Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Explaining Trump

There are two possible approaches to explaining odd things Trump does. One is to assume that he is stupid, crazy, erratic. Early in the campaign that looked like a plausible explanation. After he won twice contests everyone expected him to lose, first the nomination and then the election, it was still possible–he could have been lucky–but less plausible.

The alternative is that he is crazy like a fox, doing odd things for reasonable, perhaps tactically correct, reasons. I am not sure that is what is going on but I think it quite likely and have been trying to make sense of his moves on that basis.

The most recent example, not done directly by Trump, was preventing Elizabeth Warren from speaking against Sessions on the grounds that one senator was not supposed to say hostile things about another. That got a lot of negative publicity and was widely viewed as a blunder.

There is another possibility. The incident raised Warren's visibility and status within the Democratic party. That will tend to pull the party left. Trump may well believe that pulling the Democrats left will make it harder for them to win future elections. He may well be right.

Apply the same approach to making sense of the apparently bungled executive order on immigration. Including green card holders in the initial order made no sense in terms of the stated objective and was a considerable, and highly public, nuisance for those affected. The result was a lot of hostile criticism, greatly increasing the amount of publicity the executive order got. 

Seen from the standpoint of Trump's base, he was doing something about immigration and terrorism, as he had promised and it must be a substantial something if his enemies in the media were so upset about it. As Jack Goldsmith, a former head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel and a Harvard Law School professor, put it:
“The president would get a huge symbolic boost with his base while not violating the law and while changing nothing of substance. He would get maximum symbolic value while doing nothing. Trump’s a genius at this.”


Anonymous said...

A lot of stuff in politics deserves a quick quirky Twitter response and nothing more. Your vice President is insulted at a show- tweet a demand for apology at some random time and go back to bed. The Goldwater rule against psychological analysis of politicians you never met is good.

John said...

Shouldn't we have a duty to believe things are what they are on their face, until there is convincing reason to believe something else? For instance, the obvious thing is that Trump hastily put together a ban on immigration that wasn't well thought through. That's the obvious story. Your alternate story is that he purposefully tanked his own immigration plan to look tough for his base. That's possible, but it feels a lot like saying the government purposefully let terrorists blow up the World Trade Center to get authority to fight Middle East wars. It assumes a level of competence and deviousness of Trump that is probably beyond what is reasonable.

August said...

Trump's executive order was well thought through- those seven countries are countries the previous administration had come up with. If you look at the law, Trump could have just banned Muslims. As President, he actually does have that much power over whether or not foreigners get to travel to this country.

The travel ban is nowhere near the end goal. Expect iteration.

The Senate did itself a favor by shutting Warren down. The media gives her a platform- and the Senate's actions do not have much bearing on that. If she is on the T.V., we can turn the T.V. off. People remember her from the campaign. The only people listening to her are the people who believe her.

But the Senators now don't have to listen to her. And that's a good thing.

The leftist call to violence is becoming very obvious. They say racists deserve to be beaten, to lose their job, etc... Then they call everybody not in their group racist. Antifa tries to attack someone, anyone 'on the right', which includes everybody not bowing down to their god.

Anonymous said...

I think what Trump did with the travel ban is best seen as anchoring. By taking a drastic, possibly unconstitutional, step in the direction of stricter immigration, he sets an anchor. Under pressure from courts and Congress, he can backpedal a bit and reach agreement on a policy that is milder and "more reasonable" than the initial one, but considerably more strict than the status quo ante.

I imagine Trump has used similar tactics in his business career, found that they worked, and now applies them, so far successfully, in his presidency.

bruce said...

There's a half century of bipartisan agreement that we need a big pool of illegal immigrants in America to hold wages down and provide suitably abject clients for the Democrats. It is our moral duty. Trump will be Hitler and totally incompetent until he agrees.

Max said...

Yes, Trump shored up his base. Is that what he needed to do at this time? Uh, no.

Douglas Knight said...

This is a good example of left-right being too simplistic. The Warren-Sanders wing of the party appeals to the same people as Trump. Promoting Warren moves the party "left" but makes it more viable, especially against Trump.

Richard Ober Hammer said...

When David writes "... Trump ... won twice contests everyone expected him to lose, first the nomination and then the election, ..."
David seems to reveal that his sources of news are what I would call the biased mainstream media. I was not surprised when Trump won the election because my first source of news is the Drudge Report. For days and weeks before the election Drudge headlined polls that showed Trump with a lead.

Similarly, David writes "... preventing Elizabeth Warren from speaking against Sessions ... got a lot of negative publicity and was widely viewed as a blunder."
True enough — for mainstream media. But not in the media I check first for news.

