Category Archives: Politics

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Trump’s Strategy Mindset


It can be no surprise that a businessman known for turning his name into a brand would also see himself as a master dealmaker. There is perceived power in the flattering perception of being several steps ahead of competitors.  

Anyone struggling to parse the President’s behavior confronts a virtual festival of personality tics. There are the graceless declarations of his “high” intelligence, the pretension of being a master strategist, and the unearned certainty that accompanies the declaration of bogus truths. The endless issuing of false claims is especially stunning (i.e., The U.S. has the highest taxes of any nation; Fredrick Douglas is doing an “amazing job,” etc).  And then there are all of the threatening tweets and serial name-calling.  Vituperation used to be a White House rarity; it was never a presidential form. Presidents  have customarily vented in private and praised in public. Trump’s manufactured feuds not only mark him as an indifferent caretaker of important traditions, but a figure who sees an advantage in the constant name-calling. Its management by division, using presidential rebukes as forms of intimidation.

What is going on with this needy and self-dealing figure?  Why the manufactured hostility?  Have we ever had a leader who was so imprisoned by limited rhetorical skills?

Trump’s kind of bluster seems to be a consequence of both his social awkwardness, and a New York aggressiveness expressed in the language of marketing. Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm described a “marketing personality” as a character type common in individuals captured by a compulsion to sell themselves as a commodity. It follows that they find personal legitimacy in self-referential comments affirming their acceptance and enviable success.

Normally a marketing mentality comes with a degree of affability.  A communication form such as selling is intrinsically “other-directed.” But if a person is not capable of other-direction, and if the “brand” to be preserved is one’s own name, there seems to be a clear motivation to engage in aggressive self-protection. This can take the form of the preemptive bluster that defines Donald Trump.  But it also includes immodest assertions of power, such as using 20-foot letters of his name on the outside of  his buildings. Both the aggression and self-promotion function to assure the doubting that he’s a “player,” and “deal-maker:” the smartest man in the room who can bend anyone to his personal goals.

There is perceived power in the flattering perception of oneself as several steps ahead of competitors. Mastering markets results in a lot of talk about “tactics” and “targets,” “ratings” and “winning.” It persists even if true success alludes him. Indeed, ambiguity over genuine markers of achievement actually helps, since it allows individuals to declare their own “winning” moments.  Investment analysts, traders and marketing “creatives” are often deep into this game, and often able to profit from the mystifications that come with vaguely understood “deals,” “yields,” “growth projections,” and “branding.”

All of this seems to be a particularly masculine need. No set of thought-patterns are fully gender-specific. But it seems clear that there are psychic rewards for performing what seems like the uniquely masculine stance of the consummate strategist. In fact, this male can find it downright fun to watch a set of strategic masterstrokes play out.  We usually need a film like George Roy Hill’s classic The Sting (1973) to pull it off. The story of a “con” played against a ruthless New York mob leader remains a thing of beauty, helped by the fact that male icons Paul Newman and Robert Redford seemed to relish their characters’ guile. In a different way the same anticipation of secret moves sprung the unsuspecting is obvious when listening to a ‘color commentator” rhapsodize about the ideas of an NFL coach.  And while women play poker and frequently win, it’s mostly the men around the table who love to talk about strategy.

Our point is that it’s frequently enough to perform the attitude of a consummate strategist.  And so in Trump we find that specific questions about future presidential actions—a few as consequential as whether the nation will wage nuclear war with North Korea–end up being answered with no more than a half smile and a “we’ll see.” The real estate tycoon relishes these teases. They are meant to remind us that he already has some winning plan. It’s a developer’s prerogative to bet on on implausible promise. Never mind that the building  planned for an empty field will never be built.  An illustrator’s evocative image on nearby sign is reason enough to celebrate. In the same way all the talk of “action” coming from this White House  functionally diverts attention from an administration foundering amidst legislative and diplomatic failures.

The rhetoric of strategy is inherently inflated with bluffs.  But that feature destabilizes when used by a head of government. Governments need transparency and predictability, neither of which are possible if a leader imagines that leadership is a game of moves and countermoves.

