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Evesplaining

Trump Isn't a Strongman, He Just Plays One on TV

The president cares about what people think more than anything else—and that's a big problem.

by Eve Peyser
Jun 6 2017, 6:15pm

Image by author via Getty Images

Welcome back to Evesplaining, politics writer Eve Peyser's column about why everyone else is wrong and she's right.

Donald Trump's lawyers have asked him to stop tweeting. So has his senior staff, and even many of his supporters in the mythical Real America. So why do I wake up every morning to a fresh batch of the president's emotionally charged ramblings?

I couldn't say for sure, because Trump's mind, as simple as it may be, is unknowable. But my guess is that above all else—above even the interests of the country or his own agenda—Trump wants to put on a good show, one that makes him seem stronger and better than the rest. He has little regard for the consequences of his words because he's not interested in governing.

In his younger years, Trump decided that there was no reason to be rich unless everyone knew how rich you were and how many models you dated. Similarly, he's only interesting in the performance of politics, not the substance of policy.

On Monday, after announcing his intention to privatize air traffic control—a long-standing if not particularly high-profile Republican goal—Trump held an event to sign a memo related to the matter and, naturally, invited an audience. As the New York Times reported, "He handed out pens to lawmakers who had been invited to attend, and reveled in several rounds of applause." But the documents weren't executive actions, which carry some force. Congress will need to pass legislation to privatize air traffic control. Trump simply wanted to put on a show, to receive applause, to look effective.

Another example of style over substance came in the wake of the terrorist attack in London, when Trump tweeted, "The Justice Dept. should ask for an expedited hearing of the watered down Travel Ban before the Supreme Court - & seek much tougher version!" He followed that up with:

As has been pointed out, these tweets not only criticize Trump's own Department of Justice and the order that he himself signed, but also might hurt his administration in court. The lawyers opposing the travel ban have argued that Trump is trying to institute a Muslim ban by another name, and cite the president's public comments as evidence. Saying that the second order is just a "watered down" version of the first, more obviously Islamophobic order—and calling it a "ban" rather than a "pause" as some administration officials have done—seems likely to hurt Trump in court.

Another president with the same goals might have simply said nothing. But Trump doesn't seem to mind losing in court as long as he's winning in the eyes of some subset of the public.

His primary motivation appears to be putting on the best performance as a strongman president. As Masha Gessen wrote of Russian president Vladimir Putin in her recent New York Times op-ed, "To the extent that he has any interest in the business of governing, it is his role—on the world stage or on Russian television—that concerns him." Trump shares these qualities with the man he once wished would be his "best friend." Gessen noted that Trump seems "to think that politics consists of demonstrating that he is in charge." In his mind, keeping mum on his travel ban means he's weak. Tweeting in all caps about it, though it can and will be used against him in court, projects strength.

Though I have never dipped a toe into the waters of American politics, succeeding in Washington supposedly involves knowing when to keep things to yourself. Trump has never cared about succeeding on DC's terms though. The former reality TV host obviously believes the way to win is to get the support of the people, to entertain them, to speak directly to them:

So is it working? Not really. According to opinion polls, which Trump no doubt thinks are fake, his approval rating is worse than ever. But Trump isn't going to change, at least not as long as his diehard fans cheer when he holds his rallies.

On Tuesday afternoon, two White House sources told the Washington Post reporter that Trump might live tweet former FBI director James Comey's eagerly awaited congressional testimony, if he "feels the need to respond." Publicly weighing in on a hearing that concerns an investigation into you and your subordinates' shady behavior is self-evidently insane. But if Trump goes down, he's going to down the way he came up: shouting, full of bile, and tweeting through it.

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