In assessing Donald Trump as a president, it is common enough to evaluate his character in psychodynamic terms, for example, to highlight his apparent narcissism, grandiosity or impulsiveness. There is nothing wrong per se with this point of departure. But in doing so we deprive ourselves of learning about the specific features of his executive functioning that shed light on how he makes decisions, how his thinking shapes his sense of options, how his relatedness with others influences his role-taking, and how he projects his character to create such a wide appeal. We could call these features some aspects of his leadership style as opposed to his psychodynamic character. This approach gets us out of the box of seeing Trump as sui-generis, one result of demonizing him. It helps us see Trump in the context of the larger question of how executives of major institutions take up their roles according to their talents, interests and styles of thought. As a writer and thinker interested in the dynamics of leadership, these questions interest me greatly. Thus, my point of departure for this post is to delve into the dynamics of executive decision making, using the very public record that Trump as president provides us. In this sense the post is about executive functioning with Trump as the example. The reader can judge whether this frame of reference deepens our understanding of the leadership process in general, while also providing insight into how Trump leads.
AbstractionIn his book on the Trump Administration, Fear, Bob Woodward describes the difficulty Gary Cohn, Trump's chief economic advisor, had in convincing him that the meaning he ascribed to the U.S. trade deficit was too narrow. The deficit, as Cohn argued, did not represent bad deals, but in fact conferred decisive advantages. For example, low prices on imported manufactured goods freed up spending on consumer and business services, and the latter, not manufacturing jobs, were the major sources of job growth in the economy. In addition, Trump’s focus on particular trade deals, for example with Mexico and South Korea, precluded considering their larger role in United States’ geopolitical positioning. When Trump threatened to withdraw from the bilateral trade deal with South Korea and demanded that it pay more for the stationing of U.S. troops on the peninsula, Cohn fretted that Trump did not consider the essential role that South Korea played in ensuring U.S. security. The U.S. troop presence enabled it to detect a North Korean missile launch in seven seconds, giving the U.S. time to shoot it down. “Cohn could not believe that President Trump would risk losing vital intelligence assets crucial to U.S. national security. This all stemmed from Trump’s fury that the United States had an $18 billion annual trade deficit with South Korea and was spending $3.5 billion a year to keep U.S. troops there.” More broadly, the U.S. dollar is the world’s reserve currency providing U.S. consumers with great benefits. Any country with a trade surplus with the U.S. is in effect saving on behalf of U.S. consumers. The country accumulates dollars, which are in effect loans without term limits, while the American consumer accumulate goods and services.
The failure to consider trade policy “in the round,” to see beyond the immediate transaction to the embedded relationships that surround a trading relationship, represents a failure of abstraction. We might presume that this failure to think abstractly is a signal of impaired cognition. For example, much has been made of Trump’s probable cognitive decline when comparing his current verbal fluency and sentence construction to the way he spoke 30 years ago. But a 1987 video interview with the TV personality Larry King reveals both great verbal fluency alongside the same preoccupation with bilateral trade deficits, only then with Japan rather than China or Mexico. Instead, this valency for concrete thinking represents a personality characteristic. Its correlate is thinking practically and in down-to-earth terms, with an accompanying disinterest in the arts or sciences and a preference for routine over novelty. Such a practical mindset is useful in sales, and in doing deals that do not require considering too many stakeholders and multiple issues. This skill, when finely honed, could very well lead to success in any number of commercial undertakings, buying and selling real estate among them. Psychologists who study the “big 5” personality characteristics describe this practical mindedness as the obverse of what they term “openness to experience,” which privileges novelty and abstraction. I think we can say that Trump, with his penchant for buying and selling, for direct dealing with people rather than issues- think of his personal diplomacy with Kim Jong-un of North Korea-- and his wish to come home quickly and sleep in his own bed, fits these characteristics to a tee. There is nothing psychopathological about this stance. God knows the world needs practical people. They turn the wheels of the marketplace. The only question is the fit between such a person and the work he is called upon to do.
