“He was a tireless traveler, a boisterous and humorous speaker, an inspired guesser at what political doctrines the people would like.”
Sinclair Lewis wrote this description of his character Buzz Windrip, a demagogic populist politician from his book It Can’t Happen Here, in 1935. Windrip seemed to have a keen nose for the whims of the people and chose to be an amalgamation and intensification, at least publicly, of the views of his core voters. Sound familiar?
In beginning this publication, I think it is instructive for the readers to know how I analyze the actions of the central figure in American politics. By giving you the tool that I use to approach the study of President Donald Trump, I hope to offer readers the ability to question my findings with a greater understanding of how they were gleaned, and in doing so open my analysis to criticism not only of the results, but also of the process.
Beginning with his fateful ride down the gilded elevator of the Trump hotel, a starting point to the analysis of Donald Trump the political candidate has proven tough to pin down. Theories arose from the offset: early in the nomination process we saw the idea of Trump the twitter tactician purporting him to bend social media to his will, after winning the Republican nomination the hopes of Donald Trump “pivoting” towards normalcy abounded, and in the dawn hours of his presidency the notion of Trump as the proverbial young girl in the trance of the Svengali-esque Steve Bannon enjoyed popularity.
These theories rose quickly and were snuffed out just as fast under the boot of some new Trump kerfuffle, though many would seemingly rise from the ashes as some new Trumpian action served to fan their flame. However, one particular interpretation proffered by Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo in June of 2016 seemed to have the predictive power and empirical evidence required to remain relevant. His heuristic, modeled after the philosophical principle of Occam’s Razor, offers a view of Trumpian action that emphasizes one element of the then candidate and current President that Marshall thinks is crucial; Donald Trump is not very intelligent. Here is “Trump’s Razor” in its current form:
“Ascertain the stupidest possible scenario that can be reconciled with the available facts.”
Marshall’s way of understanding the actions of Donald Trump compellingly explains some of the major scandals of his campaign and presidency, while also proving highly predictive of the sufficient reason for Trump’s actions in advance of that news being validated. The various test cases that Marshall cites in support of his heuristic, such as Trump’s wavering on his Vice Presidential pick of Mike Pence, Melania Trump’s speech, and Trump’s firing of Comey, show how Trump’s Razor has withstood the litmus test of President Trump.
Marshall’s formulation of Trump’s Razor is helpful, in that it correctly perceives President Donald Trump as someone who acts impulsively and without much forethought. The Razor also helps to counter the false narrative of Donald Trump as either a master tactician, a claim with scant supporting evidence, or the puppet to any particular master, a claim countered by the evidence showing Donald Trump to make deals that flummox both the Republican establishment and Steve Bannon.
However, in its simplicity the Trump Razor as it stands lacks the specificity required of a predictive and analytical instrument. In attributing “stupidity”, a characterization I think should be restricted to “impulsiveness”, as the unifying theory of Trumpian action, Marshall’s heuristic only proves that given his level of intelligence, an independently operating Donald Trump seems to be incapable of higher level political strategy and only capable of acting impulsively. But what causes those impulses to manifest in the specific actions demonstrated by President Donald Trump?
To explain the motivating political impetus behind the impulsive action of the President, an addendum to Trump’s Razor is required. In doing so, I hope to offer some sufficient reason for the specific manifestations of impulsiveness in Donald Trump, an incentive structure that rewards the way in which the President acts. My proposed addendum to the Trump’s Razor is:
“. . . with the understanding that Trump’s public actions are guided by his intuitive understanding of the desires, political and behavioral, of his core supporters.”
Crucial to the success of this addendum is the continuance of two Trumpian traits that have historically been present: Donald Trump is incentivized chiefly by praise and adulation from an audience, and Donald Trump’s inability to recognize criticism of his action as separate from criticism of his person.
The first trait seems to be supported by his general affinity for showmanship. Trump originates from the background of media, where his personality was a commodity that’s value correlated to his ability to create entertaining performances. Adulation and praise seem to be the chief rewards for Donald Trump from such performances, which is further evidenced by his obsession with TV ratings.
Incentivized by such praise, candidate Donald Trump acted accordingly, providing real life drama for the people, and sustaining himself on the vociferous adulation that such performances drew from his core supporters. However, the prime-time performances of the campaign stood in stark contrast to the dull reality of the Oval Office, where Donald Trump is forced to interact with people who are not prone to lavishing praise upon him.
Nevertheless, incentive structures are powerful forces and, as evidenced by his affinity for retweeting memes that originate in alt-right corners of the internet, Trump finds ways to interact with people who praise his actions. This forms a positive feedback loop of sorts, wherein President Trump can see the praise of his actions by his core supporters and is motivated to take actions that will garner him further praise for other actions that are supported by his base.
The second trait crucial to the success of my addendum to Trump’s Razor is his continued inability to separate criticism of his actions from criticism of his person. A Donald Trump who thoughtfully considered the input of those critical of his positions would severely weaken the impulsiveness that is central to this heuristic. In making all politics personal, Donald Trump limits the outlets of potential praise to those that agree with his past actions, and limits the potential outlets for advice on current policies to those that at least don’t criticize them publicly. In practice, these restrictions limit the potential sources of praise, the primary incentive for Trumpian action, to those in his base and effectively negate the ability for Trump’s counsel to offer candid advice.
In the light of the continuance of these factors, the final element necessary for my addendum to Trump’s Razor to be inst
ructive is what constitutes Trump’s intuitive understanding of his base. For this we need to know who it is that praises Donald Trump and what they praise him for doing.
To address who praises him it is helpful to look at his strong approval ratings, as these are the kind of supporters who are more willing to publicly express their support of the President and praise his actions. A Marist College poll places the strong approval rating of President Trump at 19% as of October 17th. These represent the small nuclei of Trump’s support who motivate his actions through their loud praise. It is these supporters that Donald Trump intuitively understands and their desires which shape his impulses into the specifics of Trumpian action.
Identifying the actual political desires of the base is more difficult. On some issues, immigration for instance, the polls clearly show that those with strong approval of Donald Trump are anti-immigration, both legal and illegal. The racial sentiments of this group are also relatively well represented in the polls, which indicate that many understand being truly American to mean of European descent and the majority also considering being born in America as a requisite. There have also been many reports that Trump’s abrasive and bullish style plays well with his base.
However, the specific policy goals of Trump’s base have proven difficult to decipher. They seem to be skeptical of trade and globalisation, and certainly in support of immigration restrictions. But most importantly, they are unilaterally pro-Trump, and a large portion of them are more than willing to publicly say as much.
It is the pathos of this core group that Donald Trump seems to intuitively channel. In a situation wherein the desires of the base are unclear, the President uses this intuitive understanding to guide his actions. And in terms of analysis, consciously using the thought process of, “What would Donald Trump’s base want him to do in this situation?” and “What will Donald Trump’s base praise him for doing?”, proves to be a useful tool in deciphering the actions of the President, and is the heuristic that I use in conjunction with the original Trump’s Razor to approach the study of President Donald J. Trump.
Categories: Domestic Affairs