Rick Wilson has written something that every member of the Trump White House, including Trump, needs to read. They need to read this if they want to salvage Trump’s presidency. Unlike Mr Wilson, I believe that the Trump presidency can be salvaged. Will it be salvaged is another question. Does Trump want to manage it is a question for another time. However, it cannot be salvaged unless they read Mr Wilson’s analysis. If they dismiss it as a partisan or a Never Trump attack, they will fail. Our enemies often tell us the deepest truths about ourselves.
Only your enemies will tell you the truth, but will you listen?
At the same time, our friends, our true friends tell us the same truths. It is rare to have a true friend like Mr Wilson. He does not want Trump to succeed so he is not friends with President Trump. Instead, he is friends with America, the American regime, and it is for their benefit that he tells the truth. If Mr Wilson did not care about America, he would not offer this advice. What he would be doing is telling President and his staff that everything was going well, it could not be better. He would encourage them on their self-destructive path. However, he has hit the root cause of Trump’s problem, he is not self-aware, he does not know what political success looks like or what it requires.
Trump’s character is his fate and now he has revealed it to the world.
Mr Wilson is correct to focus on Trump’s character. Trump cannot change his character. He can develop self-awareness and he can learn what political success is and what it requires. At the moment, Trump believes appearances matter more than substance. He has to rely on what other people tell him about political success and failure. During the campaign, what mattered was popularity, the attention, the buzz. Governing, as many have already noted, is different from campaigning. It is here that Trump’s weaknesses are revealed. A statesman, which is the standard against which we measure the presidency, is defined by their judgement and their ability to weave together the disparate political strands to create a shared political good. In this, though, any ruler has to adapt to the community they wish to shape. The statesman and the good ruler, the one who succeeds for he improves or helps his people, does this for all, not for his party, and not for himself. He and his party might benefit, but they can only benefit if they put the larger or greater shared good first.
A statesman must use judgement to link interdependent events
To achieve this success, a statesman must exercise their judgement. Unlike a politician, the statesman must act prudently to reconcile competing demands where the best choice is still a politically unsuccessful one. When the statesman does this, though, he understands the consequences within the decision and for his larger political project. Trump does not appear, yet, to be aware of how his various choices are influencing his larger political project. He does recognize this weakness for he has brought in Ivanka and Jared to tell him the “truth” that he needs to hear. However, this solution can only be temporary since it does not avoid his responsibility it only displaces onto their judgement. If he uses them as a “sense check” for the advice and information that he receives, that will help him. In this approach, we might see his attempt to learn in the job. However, they are only helpful to the extent that they help him move beyond political appearances to political reality.
Can Trump stop watching TV? Even to save his Presidency?
What Trump has to do, which is perhaps the supreme test, is to stop watching TV for his political intelligence or his political understanding. The television is a mediated experience, it acts as a mirror instead of a window to the political reality. To the extent that Trump accepts their appearances as a political reality, he has not escape the wilderness of mirrors. As a mirror, it is already digested and packaged to be consumed by him and others so their views can be confirmed or affirmed. He is not simply second-hand from the political thing, he is third hand. Moreover, as the television network he appears to watch most is Fox News, he must be aware it exists to confirm his views, or at least affirm them. In that regard, it presents an inbuilt bias that distorts his political intelligence. If he accepts their views he is captured by appearances, and the statesman above all else has to work with political reality so that he can manage political appearances. Trump appears to be working backwards from appearances to reality since he has mastered one form of appearances, the Hollywood variety. What he is unaware of how to manage is Washington’s appearances.
In the wilderness of appearances can Trump find political reality?
Only one city can rival Washington for the way that appearances determine success—Hollywood. In Hollywood, like Washington, you can succeed if you appear successful. You can even succeed if you are incompetent. What you cannot do, though, what both cities punish with a maniacal ruthless, is to lacks self-awareness. The appearance of success or incompetence can be overcome. If the person is aware of these, then they can take steps to shore up the weakness. One only need look at how Bush handled Katrina. The initial response showed that “Brownie” was doing “ok”, as soon as the White House became aware that he was not they started to take steps to replace him and fix the issue. The fix might not have been ideal or as successful as critics charged, but what is clear is that Bush was self-aware enough to act when something was not working. He was able to adapt to the changed situation.