A concrete thinker can overcome some of the limitations associated with complex decisions in two ways; by reference to instinctive feelings, which are emotionally toned cognitive schema, and by the way he or she uses others to work through problems. There is little doubt that Trump is an extrovert. He loves being the center of attention, draws energy from crowds of supporters, and exercises dominance-- a drive central to his character-- through his continuous and public brawls with opponents. His extraversion means that he also thinks through others, though without relying on a systematic process in which, for example, people write issues papers, debate the pros and cons as he listens, and come to a consensus, or present him with options. Trump simply cannot abide such a policy process. Instead, he prefers spontaneous conversations with people who compete for his attention. Through a process of trial and error thinking, he comes to his own decisions. The latter are shaped by his personal connection with those who want to influence him, and by the emotionally toned schemas that shape his world view, for example “deficits are bad,” or “foreign wars waste blood and treasure.” What counts in this process are his likes and dislikes for his advisers, and by the feelings that a particular course of action triggers within him. In this he combines extraversion with what the Rorschach test describes as an extratensive decision making style, relying on emotions as they are triggered by relationships, rather than inwardly working through his own ideas.
His decision to not bomb an Iranian missile site in response to their downing of an unmanned U.S. drone certainly had some of these features. While the details of his decision making are not entirely clear, he relied less on memos and meetings and according to the New York Times “trusted his instincts over institutions while defying the counsel of a roomful of his appointed advisers.” The Thursday of the day the drone was shot down, John Bolton, a senior foreign policy advisor, assembled a group to consider possible military responses. They met with Trump in the late morning to consider options. Trump however did not abide by this formal process, but instead sought the counsel of both Senator Lindsay Graham and Tucker Carlson, the Fox-news newscaster. The former argued for the bombing while the latter, in an argument that proved decisive, argued that Trump had stood as a candidate against wasteful and un-winnable wars in the Middle-East. Should hostilities break out, Carlson argued, he would risk his re-election. Nonetheless, by Friday at 7 pm Trump gave the go-ahead for a missile strike to begin between 9 and 10 pm that evening. Yet, as the Times reports, lawyers, who estimated that 150 people might be killed in a strike, circumvented the acting Defense Secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of (military) Staff and reached Trump through White House counsel, Pat A. Cipollone. Based on their estimates, Trump scrubbed the missile strike. Most likely, Trump felt that a strike which killed 150 people seemed disproportionate to the trigger event, the downing of an unmanned drone. This disproportion raised the prospects of a widening conflict and Tucker’s counsel, that he ran against wars in the Middle-East, proved decisive.
Two features of this decision process are of interest here, the subversion of a formal decision-making process and Trump’s last-minute change of mind. The two are connected. As a trial and error thinker who feels his way through a situation by relating with others, Trump seeks and invites ongoing influence until he can find his own emotional center for a decision. This looks impulsive but it is not. Rather it is a method for securing the information that is sufficient and requisite to trigger an instinct, or a schema that has high emotional salience, for example, that foreign wars are a dead end for the country and for him. It’s the latter, the emotional salience, that is decisive for a decision. This is also why a succession of chiefs of staff have been unable to regulate his subordinates’ access to the oval office. Trump needs the serendipity of unplanned encounters.
There is little doubt that this decision-making style both thrives on and can create chaos. It also assures that Trump remains at the center of any important decision. But it can also lead to any number of aborted decision processes and create a sense of fruitlessness among his subordinates. Consider the following. As Woodward reports, in April of 2017, Trump wanted an executive order withdrawing the U.S. from NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, announcing, “I want it on my desk by Friday.” His chief of staff, Rob Porter, was appalled, knowing full well that a withdrawal violated the rules requiring a 180-day notice while Congress would have to approve a renegotiated treaty. Several influential advisers weighed in to deter Trump. H.R. McMaster, Secretary of Defense, said it would rattle allies, Homeland Security Chief, John Kelly, thought its result would be catastrophic, and Sonny Perdue, Agricultural Secretary, noted that NAFTA had been a big boon to U.S. agricultural interests, adding that people who made their living from the farm economy had voted for him. Trump decided to “amp up the rhetoric but not actually send the 180-day notice.” But then Peter Navarro, one of Trump’s top trade advisors, “Slipped into the Oval Office for an ad hoc unscheduled meeting with the president complaining that Trump had done little on trade except for withdrawing from Obama’s carefully constructed Trans Pacific Partnership.” Trump changed his mind and demanded that Porter draft the 180-day notification of withdrawal. Porter complied. But worried that this would create a foreign relations crisis, he sought Gary Cohn’s help. At a fortuitous moment Cohn, assuming that Trump would forget his order if there were no document in front of him to remind him of it, simply removed it from Trump’s desk. The order to withdraw was forgotten though Trump did ultimately renegotiate aspects of NAFTA with Canada and Mexico. The cost to Trump of this seemingly minor kerfuffle is that his own subordinates would likely feel contempt for his inconstancy and seeming lack of focus. We might call this decision-making style impulsive, but since no decision was in fact taken, it is better characterized as the outcome of distraction. The latter in turn is engendered when Trump experiences no emotional drive to actually decide something, as he did in the decision to strike, or not, Iran with missiles.
