Before his election as president it was understandable that Donald Trump’s critics should have vastly underestimated his ability as a politician. It is much less excusable – and self-destructive to effective opposition to Trump – that they should go on underestimating him almost two years after his victory.
Every week there are more revelations showing the Trump administration to be chaotic, incompetent and corrupt. The latest are the anonymous op-ed in The New York Times in which one of his own senior officials’ claims to be working against him and Bob Woodward’s book portraying the White House as a sort of human zoo.
The media gleefully reports these bombshells in the hope that they will finally sink, or at least inflict serious damage, on the Good Ship Trump. This has been the pattern since he announced his presidential candidacy, but it never happens. Political commentators, overwhelmingly anti-Trump, express bafflement at his survival but, such is their loathing and contempt for him that they do not see that they are dealing with an exceptionally skilled politician.
His abilities may be instinctive or drawn from his vast experience as a showman on television. Priority goes to dominating the news agenda regardless of whether the publicity is good or bad. Day after day, hostile news outlets like The New York Times and CNN lead on stories about Trump to the exclusion of all else.
The media does not do this unless they know their customers want it: Trump is an American obsession, even greater than Brexit in Britain. A friend of mine recently met a group of American folk singers touring the south coast of Ireland who told him that they had often pledged to each other that they would get through the day without mentioning Trump, but so far they had failed to do so.
This tactic of dominating the news by deliberately headline-grabbing behaviour, regardless of the criticism it provokes, is not new but is much more difficult to carry out than it looks. Boris Johnson is currently trying to pull the same trick with outrageous references to “suicide vests” but his over-heated rhetoric feels contrived. MP David Lammy’s jibe about Johnson as “a pound-shop Donald Trump” is apt.
Trump is never boring: it is a simple point and central to his success but is seldom given sufficient weight. During the presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton’s supporters complained that Trump got excessive amounts of free television time, while her speeches were ignored or were given inadequate attention.
The reason was not any pro-Trump bias – quite the contrary given the political sympathies of most people in the media – but because her speeches were boring and his were not. He has the well-developed knack of always saying something the media cannot leave alone.
An example of this is his tweeted retort this week to a claim by JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon that he could “beat” Trump in a presidential election and is tough and smarter than him. This silly boast was not much of a news story, until Trump’s tweeted: “The problem with banker Jamie Dimon running for president is that he doesn’t have the aptitude or ‘smarts’ and is a poor public speaker and nervous mess – otherwise he is wonderful.” Not many politicians or journalists could put so much punching power into a single sentence.
Trump is regarded with a peculiar mixture of fear and underestimation by opponents across the board from the Democratic Party leaders to the EU heads of state. They believe – rightly – that Trump is a monster and hope – wrongly – that this means he will one day implode. This would be deeply convenient for them all because, until this happens, they do not have to act themselves. Trump will hopefully pass away like a bad dream. There is no need for the EU leaders or prominent Democrats to devise and explain policies that would divide them.
Sometimes this policy of sitting on your hands and doing nothing until your opponents make a mistake is the correct one. But it carries the grave risk of creating a vacuum of information that will be filled by your enemies. During the presidential election it was easy to deride Trump’s vague promises to bring factory jobs back to the US, but he did not have to say much about this because Hillary usually said nothing at all.
Trump is at war with the institutions of the US government. This is unsurprising: US presidents have invariably been frustrated by the sense that they reign but do not rule. A convincing explanation for the fall of Richard Nixon is that different branches of the bureaucracy used Watergate to frustrate his grab for power and get rid of him.
They may yet succeed in Trump’s case. Many Americans want to witness a sequel to Watergate with Trump in the starring role. But this is almost impossible to do without control of Congress and the ganging-up of bureaucrats against an elected president will not be palatable to a lot of voters.
The anonymous senior White House official of the New York Times op-ed says that he is part of a group within the administration pledged to thwart “Mr Trump’s more misguided impulses”. This is the latest emergence of “adults in the room” who are going to prevent the US government abandoning policies essential to its existence.
The problem is that these “adults” are promoting policies that are often just as dangerous as anything Trump has in mind, if not more so. For instance, Trump has periodically said that the US ought to pull its 2,000 troops, which are backed by the US Air Force, out of northeast Syria. This would be a sensible move to negotiate because the US has a weak hand in Syria and could not determine the course of events without a full scale war.
Trump is not “an isolationist” in the classic sense, but his instinct is to avoid wars or situations that might lead to one. Talking to Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin may not produce anything very substantial, but it does make war less, rather than more, likely. Yet, such is the bitterness of divisions in the US, that liberal commentators were furiously denouncing Trump as a traitor for meeting either man in terms that Senator McCarthy would have recognised 70 years ago.
It is easy to sympathise with their rage. Trump is the worst thing to happen to the US since the Civil War, but miscalculating his strengths and weaknesses is not the way to deal with him. His near miraculous ability to survive repeated scandals reminds me of what the diplomat, politician and writer Conor Cruise O’Brien wrote about Charlie Haughey, the Irish political leader, who was notorious for surviving against the odds in similar challenging circumstances. “If I saw Mr Haughey buried at midnight at a crossroads with a stake driven through his heart,” wrote O’Brien, “I should continue to wear a clove of garlic around my neck, just in case.”