Friday, January 27, 2017

A Strategic Lens Won't Bring Trump into Focus, So Let's Give Psychology a Shot

It didn't take very long for the signals to arrive that this would be a different kind of presidency. On the first full day of the Trump administration, White House press secretary Sean Spicer appeared before the news media to chastise them for (accurately) reporting that the number of spectators at the new president's inauguration ceremony had failed to equal the crowds drawn by Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Lest there be any confusion over whether it was Spicer's idea to immediately risk his own personal credibility by making obviously incorrect claims about a completely trivial matter, Trump himself brought up the issue during his visit to CIA headquarters the same afternoon, bragging as well about the number of times he's appeared on the cover of Time and offhandedly remarking that the United States might re-invade Iraq to seize control of its oil supply.

If anything, the strangeness factor has been increasing ever since. Trump remains visibly preoccupied with indicators of personal power, status, and popularity at the expense of other matters. In a single week, the new president has pretended that he lost the national popular vote due to a non-existent epidemic of voter fraud, compared Chicago to Afghanistan and threatened to send in "the Feds" to impose order, and boasted that his CIA appearance produced the "biggest standing ovation since Peyton Manning won the Super Bowl."

Much remains unknown about how the new administration will operate, but this week has confirmed beyond doubt that Trump, to a greater degree than any other major American politician, eschews rational strategy in favor of personal instinct—an instinct that is largely influenced by emotion, especially negative emotion. And his actions ultimately can only be understood in that sense.

This attribute presents a challenge to journalists and academics alike, who have developed long-standing and elaborate traditions of analysis that treat politics primarily as a series of strategic puzzles. Politicians may—and do—regularly make mistakes or miscalculations, or the world around them can change in a manner that renders previously effective behavior futile or even counterproductive, but the common assumption is that political action is directed toward an identifiable purpose that is perceived to further the substantive objectives or tactical interests of the actor.

Reporters are so predisposed to view politics through this lens that even stunts as clearly nonsensical as Spicer's press statement on Saturday prompt musings about the savvy thinking that might undergird them. Trump's endless attacks on the press and claims of unfair treatment, for example, could in some cases be plausibly interpreted as stoking a politically useful sense of grievance among his supporters, or by cleverly undercutting the power of the news media to contradict factually inaccurate statements made by his administration. And, to some degree, his behavior does and will have such an effect.

But among the most revealing news stories of the past week have been reports sourced from within the White House itself confirming that these matters are private obsessions, not merely public battle cries. Indeed, Trump's claims that millions of illegitimate votes deprived him of a rightful popular victory were first raised in a closed-door meeting with the congressional leadership of both parties, who were likely not reassured as a result that the new president has a firm grip on political reality. In retrospect, the characteristic that allowed Trump to overcome expectations and successfully capture both the Republican nomination and the White House looks less like a unique degree of strategic sophistication on his part and more like a simple ability and willingness to say or do things that other candidates couldn't—or wouldn't.

While Democrats and other critics have responded to the first week of the Trump era with blasts of righteous outrage, some Republicans seem to be experiencing a quieter feeling of queasiness brought on by the dawning realization that Trump's bizarre behavior is not merely an act created for public consumption. The frustrations experienced by the Trump aides who have already leaked damaging material to the Times and Post are undoubtedly spreading more widely within the party. Given the outcome of the last election, one would have expected this past week's retreat by congressional Republicans to be held amid an atmosphere of unrestrained euphoria, yet journalistic accounts paint a picture of a collectively uncertain GOP that is warily attempting to take the measure of its new leader.

Weighing the evidence, it seems as if observers both inside and outside the political world—including those of us studying politics using the tools of social science—need to readjust their assumptions and expectations of presidential behavior if they want to understand what's going on. As one anxious Republican told Politico, "It's surreal. We finally have the White House, and it's this." In order to figure out what exactly "this" is and how it will work in practice, the gaming-out of strategic calculus will need to be complemented even more than usual by insights from the realm of human psychology, where the presence of logic and reason is never taken for granted.