One significant limitation of Trump’s concreteness when combined with his extraversion is that he really does not understand institutions, particularly the way in which people take up issues influenced by their institutional roles, rather than by their own personal preferences and proclivities. He does not appear to understand how a role, which is an institutional manifestation, shapes the consciousness of the role holder. His world view is far too personalistic, a view that has been reinforced for decades as the owner of a family business where roles and people are frequently one and the same. For example, his continued outrage at Jeff Sessions, his Attorney General, for recusing himself from overseeing the Mueller investigation into Russian meddling in the presidential campaign, was based on the idea that Sessions should be loyal to him rather than to the obligations inherent in his role. Sessions, a great and early Trump supporter admitted, after earlier denying it to a Senate committee, that he had in fact met with the Russian ambassador during the campaign. He announced that consequently he would not oversee any investigation into the issue of Russian meddling. He based his stance on a Department of Justice regulation which said that no employee of the department, “may participate in a criminal investigation or prosecution if he has a personal or political relationship with any person or organization substantially involved in the conduct that is the subject of the investigation or prosecution, or who would be directly affected by the outcome." We cannot know for sure what combination of factors ultimately led Sessions to recuse himself. Possibly, having denied that he had had contacts with the Russians he felt embarrassed in front of his once Senate colleagues. But it also seems that he found the fortitude to anger his boss greatly by reference to his role as a department employee. Trump simply could not understand this, insisting that Sessions’ personal loyalty to him should govern his conduct.
Indeed, Trump’s failure to understand institutions triggered the entire Mueller probe into the conduct of his campaign. To recall, Trump fired the head of the FBI, James Comey, most likely because Comey according to his own account would “not let go” of potential charges against Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security advisor. Steve Bannon, a central Trump advisor at the time, and a man of considerable political acuity, told Trump that you cannot, “fire the FBI” without triggering major political fallout. He proved right. Moreover, Bannon’s reference to “firing the FBI” rather than “firing Comey” reflected his understanding that the FBI with its mission, resources, ties to people in Congress, and other divisions of the Justice Department could and would defend its prerogatives. Indeed, at one point, when under the directorship of J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI was close to being an independent branch of government by virtue of the secrets it had amassed as an investigative bureau.
When Rod Rosenstein, the Deputy Attorney General under Sessions, became an acting Attorney General after Sessions recused himself, he had already established himself as an institutionalist through his own critique of James Comey's behavior just before election day in November, 2016. In a scathing letter, Rosenstein wrote that James Comey was wrong to have taken it upon himself to announce that the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails, “should be closed without persecution.” Rosenstein argued that only the Attorney General, not the FBI director, was authorized to make such a pronouncement. As he wrote, “The FBI Director is never empowered to supplant federal prosecutors and assume command of the Justice Department.” In addition, Rosenstein held Comey to task for announcing, at the close of the investigation, that Clinton had been “extremely careless,” a derogatory comment which Rosenstein believed exceeded Comey’s authorization. As he wrote, “Derogatory information sometimes is disclosed in the course of criminal investigations and prosecutions, but we never release it gratuitously. The Director laid out his version of the facts for the news media as if it were a closing argument, but without a trial. It is a textbook example of what federal prosecutors and agents are taught not to do.”
