Donald Trump is not a normal politician. That, at least, both his detractors and supporters agree on. To the former, it’s a sign of his dangerous unpredictability and callow inexperience; to the latter, a token of his status as one unaffected by the rot of the Washington bubble. But if that’s what he’s not, the question remains of what he is.
To answer that, we must journey back in time long before a Trump presidency was ever anything other than a punchline to a particularly bad joke. For before Trump the politician, there was Trump the businessman; the blond-haired bruiser from New York’s Midtown, clad in a sharp suit, beautiful supermodel in tow, butting heads with rivals across boardrooms. Times may have changed, the tawdry glitz of Trump Tower may have been exchanged for the grandeur of the White House, but at heart Donald J. Trump is best understood as a businessman.
Seeing him as this rather than a politician helps explain much that is bewildering about him. Trump is not bound by the conventions that politicians are normally constrained by; the expectations to speak truthfully, to fulfil promises, to act in a measured way. Businessmen have no truck with any of this. A Manhattan real estate investor, sitting across a table from his competitors, doesn’t act like a politician; he curses at them and cajoles them, he slams the table, he insults them, and eventually he wins.
All the bombast of Trump – all the gratuitous offensiveness, the rude tweets, the childish appellations he attaches to his rivals (of which ‘Crooked Hillary’ and ‘Lying Ted’ are the highlights) should be seen through this lens – as a posture Trump adopts in order to help him win. He doesn’t even seem to believe much of it; witness how fast the vitriol directed at Ben Carson, for instance, was replaced by the warm embrace of an offer of a job on his campaign. We’ve all been taken in by the act of a showman.
But this act extends to far more than Trump’s pugnacious demeanour. Far too many people – on both sides of the political spectrum – were taken in by Trump’s grandiose statements of policy during the campaign. Perhaps reasonably, they viewed them as they viewed policy announcements by prior politicians – that is to stay, statements of intent that, if elected, he would follow through on.
With the benefit of hindsight, though, their true nature becomes clear. They were not statements but opening gambits in negotiations. Take Trump’s so-called ‘Muslim ban.’ Trump made his ‘offer’ to the American people, so to speak, with his call for ‘a complete and total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.’ The reaction was mostly shock and disgust – but the initial bid had been made.
Upon Trump’s election as President, opposing ‘offers’ were made in the form of vociferous opposition both Congressional and judicial. What took place next – the wrangling between Trump and various judges – might be termed the ‘negotiations’, much as an aggressive property developer might argue with a tenant over a disputed term in a contract. What eventually emerged was a travel ban that is, by all sane accounts, very reasonable – common-sense, time-limited restrictions on emigration from a handful of notoriously dangerous countries.
This isn’t how politicians operate; it’s precisely how businessmen do. No self-respecting businessman worth his salt will walk into negotiations and state the price he wants, knowing that the cut and thrust of negotiations will drive it down. Instead he names a figure twice as high as he wants, knowing the response will be half as much as he wants. Through slow back-and-forth argumentation, eventually the two parties arrive at a price both consider ‘fair.’ It’s an almost dialectical style of governing, one which has never really been tried before.
The same applies with Trump’s flagship policy – fighting illegal immigration. When Trump started talking about building ‘a big beautiful wall with Mexico’ and repealing DACA, he almost certainly never wanted to do anything of the sort. Instead, he was seeking to do two things; firstly to make illegal immigration (by all accounts a genuine issue) part of the national debate, and also to make an extreme initial demand, knowing that he’ll never get it but that negotiations are now open.
Upon his election, Trump immediately faced pushback from liberal voices in Congress. What most failed to realise was that Trump intended for this to happen. Trump is not a moron; he employs many undocumented workers himself, and recognises that a blanket deportation would be economically damaging to the country. But by demanding a huge amount initially, he was able to pull negotiations in his favour and eventually conclude an agreement with Democratic leadership which meant that key provisions of DACA would be kept in place, with funding for a wall highly unlikely.
One of the few people who understood all this about him was the Democrat who worked alongside him on hammering out this deal, Chuck Schumer. Schumer, like Trump, is a New Yorker, and like all New Yorkers he’s steeped in the commerciality of that city. He recognises Trump for what he is; a negotiator willing to brawl a bit to get the deal he wants. Though politically he seems the antithesis of Trump, Schumer is more similar to the man than many realise. Neither are beyond a bit of chest-thumping and posturing, but fundamentally both are nothing more than negotiators. By all accounts the two have a good personal rapport – an indication that Trump’s aggressively partisan demeanour is an artfully-constructed artifice.
‘We are not wholly bad or good,’ Dylan Thomas reminds us. The same might be said to hold true for Donald Trump. It’s beyond dispute that he’s a thin-skinned sexist who will do or say pretty much anything to attain wealth and power. It’s also true that politically he’s proving to be far more nuanced than anyone had assumed. He has at least three more years left (and, who knows, perhaps even seven) and the world would be advised to prepare themselves for more surprises.