Finally making sense of Donald Trump
Analysts have been struggling to make sense of Trump’s erratic presidency. Is he a complete incompetent, or a brilliant strategist? The evidence for both cases is compelling.
Before Trump won the presidency, there was wide agreement that he is a clown. He knows nothing about politics, has no interest in learning, does not even care to read anything beyond tweets. It has long been an open secret in New York that Trump is not the brilliant businessman he played on TV.
But he has been able to live a life of luxury, fame, power and fortune. Even for someone born ultra-rich, that is not compatible with his breathtakingly obvious lack of any sort of normal skill set. And after he won the presidency, many commentators started to speculate that Trump’s erratic moves are part of some mysterious but ultimately brilliant strategy.
So which is it? I think both sides are right. It seems inconceivable that Trump would be doing anything brilliant by constantly shooting himself in the foot and having no idea how to do politics either nationally or internationally. By constantly turning his own closest allies into enemies, constantly burning bridges. And it seems impossible that someone with no interest in learning might be able to device a strategy that the top analysts cannot figure out, even in retrospect.
I believe that is because analysts do not understand what kind of game Trump is playing. There is, however, a well known game played by typically uneducated, conventionally unsophisticated players. A game of power and politics, a game where the closest alliance can at any time instantly be turned to mortal animosity. This is the game of the mobster. And that is, I believe, the game Trump is playing. That is, I believe, what Trump is, and has been for most of his life.
Trump’s consistently loss-making ventures in gambling, real estate, golf courses and a myriad of absurd and sometimes outright fraudulent schemes make him an unlikely businessman. How is it possible for someone with such a track record to find new investors? It almost seems as if these investors are willing to lose money. Surely, such investors do not exist. But they do, they do. These are the investors who have illegally acquired riches, and who are willing to pay a fee to transfer them into seemingly legitimate wealth. And that is, I believe, the type of mobster Trump has primarily been: an international money launderer, predominantly for Russian oligarchs.
The game played by the mobster is a game of no rules. Of naked power. The only thing that counts is what he can get away with. It is a game of constant chaos, of fighting fire with fire, of ever failing forward and onward. The mobster requires absolute loyalty from his underlings. He acquires this through fear alone, because everyone close to him knows fully well that he will do nothing for them unless it is in his benefit. The mobster does not plan much for the future, but grabs what he can for today and trusts that he will solve tomorrow’s problems.. tomorrow.
Trump is starting a trade war with most of the US top allies. He is picking fights with democratic leaders around the world, while making friends with unsavory figures like Russia’s Putin, North Korea’s Kim and Saudi bin Salman. It seems inexplicable by any normal political analysis. But it serves a dual purpose for Trump: firstly, to distract from his troubles, winning himself some room for maneuver for a day or a week at a time. Second, because Trump the mobster naturally seeks to be Trump the despot. And despots around the world, from Ahmadinejad to Castro to Duterte know one thing: it is good to have world opinion against you. Nothing else so effectively triggers the human instinct to rally around a leader, even if a brutish one – in fact, preferably a brutish one.
Recently, Trump lawyer and spokesperson Rudy Giuliani claimed that Trump has the legal power to shoot the head of the FBI. It caused some headlines, but went largely unnoticed. Analysts dismissed it as a confused and insignificant statement.
It was not. Wake up, it was not! While Trump and Giuliani are likely aware that Trump could not, for the moment, get away with murdering someone – he would likely be arrested on the spot – Giuliani is engaging in a negotiation of Trump’s power. Claiming that it is without any legal limit at all, he might just get half of that. Hoping to win enough power to survive another day.
Trump is still not despot, and to become one, he still has formidable obstacles to surpass. To be despot of a modern country one needs to subvert the judiciary, and so far Trump does not seem to have figured out a method to achieve that.
But what plays in his favor is that, so far, most of his opposition appears not to have figured out what kind of game they are playing. They still believe that it is an abnormal game of politics, a game with rules. And they do not know how to play the game of the mobster, because they are not mobsters.