In other words, Rosenstein was supremely tuned to the dynamics of institutional authorization, and it was within this frame of reference that he appointed Robert Mueller, a former FBI director with an outstanding reputation for probity, impartiality and for always acting within role, to head the probe into the Trump-campaign’s ties to Russia. I interpret this sequence of events as evidence that Trump’s careless attempts to replace institutions with personal ties engendered countervailing responses by any number of individuals who believed in and defended the sanctity of institutions as a framework for assuring reliable and legitimate governance. Trump’s personalism really undermined him.
The Democrat’s Misunderstanding
The Democrats' failure to understand this personalism led them to vastly overestimate the meaning of the Trump-campaign’s various contacts with Russians in the run up to the presidential election. It is no surprise that personalism would lead to an under-organized campaign in which various officials sought personal advantage from their positions. For example, Paul Manafort, who was Trump’s presidential campaign chair from June to August of 2016, saw his role as a vehicle for securing his business prospects in the Ukraine. He had extensive ties with pro-Russian politicians in that country, helping one, Victor Yanukovych win the presidency. He made a great deal of money as a political advisor to the pro-Russian political party, The Party of Regions. But by 2015 he owed at least $17 million to “interests favorable to Putin and Yanukovych.” Manafort also had close ties to Konstantin V. Kilimnik. The latter’s political role and positioning are somewhat murky. He worked closely with Manafort while living in Kiev, and appeared to be running Manafort’s office there. The Mueller report proposes Kilimnik had ties to Russian intelligence.
Manafort showed Kilimnik some of the Trump-campaign’s internal polling data. Why would he do this? One reasonable hypothesis was that he was trying to spread the word of his new found influence in the Trump-campaign to win relief from his debts, particularly to Oleg Deripaska, a Russian billionaire with close to ties to Vladimir Putin. As the Mueller report notes, on April 11, 2016, Manafort asked Kilimnik If he “had shown “our friends” the media coverage of his new role” in the Presidential campaign. Kilimnik responded, “absolutely, every article,” leading Manafort to ask, “How do we use (this coverage) to get whole,” in other words to reduce or eliminate his indebtedness. He then added, “Has Deripaska (the billionaire) seen?,” to which Kilimnik responded, “Yes, I have been sending everything to Victor (Deripaska’s deputy), who has been forwarding the coverage directly to OVD (Deripaska). Indeed, Richard Gates, Manafort’s deputy, told the Mueller investigative team that if Trump had won the presidency Manafort intended to stay outside the administration but monetize his relationship to it.
It is apparent as well that George Papadopoulus, who figured prominently in the Mueller investigation exaggerated his standing, knowledge and connections. He had been hired by the campaign after the media criticized it for lacking experts in foreign affairs. Noting that Trump was interested in his relationships to Russians- most likely because of his ongoing negotiation to build a Trump Tower in Moscow- Papadopoulus did what he could on his own authority to build some connections to them. When Joseph Misfud, a Maltese academic, introduced him to Olga Polanskayi, he told Papadopoulus she was Vladimir Putin’s niece when in fact she worked for a Russian wine import company, did not speak English and according to her brother had absolutely no interests in politics. “It’s totally ridiculous,” he said. “She’s not interested in politics. She can barely tell the difference between Lenin and Stalin.” Polanskayi met Papadopoulus while applying for an internship with Misfud. Papadopoulus believed that Misfud himself had extensive connections with Russians, but Misfud later claimed that he is simply an academic and does not even speak Russian. The Mueller report says that Misfud told Papadopoulus that the Russians had dirt on Hillary Clinton, an obvious fabrication and the same lie that Natalia Veselnitskaya used to get a meeting with Donald Trump Junior and Jared Kushner in the Trump Tower, in the June before the election.
