Every once in a while I read something that annoys me because someone else managed to put into words a key idea that I have tried to express with far less success or succinctness. Such is the case with this column by former Bush adviser and speechwriter Michael Gerson about Donald Trump:
Trump’s guiding principles are a disdain for precedent, a preference for institutional chaos and an invincible trust in his own instincts.
This means that the best interpretive framework through which to understand Trump’s leadership is psychological rather than ideological. One would think that a president with historically low poll numbers, facing an investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III of growing seriousness, heading (in all likelihood) toward a disastrous midterm repudiation that could lead to his impeachment, and presiding over an administration run on the management principles of Maximilien Robespierre might be acting out of desperation. On the contrary, White House insiders indicate that Trump’s increasingly flailing decisions are the function of a president gaining in confidence. Having decided that he has gotten the hang of the job, Trump has lost patience with opposition and constraints. He seems not frightened but giddy.
What does this mean for Trump’s presidency? Paradoxically, the man with complete trust in his own instincts is easily manipulated. Because Trump lacks historical and ideological grounding for his views, the content of his instincts often seems determined by the last person who captures his attention. This was true of Chung, who could quickly sell a massive change in U.S. diplomatic strategy in East Asia to a leader who knows little about diplomacy, strategy or East Asia. But Trump came away from the meeting convinced, I imagine, that the whole thing was his idea. The rootless are easily shifted, as everyone from the leaders of China to the hosts of “Fox & Friends” has discovered.
Daniel Drezner takes off from where Gerson ends, arguing that one of the reasons Trump has been on a firing rampage lately is that he feels emboldened if the ideas he comes up with don’t result in immediate disaster.
Trump has such a short-term worldview that if something calamitous does not happen immediately after he does something, it bolsters his assumption that he’s bulletproof.
But there’s more to it than that. Trump thinks he’s bulletproof because he always has been. He has lived a life totally free of accountability and consequence. But I think Drezner also underestimates Trump’s gift for rationalization to the point of self-delusion. Even if something he did resulted in immediate calamity, it would do nothing to dissuade him. He would find an easy way to blame it on someone else, just as he so easily and casually takes credit for everything good that happens, with no link at all to anything he’s done.
Our brains are built for rationalization more than rationality, and we all are susceptible to that kind of thinking. But Trump’s ability to delude himself — and others — is almost supernatural in scope. He lives in an alternate universe inside his own head.