Ignoring Trump: A Political Strategy

Concord, New Hampshire. February 2016

Let’s stipulate that Donald Trump is a brilliant politician with keen negotiating skills. Under this theory, which is being put forth by his staff, supporters and sometimes members of the news media who are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, all the histrionics of the last month is a giant head fake. We are asked to believe that Trump knows exactly what he is doing when he offends or puts potential adversaries in their place. He is seeking leverage and when the time is right, with his opposition off balance, he will be able to use that leverage to strike the right deal for America. So stipulated.

There are a few problems with this picture however and they begin with the basic truth that the rest of the world does not operate according to Trump’s rules.

Trump is used to making business deals in which he alone can make the decision on whether or how to engage with a potential partner. As president of the United States the choice will not always be his alone to make. While Trump may be comfortable operating the executive branch like a business, political leaders around the world are not businessmen they are politicians. In politics, decisions are not made solely on hard data. Political decisions are made with full consideration of past history, future ramifications, the domestic politics of foreign countries and in the case of the United States, with the oversight of Congress and the courts.

So as the Trump presidency begins, it is very likely he is playing the wrong game and using the wrong rules. Unless of course the rest of the world is wrong and only Donald Trump is right. The odds are against that. It is very unlikely that politicians in America and around the world are going to respond to President Trump by behaving as accountants. They will continue to behave as politicians and when a politician is faced with a force like Trump the easiest course to take is to ignore it.

Which brings us to Mexico, the original pillar of the Trump campaign. A battle most of America would not choose.

President Trump continues to suggest he will build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico and that Mexico will pay for it. The president of Mexico has consistently said that will never happen and if you consider the issue from a political perspective he is probably right. Even if viewed from the perspective of a deal-maker, President Trump has never offered Mexico an incentive to pay for the wall. There’s nothing in the deal for Mexico so it is a bad deal by definition. Trump has threatened economic repercussions, but of all the troubles in the world, it would seem a waste of energy and resources to choose a trade battle with one of our two next door neighbors as a top priority. Trump’s threat carries little weight.

From a Mexican political perspective, President Enrique Pena Nieto is in a corner. He has stated unequivocally that his country will not pay for Trump’s wall. This is a public position he cannot retreat from and a position any other politician in Mexico must meet as a minimum standard. This is not business, Mr. Trump, this is politics. The only way to help the Mexican president out of the corner you placed him in is to convert paying for a U.S. border wall to Mexico’s national interest. This cannot be done without Americans paying for the wall — in one way or another — making this first attempt at running government like a deal book a strategic failure.

Now apply the example of Mexico to Mr. Trump’s other policy ideas and you begin to see how the likely response to his flailing, by opposition politicians in this country and leaders around the world, will be to ignore him. Republicans on Capitol Hill will not go out of their way to back up the president if he continues to behave erratically. They are politicians, not businessmen. If Trump makes unreasonable demands on foreign leaders, they may counter with unreasonable demands of their own which will lead only to international stalemate and lack of respect for the United States.

Which leads us finally to the flawed premise of the entire Trump movement. “Make America Great Again” is short-hand for “remember when we were the boss and everyone just did what we said?” The United States is a great country with great influence, but we are not in a position to expect everyone in the world to accede to our demands. Donald Trump may be a great negotiator(still stipulating here), but he is used to negotiating with other business people and he always has had the ability to walk away if he didn’t think he was achieving complete victory.

In politics, the rules are different, victory is often incomplete and insisting as a starting point that everyone simply fall in line behind the biggest bully fails almost every time. Trump is used to being the sole winner. The one who comes out on top. These are business rules. In politics, the rules require that everyone be in a position to claim victory. This is a lesson Trump has yet to learn.

Photojournalism for Brands and Ideas.