How to make sense of this hall of mirrors? If you have a conspiratorial mind set, you will try to square the circle of all this contradictory information with reference to further hidden facts or motives. But I vote for Occam’s razor here and say that these are all examples of low-level officials and individuals hustling for advantage, trading on supposed secrets and hoping that one last encounter will actually yield some information of value that enables them to make good on their pretensions and improve their positioning. This is garden variety venality and one result of a loosely organized campaign in which the central figure, Donald Trump, could only lead through the exercise of personal force, and not through plans and ideas. This is a far cry from the Nixon of Watergate, the exemplar of presidential conspiracy, whose understanding of institutions set in motion his attempt to undermine them. If Nixon was a thief in the night exercising deceit, then Trump was a bull in the china shop, creating havoc. Karl Marx famously said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce. I vote for the farce.
The problem of ideas
Analysts have commented on the high level of turnover in the Trump administration. The Brookings institute reports that 61% of Trump’s A-team of administrators have voluntarily resigned or resigned under pressure, while more cabinet officials have resigned in Trump’s first three years than did in Reagan’s, Clinton's, the two Bushes' and Obama’s first four years.
One explanation is Trump’s general disagreeableness and his penchant for turning hot and cold toward others. But another and more systemic explanation is linked to the role that basic ideas play in linking executives to the chief and to each other. In this way of thinking the chief executive creates a coalition of other executives, each with a particular power base, who together can implement the chief’s plans and strategies. The ties among coalition members and the chief are paradoxically impersonal, but their objectivity, based on a few core ideas, enables each executive to find his or her role in moving an institution forward. The chief, who might under certain circumstances be wary of a subordinate who has an independent power base, tolerates it if the subordinate can mobilize her base to implement the chief’s ideas. Absent ideas, the normal vicissitudes of relatedness that weaken the personal connections between people, mismatches of character, personal disappointments, competition for status, and backbiting, will lead to resignations or firings. It is peculiar that in much of the literature on leadership, writers reference all sorts of personality characteristics and behaviors while neglecting the basic role that a few good ideas play in executive success. The Chinese idea of the "New Silk Road" is one example of such a good big idea at a national scale. It resonates with the Chinese mercantilist temperament, it has wide scope, it references an historical memory, it depends on the coordination of many Chinese institutions, and it has many and different manifestations on the ground.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, FDR, the president of the U.S. during the Great Depression, was the quintessential president in marrying ideas to an entourage of highly talented executives. His “four freedoms” promise (freedom of speech, of worship, and from want and fear), was instantiated in a wide range of programs lead by such luminaries, as Francis Perkins, the Secretary of Labor, Thurman Arnold, the Assistant Attorney General, Hugh Johnson, the head of the National Recovery Administration, Harry Hopkins, the Secretary of Commerce and Lewis W. Douglas, the Budget Director. At the same time, Roosevelt kept himself at the center of all final decision-making by often authorizing duplicate initiatives for launching programs and advancing legislation. This kept all of his talented subordinates on their toes and slightly off balance, ensuring that no single executive could develop a power base in a manner inconsistent with Roosevelt’s overall goals.
One central dilemma of the Trump administration is the paucity of ideas to guide it. Trump was poorly prepared for governing and his matter-of-fact intelligence, means that he comes into the presidency without ideas for how to govern or lead a legislative process. He surely touched a deep nerve with his slogan, “Make American Great Again, showing an emotional attunement to the people who love him. The slogan spoke to people’s felt anger at being labeled racist, sexist and backwards, the “deplorables” in Hillary Clinton's unfortunate appellation. He proposed that their self-respect and patriotism had a rightful place in the sun. But the link between these feelings and legislating and governing is a weak one. As we have seen, if “Make America Great Again” means recovering the smokestack economy by reversing trade deficits, it is a losing proposition. Any serious program for economic rejuvenation would surely address the central problems of workforce education and physical infrastructure. Indeed, Trump had a taste for the latter, he offered it as an idea, but has shown no interest in making it priority. Moreover, he has proved incapable of building a political coalition to address the asylum crisis at the southern border. A partisan could blame the Democrats for this failure. But surely it falls on the president to ultimately resolve, through creative political means, what may at first appear to be an intractable problem. That is what we voters “hired” him to do. And to acknowledge the pun, his focus on building a (concrete) wall to stem the flow of asylum seekers at the southern border, is another example of his concrete thinking. He envisions a physical barrier rather than an institutional policy.