Foreign policy deals with a political reality that cannot be escaped.
Where Trump appears to be learning most quickly is in foreign policy since it provides a clear political reality. The challenge, though, is he learning the wrong lessons or rather lessons that distort his understanding if he equates military acts with approval or behaviour that will define political success. In the missile strike decision meeting, we saw a man desperately trying to figure out what was happening and what it would mean since he had never experienced it or thought about it before he became president. All presidents start with domestic policy and become consumed by their foreign policy because that is their sole responsibility. They cannot delegate it nor can they rely on institutional responses to cover their inactivity. Trump has confronted this moment and the effects are yet to be felt, but they provide the moment of self-awareness needed to adapt.
To escape appearances Trump must accept a reality that he doesn’t understand
For someone like Trump, he is at a double disadvantage. He appears to lack self-awareness because he has not filled key institutions. In turn, those institutions are unable to provide the political intelligence about the political reality. He may believe that he is saving money or sending a signal that the White House runs foreign policy, but these beliefs misunderstand the political reality. He has accepted the appearances he has been provided about the political thing that is the State Department. Like any institution, it exists to survive. Like all human beings, an organisation is driven by self-preservation. As part of that survival mechanism, it possesses an inbuilt self-awareness, a bureaucratic system to provide institutional truths that will protect an organisation from its leader and from itself if necessary. Trump has taken away that institutional response and until he restores it he will lack the institutional support that provide the political intelligence he needs to understand the political reality not political appearances.
Without a plan Trump cannot innovate or take advantage of opportunities.
Trump will not be able to salvage his attempt to repeal Obamacare. To the extent that his other legislative projects were based on the success of that bill, Trump has placed himself in a double bind. If he continues his attempt to repeal it, he delays other legislation. If he does not repeal it, he cannot finance his other projects and he will have failed on a major campaign promise. He seems to lack the interest or capacity to reconfigure his legislative package to work without having repealed Obamacare. His claim that he continues to negotiate a bill to repeal Obamacare shows how far he has to go to develop self-awareness. He seems unaware of what political success requires and the way the 2018 mid-term elections will affect his ability to pass legislation. All of this is already known within the White House. Moreover, everything that Mr Wilson has written is known within the White House. What remains to be seen is whether they and Trump have the self-awareness to adapt. If they can adapt, they can salvage Trump’s president from a disaster to mediocre. If they are very lucky, they just might win a second term. The problem, though, is that to exploit any luck, they have to be self-aware and adapt. What is clear, though, is political reality is unforgiving. The 2018 mid-term election results provide a political realty that cannot be spun or hidden by political appearances no matter how powerful or desired.
Trump must defeat Trump to save himself, can he?
Trump cannot change his character. He can develop self-awareness. If he does the latter, he can mitigate the former and potentially salvage his presidency. However, as Mr Wilson noted, it all depends on Trump and if he fails, he has no one to blame but himself. It is this fate that his family want to avoid because they recognize the catastrophic effect such failure will have on his brand and their future fortunes. They are now in a race to save Trump from himself.
Afterword: On could see a scenario where Trump does not want a second term. He may simply engage in a democratic Gotterdammerung where he welcomes a victory by the Democrats in the mid-term election so that he can blame them for his failure. When he leaves office in 2020 he can claim that no one expected him to win and he proved them wrong so anything else was a bonus. He will insist that he could have done more but for the Democrats and the Media which conspired against him. He will claim he left on his own terms as he achieved what he set out to do. What he did not achieve is because Republicans betrayed him and Democrats blocked him. If anything goes wrong it is his successor’s incompetence to blame. In this scenario, Trump simply loses interest in being President as a politician. He only holds office to enjoy the perks, privileges, and publicity. He continues to visit Mar-a-Lago every week-end, he set up deals for his corporations, and he enhance his brand to reap post-presidency riches. For Trump, what is most important is Trump and leaving in 2020 could be a way to save his brand. In this scenario, we would see that America and the American people only ever existed to serve his ends. He was never there to serve them. To the extent that he was there to serve them, it was to allow him greater freedom to enrich himself and his family. If Trump cannot leave on his own terms, he loses the 2020 election, his brand will suffer catastrophic damage. Who wants to work with a failed president who promised so much and delivered so little?