Thursday, December 8, 2016

Trump’s Already Showing Strength — But Is That Enough To Govern?

By John Podhoretz
The New York Post
December 8, 2016

Since past presidencies and presidential candidates offer precious little understanding of what the Trump administration will be like, we’re better off seeking clues in the workings of the president-elect’s campaign — and what he believed he was doing and why he succeeded.

Interviews and discussions involving his senior campaign staff and the staffs of his rivals reveal one salient fact: Through all the bluster and the multifarious offenses that many of us mistakenly believed would derail him, Donald Trump himself reveled in simplicity. “We just stuck on the same message the entire time,” his first campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, said last week. “It was so simplistic, and it didn’t target any specific demographic.”

Trump had a single, unified message: America had lost its way, and he would guide it again to greatness. In other words, the entirety of his campaign was conveyed through that red cap with the “Make America great again” slogan on it.

He made it clear he didn’t believe he could or should achieve this renewed American greatness by following a standard ideological playbook on the economy and foreign policy. His message was that everybody before him had screwed the place up, Democrats and Republicans alike, sitting politicians and retired politicians, and none of them was worth a damn, so how could their ideas be worth a damn?

He threw out the playbooks — the conservative playbook, the Republican playbook. He attacked George W. Bush very nearly as violently as he attacked Barack Obama. He said he didn’t care which bathroom anybody used.

Now that the election’s over he seems to be going back through the playbook and picking and choosing from what he takes to be its highlights, like low corporate taxes and fewer regulations — but these nods to conservative/Republican orthodoxy are just that, nods, and can be reversed at a moment’s notice.

He made that clear in the interview he gave to Time for its Person of the Year story when he used language on government intervention in the economy anathematic to conservative economics. “Sometimes you have to prime the pump . . . in order to get jobs going and the country going.”

But without a coherent playbook, how exactly was he, is he, going to make America great again? Again, the answer he offered then and is offering is simple and alluring. And, for some of us, highly problematic.

He promises to do so through the force of his personality.

He will be strong.

This personalized message certainly resonated with voters. Barry Bennett, who ran Ben Carson’s campaign, talked last week about the Iowa focus groups his campaign convened. Bennett was worried they would reject Carson because of his lack of experience, but they didn’t care about that. “What they wanted more than anything else was strength,” Bennett said. “And Trump was the one that they thought had that.”

This helps explain Trump’s choice of three recently retired generals for key positions at the head of the Pentagon, the National Security Council and, with Wednesday’s announcement, John Kelly at the Department of Homeland Security.

Considering Trump has largely peddled an anti-interventionist line in foreign policy, such choices seem off-brand until you consider this: What conveys strength more than having a general on your team?

The “strength” message was so central to the Trump primary campaign that his rallies featured three pre-teen girls called the USA Freedom Kids singing these discomfiting, caricaturish words: “Deal from strength or get crushed every time.”

Trump has no use for Teddy Roosevelt’s idea that presidents should “speak softly and carry a big stick.”

Trump’s big stick is his voice, and he loves how loudly he speaks — often in 140 characters that move markets, as we learned when his anti-Boeing tweet about the potential price tag for a new Air Force One temporarily tanked the company’s market value.

The Trump “strength doctrine” is the thread that connects the primary to the election and to the Cabinet selections, and it’s the one thing we know will carry through to the presidency. But we are a nation of laws, and our laws and our Constitution are intended in large measure to restrict the ability of our leaders to work their will without restraint.

Trump will need more than the strength doctrine to get things done. He will need good ideas, and he will need to secure public support for them through persuasion and implement them through competent management. Force of personality may have been enough to get him elected, but it won’t be enough when it’s time to govern.

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