To be sure, he has successfully executed ideas he inherited from the centrist Republican platform, namely lowering taxes and deregulating industry, and from his evangelical base, appointing conservative federal judges. But these are not his own ideas. Rather they are conveniences he leans on to secure his presidency and re-election. I propose that this is the underlying reason for the high turnover in his administration.
Trump as Twin
Freud famously proposed that people in groups are inked together by their shared identification with the leader. This identification takes the form of “introjection” in which the image of the leader comes to occupy a place of privilege in the minds of followers. These are the conditions for example when people may willingly forgo their good judgment and even moral impulses because the image of the leader as the new “superego” object of the mind, the new conscience, displaces earlier internal representations of parents, teachers and mentors. For example, when people close to President Richard Nixon conspired with him to cover up the dirty tricks of his re-election campaign, what we now call the Watergate crisis, they were likely awed by the Office of the President and thus the man who occupied it. As a result, they subordinated to his impulses and needs rather than to their own. But introjection need not only be destructive. When people introjected Martin Luther King their moral sense was elevated, while some of its punitive derivatives -the “thou shalt nots-” were eliminated. King as a parental figure helped people find their moral selves based on an experience of an expanded love encompassing the human community at its best. This faith in the loving intentions of the other, was one basis for non-violent resistance in the Civil Rights movement.
I don’t think it is quite right to say that Trump is this kind of father figure. While he has charisma, he lacks gravitas. This is why people around him in the White House and in the executive branch such as Jeff Sessions, James Comey and Don McGahn, his personal counselor, did not carry out those of his requests that smacked of obstructing justice. For example, Trump asked the latter, to tell Rod Rosenstein, the acting Attorney General, to fire Robert Mueller, the special investigator. McGahn simply ignored him.
Instead, I think supporters experience a kind of “twin-ship” with Trump. He is one of them, not above them, but freer, and more vital. When you watch Trump at a rally of supporters he is spontaneous and completely unrehearsed. If you wrote down what he said it will appear incoherent in many parts, but the center of gravity is not the thoughts themselves but the emotional spontaneity, and evident comfort and delight, with which they are delivered. The crowd identifies with this freedom and with the sense of inclusion he creates for those who love him. Just as twins do with another, Trump creates a vivid “in-group” experience, free of constraining "parental" supervision, with Trump himself, as its most vital member. The risk of this kind of in-group is the emotional insularity and self-referencing it breeds. This is one reason Trump’s strong supporters can discount the evidence of his significant limitations.
Freud describes the id as the place in the mind where impulses hold sway, and were it not for the executive functions of the ego and superego, the id would create unregulated conduct. There is undoubtedly something “id like” in Trump’s performances; his freedom to say outrageous things, to lie with alacrity and without shame, to disparage an enemy’s intelligence or appearance, and to pick fights with them in the spirit of a barroom brawler. This is partly why the evidence of his infidelity and his womanizing were inconsequential. As my colleague Eli Zaretsky argues, his behavior exemplifies his ability to act unburdened by constraint. By twinning with Trump, his followers experience vicariously his freedom. This is an important emotional basis for the coalition of voters who elected him, his greatest source of strength as a political leader, and the basis for the practice of his demagoguery.
But is there a specific content to his supporters’ attraction to this lack of constraint? Or can it be chalked up to a general underlying wish we all have, and sometimes make good on, to escape the strictures of social convention and even the law, for example by cheating on our spouses or taxes. After all, at any given moment, millions of people feel unfairly burdened. I think we have to take Trump and his supporters at their word here, that they feel burdened, disrespected and mistreated in particular by what is called political correctness (PC). From their point of view PC represents a new kind of superego, an elite and punishing authority system that is on the prowl throughout the culture. According to this point of view, PC regulates speech, suspects patriotism, identifies new victimizers who don’t feel powerful themselves, creates an expanding category of victims with peremptory needs, considers competence suspect, favors equality over merit, undermines the sexual relationship between men and women, and overextends the definition of male predatory behavior. I cannot parse the truth value of these claims in this blog post. But anyone who wants to understand the deep emotional bonds Trump evokes among his base would be surely amiss if she did not consider the wider impacts of what is called political correctness.