draw up an enemies list with a Sharpie on White House stationery. “We’re going to get rid of all the snakes, even the bottom-feeders,” Trump told them.

There will be consequences! Or maybe not:

At times, Trump evinced less rage than a lack of interest. Sims recounts one time when Ryan was in the Oval Office explaining the ins and outs of the Republican health-care bill to the president. As Ryan droned on for 15 minutes, Trump sipped on a glass of Diet Coke, peered out at the Rose Garden, stared aimlessly at the walls and, finally, walked out.

Ryan kept talking as the president wandered down the hall to his private dining room, where he flicked on his giant flat-screen TV. Apparently, he had had enough of Ryan’s talk. It fell to Vice President Pence to retrieve Trump and convince him to return to the Oval Office so they could continue their strategy session.

That’s a bit unsettling, but this is worse:

Perhaps the book’s most cinematic chapter of chaos is “The Mooch Is Loose,” a reconstruction of Anthony Scaramucci’s 11 days as White House communications director.

Sims was Scaramucci’s right-hand man and describes the flamboyant aide’s hunt for “leakers,” which began with his own staff. Scaramucci assembled the 40-odd media aides and threatened to fire them all, Sims writes, as if he were a “fire-breathing dragon that had just returned from laying waste to the unsuspecting peasants in the village.”

Sims writes that Scaramucci ordered them to reply to anyone in the White House instructing them to leak information to a reporter, including then-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, by saying: “I cannot do that. I only report to Anthony Scaramucci and he reports directly to the president of the United States.”

Even Trump was amused.

“Can you believe this guy?” the president told Sims. “He’s completely out of his mind – like, on drugs or something – totally out of his mind. We’ll figure it out, but the guy is crazy.”

Trump saw someone ever more into gleeful and rather sadistic bullying than he was, a man even more willing to deal out pain to get exactly what he wanted, and Trump thought the guy was nuts, but he didn’t see himself.

Scaramucci is gone of course, but Trump is still here. It may not matter. Think of those kids long ago. This teacher is big on pain. That teacher is big on encouragement. They adapted and shrugged. America will do the same. There’s no other choice now.


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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