The Next President

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After reviewing Donald Trump’s history, it seems obvious that public service isn’t a major motivator for him. He’s always been ambitious, and has evidently been thinking of running for president as long ago as the late eighties. Not seriously at that time, it seems, since he confined his efforts to commenting on the UN and other issues. At least until Barack Obama became president.

The birther controversy was probably initiated by someone else, but Mr. Trump put his face on it. No doubt Mr. Obama was somewhat annoyed about that, because he struck back. When Trump had scheduled a press conference to talk about it, Obama scheduled one at the same time to show documentation for his place of birth. Footage in the documentary on his life shows the TV crew disappearing and Mr. Trump walking away alone.

Obama didn’t stop there. At a function attended by Trump he joked about the birther controversy at length, and Trump had no choice but to laugh along with the rest of the audience. As the narrator of the documentary commented, what Trump hates most is humiliation. Obama had found a chink in Trump’s armor. But Trump had, the narrator suggested, at that moment decided to run for president himself.

His plan went nowhere in 2012, but we know what happened in 2016.

The documentary showed Trump speaking at what was supposedly his first campaign speech. He practically sniffed the air, tuned into what his audience was feeling, and put that into words. When he got a response he knew where to go from there. One of his advantages was in not appearing scripted–because he wasn’t, most of the time. Another was his ability to move an audience. President Obama has that ability too, but his style is much different: cool and rational vs hot and emotional. But hot and emotional was the winning combination this past year.

A lot of people were angry, and willing to vote for someone who promised change, even if it was questionable change. They weren’t interested in voting for experts telling them things they didn’t want to hear. Telling them she wasn’t Trump wasn’t a good strategy for Hillary Clinton. Especially since a lot of people were skeptical of her, whether they should have been or not.

Narrowly he won. President Obama has been walking a line with him since. On the one hand, vowing to make the transition of power as efficient as possible; on the other, stating that had he been at liberty to run, he believes he could have won the presidency again. That’s not an opinion Mr. Trump can be happy hearing, though I’m not aware of his having responded. But it seems clear (after seeing the documentary about him) that Trump saw his candidacy for president as a direct competition with Barack Obama even more than with Hillary Clinton. He won that competition; now he has to win the competition with the view of Obama as a great president. That will probably bedevil him for years to come. He may or may not win applause from Republicans. Winning it from Democrats will be more difficult, and he may settle for making Democrats and liberals (there may be no difference in his mind) as angry as possible. That would play into the desires of his most fervent supporters.

He will say he wants the country to heal, but that’s probably just what he thinks he SHOULD say. He wants applause, but how will he go about getting it? From his nominations for cabinet positions, it appears it’s hard-core Republicans he wants to please. His nominations are people who will likely destroy the departments he wants them to run: a man who favors selling public lands to run the Department of the Interior, a woman with no experience in public education and a record of hostility toward it to run the Department of Education.

If the Republican Congress manages to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and radically cuts both Social Security and Medicare, he will be able to please Republican elites by signing those bills. If he does, though, he will be very publicly breaking a campaign promise, which I doubt will make even his supporters happy.

He wants attention always, and would prefer positive attention, but has also shown a taste for negative attention too, if it upsets people he doesn’t like. On the other hand, he’s thin-skinned, and easily upset by criticism, which he’s going to be getting a lot of. That’s another reason the presidency doesn’t seem to be a good fit for him.

It will be very tempting for a lot of people to try to upset him, since it’s so easy to do. Given his desire for revenge, this may not be the best tactic, though. What may work better is praising him if and when he does anything praiseworthy, on the theory that he may then do more of it. But that doesn’t mean we should let him get away with breaking his promises either, or allowing him to make the presidency into a money-making machine for himself and his family (to say nothing of his cabinet members).

It’s pretty clear we’ve never had a president quite like him. The next four years will be interesting. Let’s hope they’re not also disastrous.

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