The same applies to " ... the apparently bungled executive order on immigration."
Rather than accept judgments from the mainstream media, see what Stefan Molyneux says about the executive order.

Richard Ober Hammer said...

One way that I have of understanding Trump is from his success as a TV game show host. In that role he had to be a judge: routinely delivering a negative judgment, telling a contestant "you're fired" — while not reducing his own acceptability to the TV audience, while maintaining the popularity of the TV show. That experience, I propose, is better preparation for how a presidential candidate needs to behave before TV cameras than the experience of being a Senator or Governor.

Andrew Hallman said...

"I was not surprised when Trump won the election because my first source of news is the Drudge Report."

My impression of the Drudge Report is that it's sensationalism to the max, which is not usually a good way of understanding the world. As a result, there are a number of instances where it has published misleading stories and even hoaxes.

August said...

I am rembering Eric Garner a lot- the guy who ended up dead because NYC wants the tax money on cigarettes so bad that they allow police to do things that end up killing their citizens for such trivialities. The left appeared incapable of understanding that they give the government so much power- to them the problem is always and everywhere racism and the solution is black lives matter- a slogan that doesn't actually solve anything.

Same thing here really. The President was given the power to ban all Muslims. The law is clear, but they want the justice department to subvert the law, not because they are against the power, but because they are against various thoughts.

They won't even entertain the idea of removing the power. They'll try to remove the person, but not the power. Trump actually seems more amenable to reducing presidential power- he appears to be open to something reduce executive order power- heard Paul Ryan talking about it, but I suppose we'll see how those two actually get along in the next few years.

Richard Ober Hammer said...

@Andrew Hallman
I agree that Drudge Report often seems to rely upon sensationalism. The same seems true of most news outlets which need to attract many readers, and with the tails of peacocks. But what appears to be sensational is of course a function of the viewpoint through which one sees and interprets events.

Sometimes I look at what the New York Times or Washington Post has to say about a story which Drudge trumpets. I think the world would be a better place if leftists tried the opposite balancing act.

Wikipedia is a wonderful source of information, especially if you are a total newcomer to a subject. But Wikipedia stays pretty close to the hording-mass mainstream. If you are a specialist in any field and because of your specialization you have come to harbor some views outside the mainstream in that field (gasp!) Wikipedia will treat you as alien.

Gordon said...

The problem with the "Trump really knows what he is doing" argument is that he could have gotten the same result with a well-crafted EO that would not have lead to disruption at airports. The president has no problem getting press coverage; he could have announced a well-crafted EO with fanfare enough to impress his base. As it happened, he has impressed his base, AND raised questions about his team's executive competency.

Gordon said...

Richard writes, "I was not surprised when Trump won the election because my first source of news is the Drudge Report. For days and weeks before the election Drudge headlined polls that showed Trump with a lead."

What do you mean by "a lead"? Trump lost the popular vote. Please tell me if Drudge had the prescience to predict that Trump would lose the popular vote and win in the electoral college. That would be a reason to start reading it. Otherwise, there is an old saying about stopped clocks.

Richard Ober Hammer said...

A lead may have been expressed like this: "Trump +1%".

These were particular polls, as I recall, probably not of the whole nation, but polls of specific states or demographics. If you sum the 49 states not including California, I understand that Trump won the popular vote in that area.

Richard Ober Hammer said...

Drudge Report offers a way to look back at earlier presentations under the link "RECENT DRUDGE HEADLINES ...".

On this view from November 3, I see a headline "SHOCK POLL: TRUMP PASSES 50% WITH DEFINITE VOTERS..." and another "JPOST: Trump beats Clinton in Israeli absentee-voters...".

JWO said...

Trump is smart but not thoughtful. He seems to not think things through.

Jonathan said...

Long ago I saw a film called "Being there".

montestruc said...

I think David is right, about Trump being crazy like a fox. I came to the same conclusion in December, after going over the proverbial chess game of that election.

Clinton - NEVER - actually got under his skin, he was projecting an illusion of himself being thin skinned and so on, using the BS issues as a Matador's cape, or a magician's pretty half-naked pretty girl to distract the public's, and his opponent's attention from what else he was doing.

Which in the end month or more before the election was heavy attacks where Clinton was vulnerable in the Rust belt states.

Unknown said...

I initially thought Trump was a rich buffoon, but changed my mind after reading TAOTD.
Reading elsewhere about the Wollman Rink is a start. During the primary debates I decided he was likely going to be President as I saw him start mentally rising above the debate and start vetting his opponents for future jobs with him and perhaps for other purposes.

But why does he talk like that! GOOD GRIEF!!! But I think there are good reasons.

Newt's series of 7-8 lectures on Trump at Dec-2016, Jan-2017 pretty much sum it up, IMHO. There s some overlap, so start at the beginning and if you run out of time/patience, skip to the last one.

