Royals and Tribes

It’s true, unless you are on the inside of a presidential administration you really have little idea how decisions are made or why they are made. Even the most well-sourced White House correspondents only know what they are told by a mix of people talking on and off the record with their own motivations for telling the stories they tell.

The news media generally assume every decision is made from a political perspective and therefore there are no pure mistakes. Every decision is seen as part of a calculation designed to appeal to the president’s base over the needs of those who can’t or won’t help him in the next election. Rarely does the press consider the possibility that some decisions are made for practical reasons — because they are the right thing to do — and some bad decisions are simply the result of human error.

The absence of first hand knowledge does not stop the press, commentators and the American people from speculating on their own about whether the president is effective. This presents a major challenge for President Trump as he nears the end of his first year in office. Few understand his goals which makes it easy to assume the worst when analyzing his priorities. The random nature of his running public commentary leaves the impression that he believes he is president only in theory. It is as if he is watching the World Series from the pitcher’s mound unaware he is holding the game ball.

The communications problem this presents for the president should be clear to him. More than anyone else running for president in 2016, Trump understood the essential mood of the country. He understands public opinion is formed not based on fact, but by general impressions developed by ordinary people, living their lives, with time to pay only limited attention to the political conversation taking place in the eco-system of the national news media. Allowing a damaging narrative to take hold within the general public can be fatal to an administration, yet that is exactly what Trump is allowing to happen.

The Royals

Trump never claimed to be a man of the people. He boasted, during the campaign, about how rich he is and how well he could play the system. His wealth made him so powerful, he said, if he had told Mitt Romney to “get down on [his] knees” and beg for his support, Romney would have done it. Trump asked middle class America to hire him as its rich guy to put his smarts to work on America’s behalf, but nine months in, it appears the presidency is only a trophy for Trump. He has no idea what to do with it.

Trump’s attitude toward the office reminds me of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich who was caught scheming over how to use his power to appoint a new U.S. Senator to his advantage. “I’ve got this thing,” the governor said, “and it’s fucking golden, and…I’m just not giving it up for fuckin’ nothing.” He is now serving time in federal prison.

Trump, his family, and many of his appointees are filled with the entitlement that comes from extreme wealth. The president thinks nothing of moving the White House to Florida and New Jersey on the weekends, at taxpayer expense, because that’s what rich people do. Former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price (wealthy in his own right) obviously felt the same when he used private jets at taxpayer expense to travel the country. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and his new wife were shocked when their appetite for luxury travel drew criticism. To them, such luxury is not luxury, it’s how you get from place to place.

Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner think nothing of traveling the world with Secret Service protection, at great cost to taxpayers, because they were on the winning team and so they are entitled. It is no surprise they were among those caught using private email accounts to conceal some of their communications. Government email is for common people. Trump and many on his team come from the private sector where winner takes all. They won. They’ve got this thing and they are going to get all they can out of it and they don’t care if we pay for it.

Sensitive to his public image, Trump recognized the problem with the “optics” of the Price case so he accepted his resignation. But there is an underlying problem. The president has set a bad example and continues to do so. He continues to take advantage of the people who put him in office by forcing taxpayers to spend millions of dollars — sometimes in the course of one week — to pay for his leisure travel. His spokesmen have said, from the White House podium, that as president he is entitled to such treatment, but that does not make it right. His appointees are following his lead and several members of his administration think special treatment comes with the job. The news media has pulled a thread that will almost certainly lead to new scandal.

The ruling Trump family has no sense of public service. If they did they would curtail their travel habits and submit to the rules of government conduct, not because of the optics, but because the job of the president is a 24 hour a day 7 day a week commitment. If the president understood the weight of the office he has been given temporary custody of, he would give most of his waking hours to that job and respect the public’s right to know. So would his family.

Tribes

The most recent proof that Trump and his family do not understand the gravity of the job is the handling of the recovery effort in Puerto Rico. I will begin by admitting that without a seat on the inside, I have no idea why the response has been so inadequate, I only know that it has been.

Watching from the outside, there is a clearly a big difference between the preparation that went into planning for the response to hurricanes in Texas and Florida and the planning in advance of two hurricanes crashing into Puerto Rico. In the case of Texas and Florida, the administration seemed intent on avoiding the short-comings of the Bush administration and its handling of Hurricane Katrina. They knew expectations were low and they wanted to prove their critics wrong. It was again, a question of optics. Having received passing grades after the season’s first two storms hit the U.S. mainland, it appears Trump either didn’t have enough steam left to pay attention to Puerto Rico, or he sees Puerto Rican citizens as something less than full Americans.

Two quotes from President Trump suggest the latter. He initially refused to waive the law preventing internationally flagged ships from bringing relief supplies to Puerto Rico, because he said there were people in the shipping industry who were against it. When someone is facing an emergency, there is only one correct response: Get help to them as quickly as possible. Don’t ask a third party for permission first. Especially a third party with an economic interest.

One week after the storm, Trump compounded his failures by engaging in a public back and forth with the mayor of San Juan, who had criticized the federal response. The evidence suggests she is correct, but even if she is wrong there is only one response for a president in this situation and that is to accept the criticism and do everything in your power to make the mayor happy and get help to the Americans she represents. Instead, Trump criticized the mayor and the people of Puerto Rico by saying, she is a poor leader and “they want everything to be done for them.”

It is very difficult to read that description of Puerto Ricans as anything other than an ethnic stereotype coming from a 71 year old man who sees the world from the perspective of tribes. You’ve got your Jews, your Italians, “the blacks” — as he said at least once during the campaign, your Asians and the Puerto Ricans. All with their own recognizable traits.

Considering his response to Puerto Rico in the context of his response to Charlottesville and his decision to divide the country over the rights of athletes to express themselves on issues of public concern, Trump is only solidifying his image as a leader who seeks to maintain his power by splitting the country into factions.

There are those who continue to watch the Trump spectacle and analyze the daily decision making process based on the conventions set by past presidents. I continue to think that is a mistake, because there is no sign he is accomplishing anything under the cover of this darkness. His only strategic goal is saturation news coverage of himself.

President Trump is a man who keeps score by the minute. He is capable of turning on his closest allies at the first sign of advantage. His decisions are rooted in the general prejudice he has built up over seven decades of life. He has no empathy. His only concern is Donald Trump. How are the optics for Trump? How’s Trump doing? Why don’t you love Trump?

Anyone who has bet against Trump, over the last two years, has been proven wrong. He has survived episodes that would have ended most political careers time and again. His one consistent tactic is never backing down and no one has emerged who is able to top him in that category. Yet he cannot escape the ultimate judgement of the American people should he decide to run for re-election. Despite his record of survival to date, it is hard to imagine he can win a second term if he continues to show himself to the voters as so thoroughly selfish.

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Dean Pagani

Dean Pagani

Photojournalism for Brands and Ideas.