Hopeful Signs in Pessimistic Times

 flickr                                                                        United Way

Right now it cuts against the grain to suggest that developments in American life offer reasons for hope.  But positive signs are around us. We just need to notice. 

Virtually every opinion poll suggests that Americans are in a funk. And most have good reasons.  Natural disasters have wreaked havoc in the southeast.  Young “Dreamers” may be forced to leave the only country most have known.  And the President is still in the thrall of a segment of voters motivated by the seemingly permanent  stains of dreary nativism and victimhood. Even so, here is a short list of thriving features of American life we can still celebrate.

The rot in the high canopy of national politics conceals an understorey of vibrant American mayors.

Politico has identified a large crop of effective city leaders good at finding the kinds of workarounds that a hapless member of the U.S. House might never grasp. They include  big city mayors like Eric Garcetti in Los Angeles, Marty Walsh in Boston, and Jackie Biskupski in Salt Lake City.  “Blue city” majors are good at looking for progressive solutions for urban challenges. But even in “red”Utah a moderate Republican who happens to be a lesbian can win office and tackle difficult issues like homelessness. More journalists should follow Politico’s lead in identifying the posible sources of our salvation in municipal leaders.  If we are smart we will make use of their talents for a future and essential nation-rebuilding.

Our music is better than our politics.

The beacon of American democracy has surely been dimmed by it’s inward turn. There can be no surprise that international polls suggest that far fewer members of other societies want to emulate our politics. Not so our music, which remains as popular as ever in many corners of the globe. It’s wonderfully routine to hear jazz in Paris, big bands in Copenhagen, or country music in Spain; the singers and songs as are as safely as suggestive and universal as ever. American Ariana Grande was performing to thousands of fans in the English Midlands when a suicide bomber attacked the young crowd. Her international tour was following a well worn trail of transformative performers who have been accessible bridges to others. On recordings performers like Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan, Whitney Houston, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry and Paul Simon retain devotees everywhere.  American pop, jazz, R and B, and rap continue as models to young performers everywhere. Though it strikes me that we underestimate Latin American influences in American music, the powerhouse industry centered in Los Angeles, Nashville and New York remains an ambassador to other cultures in ways our politics cannot match.

The ideal of cultural inclusion that was envisioned but never seen by thought-leaders like Dr. King or Harvey Milk is now the norm for most younger Americans.

One of the pleasures of working with younger Americans is to see their easy acceptance of peers with different histories and backgrounds.  It’s surely an indicator that the racial and other resentments being fed by this administration will eventially yield to their better instincts. Women will hold more political offices. The monoculture of wealthy white males who now dominate two of the three branches of the federal government is going  to change, eventually reflecting our shifting demographics and a youth culture giving us hints of a post-racial world.

We have seen a resurgence of national political journalism.

Whatever the fate of the Trump administration, its unpopularity with better educated voters has fed a vibrant revival of the American news business. Online subscriptions at The Washington Post and the New York Times have increased dramatically. Opinion journals that were withering away a few years ago have suddenly become go-to sites.  Politico, The Atlantic, Slate, Vox, The Guardian, ProPublica and even the Wall Street Journal have taken on investigative assignments that make up in clout what they may lack in more conventional measures of audience size. Even CNN seems to have finally found its footing after shameless over-coverage of Trump appearances in 2016. Except for a core captured by fantasies of fake news, American investigative journalism is cool again.

The military has again emerged as a leader in human rights.

The services were the first large segment of American society to fully integrate racially. That was in 1948, at least 15 years ahead of universities and other institutions.  More recently it has become clear that full acceptance of women as well as gay and trans members has evolved into full tolerance and acceptance of all in uniform. It has been heartening to hear military leaders at the very top push back against Presidential statements that cast suspicion on individuals who may be Muslim or gay. For example, last month 56 retired generals and admirals signed a letter noting that a proposed ban by the Trump administration on transgender members of the services would “be disruptive and degrade military readiness.”  The current defense Secretary seems to agree, putting the question under review rather than simply implementing it.

These are all hopeful signs. It cuts against the grain right now to believe that developments in American life offer reasons for optimism. But the reasons are there.  We just need to look.