I think Trump is great at finding out that although macroeconomics says that foreign trade is good and gives proof, microeconomics shows that many displaced workers are badly harmed or never recover. I think he has a profound respect for the little guy since his workers and those of his subcontractors are the base of the quality of his top elite properties.

I was introduced to European Union/BREXIT problems when UKIP Party leader and European parliament member Nigel Farage spoke at a series of Trump rallies. Nigel is hillarious and informative on youtube. Europe and US have some common problems from the one-world movement. See David Horowitz , etc if you want to see how Orwell ipredictions are doing.

albatross said...


I don't think it takes a huge conspiracy theory to recognize that Trump is functioning like a politician. That means he's often saying he wants output X, taking explicit outcome Y, and hoping to actually reach point Z.

It may be that the executive order on immigration was a mess because Trump and company didn't really know what they were doing--by most reports, he and his people are a lot less clear on how things work in the white house than most new presidents. But the mess of the immigration executive order seems to have worked out in Trump's favor in this case, assuming he wanted a lot of news coverage and didn't care all that much about the immediate impact of the immigration ban. And this fits a broader pattern in the last couple years of politics, in which Trump does stuff that looks dumb, except somehow those things end up working out for him. I think it's reasonable to at least entertain the notion that a lot of stuff he does that looks dumb actually has more thought behind it than it looks like.

My model of Trump is that he cares a lot about his image and about how his supporters see him, and probably a lot less about actual policy. As best I can tell, he has little interest in details of policy (the opposite of Clinton, who apparently loved policy details, but wasn't much of a natural politician), but he's hugely talented in sales and public relations. That model suggests that Trump would be fine with an executive order that causes lots of controversy but didn't have much actual effect on immigration numbers.

Imagine two possible worlds: In world #1, Trump's executive order was carefully thought out, gave 72 hours' notice to travelers so nobody got stranded at an airport in the US, and excluded green-card holders. There would have been about 1/10 the level of press coverage of the EO in that case, and it seems likely there wouldn't have been a successful court challenge. In world #2, Trump's executive order wsa what we saw--it caused a few days of confusion while the relevant agencies tried to figure out what it meant, it created a bunch of sympathetic victims who attracted press coverage, and it involved a lot of people who could plausibly get a federal court to listen to them.

My claim is this: Trump is better off politically in world #2. Voters who don't pay lots of attention to political news will vaguely remember that Trump tried to ban Muslims but was stopped by the ACLU and some liberal judges. They won't remember the details, or the poor planning involved in the EO. If there's a terrorist attack in the next year or two, they'll have it in their mind that Trump was trying to protect us but the liberal courts stopped him. It won't matter that the EO wouldn't have done anything to prevent the attack, or that the court challenges were largely self-inflicted, because those voters won't remember any of that.

I don't know how much of the mess from the EO was intentional and how much was an error borne of inexperience. But it seems to fit the pattern Trump has established, in which he does something that seems inept, but then it ends up paying off for him.

David Friedman said...

"I think Trump is great at finding out that although macroeconomics says that foreign trade is good and gives proof, "

The demonstration that foreign trade provides net benefits is price theory, misleadingly labeled as "microeconomics." So is the demonstration that it can make some people worse off. "Macroeconomics," another misleading label, isn't about big things, it's about disequilibrium, involuntary unemployment and similar issues. The world wheat market is a subject for microeconomics.

Richard Ober Hammer said...

David writes:
"'Macroeconomics,' another misleading label, isn't about big things, it's about disequilibrium, involuntary unemployment and similar issues. The world wheat market is a subject for microeconomics."

I posit a somewhat different view. MACROeconomics is the economics of nation states. Its aggregates sum over the areas ruled by states, so it creates images of problems which would-be-rulers can imagine themselves solving — with tools which lie only in the hands of states.

But then too, MICROeconomics is employed to advantage by statists. MICROeconomics throws up an unrealistic hope of perfect equilibrium. With perfect equilibrium as backdrop many "market failures" jump into view. Each "market failure" promises to employ a scad of economists in government regulatory jobs.

These are just my surmises, surely open to improvement.

Anonymous said...

Where will be the young Bernie Sanders supporters in 2020? Perhaps they help reelect Trump. This guy is much more Machiavellian than anyone can imagine. A natural-born snake handler.

Anonymous said...

Would it be OK if I cross-posted this article to There is no fee; I’m simply trying to add more content diversity for our community and I enjoyedd reading your work. I’ll be sure to give you complete credit as the author. If “OK” please let me know via email.


David Friedman said...


I don't mind your cross posting it, although it's little out of date by now.