“Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.” So said Polonius, one of the most famous political advisors in the Shakespearean canon. If Polonius, who was rather silly, could see this about Prince Hamlet, why can’t our most seasoned political commentators and practitioners see that the same thing could be said about Donald J. Trump?
The conventional critics of the president—and even some of his conventionally-minded friends—accuse him of conducting his political career haphazardly, like the proverbial bull in a china shop. He is impulsive. He speaks without sufficient reflection, and as a result he causes all manner of public relations fiascos for himself and for his party. So runs the usual indictment of Trump as a politician.
Such criticism is not entirely wrong. Trump probably is more verbally impulsive than most politicians, and certainly more so than most presidents. Nevertheless, this critique overlooks something important: Trump is disciplined in his approach to politics in certain ways, just not in the ways to which most political observers are accustomed. The model he follows differs from what many Americans have learned to expect from politics.
In modern times, most presidential campaigns, and indeed most presidencies, have operated according to the following tried and true political model: Win the news cycle, daily and weekly, and then repeat the process continually. Have a plan to do and say things to win good press coverage today, and tomorrow, and for the whole week. This will create a positive impression with the voting public and will therefore generate high polling numbers. If a candidate does this over a long period of time, he or she will at least be in a position to compete on election day. And if a president does this over a long period of time, he will keep his public approval numbers high enough to keep the Congress cooperative and to contend for re-election.
Donald Trump, needless to say, has shown very little interest in doing any of this. Instead, he seems to have concluded a long time ago that such a model would be impossible for him. He is not going to win any news cycles, because the media and the political “experts” they consult are overwhelmingly opposed to the issues he raised as a candidate and the things he wants to do as president.
Trump has a different model: Occupy positions that are popular with a sufficient number of voters, although they are unpopular with the media and the political class—positions such as skepticism about immigration, existing trade arrangements, and a foreign policy that seems to require America to act as a self-sacrificing good Samaritan to the world. And hammer those positions so forcefully and so continually that nobody can forget your association with them.
The downside of Trump’s model is that it guarantees that he won’t win any news cycles. But the upside is that it means he does not need to win any news cycles. As long as he remains firm in these positions, and in the others on the basis of which he has assembled his coalition (such as lower taxes and deregulation, respect for traditional religion, and conservative judges), his fundamental position remains strong, or at least strong enough that he cannot be politically incapacitated and instead can compete to win. Trump, in other words, does not have to be a good tactician because he is such a good strategist.
Indeed, losing news cycles is not only not necessary to Trump. It is actually helpful to him. When he gets trashed by the media, it simply reminds his core voters that he is remaining true to the platform that won their support in the first place.
Although our expert political commentators cannot, for the most part, seem to credit Trump for successfully implementing this model, it is worth noting that it has some advantages, both for Trump and for the country. The advantage for Trump is obvious—it works for him. It got him the Republican nomination, the presidency, and the implementation of enough of his agenda that his administration cannot so far be judged a failure.
The advantage for the country is that Trump’s political model offers a more purely republican form of leadership. It is based upon a direct appeal to voters—to their interests and beliefs—unmediated by the role of, and therefore conceding nothing to the power of, an unelected and unrepresentative press and broadcasting establishment. Even Trump’s critics ought to be able to see the value of that, and even his rivals might do well to try it themselves.
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