Step Away from Trump’s Head

Let’s get one thing straight: No one knows what Donald Trump is thinking. Not Tom Friedman. Not David Rothkopf. Not even me.

No one knows what Donald Trump is thinking because there is no way to know what he is thinking. There is no window into his head, no wire from his brain to the wonkosphere. His tweets, scrolling by like a rolling commentary under his wobbly little chins, are not necessarily the same as his thoughts. Which doesn’t stop the likes of Friedman and Rothkopf from trying to convince us all that they – and only they – know what Trump is really thinking, and because we don’t know what they know, we’ll never get this administration right.

Sound familiar? It should: I wrote exactly the same thing about Vladimir Putin two years ago. Word for word, save for the names and the chins and the Twitter. Paragraph three of that old post works pretty well, too:

Here’s the thing: Whenever the world (or some part of it) thinks it has a grip on what Trump is thinking, he’ll surprise us. Not because he’s so inscrutable, but because there’s profit in it. And that’s my point: we cannot possibly know what he’s thinking, but we do know what his incentives are. And if we stop deluding ourselves with ad hoc psychoanalysis, we might actually figure something out.

Putin, I argued at the time (and still do), makes up for a lack of institutional strength by mastering the agenda: through the manufacture and manipulation of uncertainty, he makes us focus on what we cannot know (his temperament, his grand strategy, and so on), rather than on what we do know (our own interests, and where and how he has challenged them).

Now, I don’t know whether Trump is as smart and savvy as Putin. But the thing is, I don’t need to know. Whether guided by shrewd calculation or acting purely on base instinct, Trump is recreating Putin’s approach to public politics, and the effect is the same. It’s not just about the tweets. We’ve all noted the gaps between his positions and those of his cabinet appointees; hell, we’ve all noted the gaps between his positions and those he took two news cycles ago. A cottage industry of Trumpanalysis is emerging to rival even the greatest achievements of Kremlinology.

The problem with snake oil is not that it’s a waste of money – it’s that it’s a waste of time. While the gullible are drawn into the thrall of miracle cures and false profits, ailments progress and crises deepen. By the time eyes are opened, it is often too late to save the patient. That’s why the more Jungian versions of Kremlinology are so maddening, and why I’m so frustrated to see American analysis begin to slip down the same slope: they lead us to buy into theories and strategies based entirely on conjecture, theories and strategies that will inevitably be as mercurial as the leader they purport to explain.

If, instead, we see the inner minds of leaders like Trump and Putin as deeply secondary, we begin to understand how they are both guided and constrained by the structures and incentives that surround them. We see how Putin is both enabled by a population that has little time for formal politics and yet hamstrung by a system seemingly impervious to structural reform; we see how kleptocracy emerges as an alternative strategy of governance; we understand the role of image-making in the maintenance of legitimacy; and, rather than trying to predict his every move, we search for the contours of what is and is not possible in Russian politics and watch him writhe within them.

We should do the same with Trump. He inherits a system of policymaking whose ever fiber is set against him: intricate networks of bureaucracies and interests woven into the fabric of the status quo; a web of structural and tactical challenges and very few allies inclined to trust him; a Republican establishment that has both no experience of proactive legislating (see the last eight years) and a very real challenge in the mid-term elections; a Democratic opposition that has nothing to lose and everything to gain. His one real asset are the 40% or so of the American public who like him – and yet we don’t have to dig too far under that toupee to realize there’s not much he can do for them.

We don’t have to know whether or not Trump is anxious to know that he’s going to struggle. We don’t have to parse his sentences to understand the opportunities he will enjoy and the costs he will have to bear. We are capable of running our own cost-benefit analyses and imposing them on him. If we focus on the questions that are answerable, we might – surprise, surprise – get some answers.

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