Tag Archives: Donald Trump

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.

Rhetorical Exigencies

Listening to the President issue his bellicose threat against North Korea made people around the world wonder: why now?

Early in their college careers students of rhetoric are introduced to the enduring idea that a leader’s public remarks are shaped by some kind of precipitating event.  As the University of Wisconsin’s Lloyd Bitzer noted decades ago, public figures respond when they believe their words will answer a problem, bending it’s trajectory in ways the speaker imagines will be positive. In the short version of the idea, rhetoric is a response to an “exigency.” It doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it’s almost always a piece of a larger conversation provoked by a significant event. George W. Bush was slow to react to Hurricane Katrina, taking a lot of heat for the delay. He was better in assuring Americans after 9/11.

This simple notion that has not gone unchallenged, but it is also more than an empty academic term.  It rewards us by asking that any comment be set in the context of immediate past events, not just as an isolated island of thought.  When a president or public official speaks, we expect that there are clear reasons–significant antecedents–for steering our attention toward certain issues. The theory goes on to note that in significant ways the antecedents will govern the response.  The glaring lateness of Donald Trump’s denunciation of white hate groups last Sunday is a violation of the principle. But his tone deafness on key events always been one of his problems.  His comments are too little too late or too much too soon.

Of course  Pyongyang is always making threats, but nothing coming from them seemed to warrant an out-of-the-blue threat to engage them and the world in a potentially catastrophic nuclear exchange.

Listening to the President issue his bellicose threat against North Korea on August 7 made people around the world wonder: why now?  At the time he was in the midst of a meeting on the nation’s opioid crisis, and yet the warlike language on North Korea is how he unburdened himself when reporters were ushered into the room:

North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen. [Kim Jong-un] has been very threatening beyond a normal state and as I said they will be met with fire and fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.

Apparently only after his comments did we learn that the North Koreans blustered that they were looking at options for attacking Guam, some 1800 miles away. Of course Pyongyang is always making threats, but nothing coming from them seemed to warrant the President’s out-of-the-blue challenge to engage them and the world in a potentially catastrophic nuclear exchange.

This was troubling because the sabre-rattling affair would make more sense if the exigency for his words was after North Korea’s threat. But no. Trump commented first on a Tuesday of last week. The North Korean’s comment came on Wednesday. In the short term, the larger exigency resided with the Koreans.

It is so like Donald Trump to make inaccurate and combative comments for reasons that only he understands. Too often his reference points are still the former president and Ms. Clinton. In his rhetorical wanderings he often seems like a befuddled fisherman casting a line miles from the closest stream. In this case he did have legitimate bragging rights after the unanimous United Nation’s vote to increase sanctions against the North. Any other President would have used the occasion to build off this diplomatic success. But on the sanctions he was mostly silent.

In this strange pattern there is a lesson in how much we are hardwired to place the flow of a person’s ideas in a larger frame of reference.  Meaningful rhetoric is almost always a moment in a river of known events.

Exigency theory explains how we arrive at attributions of other people’s motives. We naturally search for the antecedents that seem to trigger strong reactions in individuals. There is a form to these things. We expect to be able to identify contributing factors for a significant presidential statement. This feeds into the dialogical form that is second nature to us. We mentally ‘build out’ from a person’s words to make conclusions about what likely gave rise to them. When we ask questions like “why did Mary say that?” we are looking for the triggering exigency. When we can’t find one, we worry that we are missing something important, or that the speaker has a chaotic mind that has drifted into magical thinking.