Trump: Playing the game 'wrong'

In the old poker movie, “The Cincinnati Kid,” wily veteran Edward G. Robinson bests the young poker shark Steve McQueen and delivers the final punch line: “Doing the wrong thing at the right time — that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it, kid?”

Well, President TrumpDonald John TrumpRepublicans consider skipping witnesses in Trump impeachment trial Bombshell Afghanistan report bolsters calls for end to 'forever wars' Lawmakers dismiss Chinese retaliatory threat to US tech MORE certainly has certainly mastered the “doing the wrong thing” part. But is he winning? Let’s review:

Trump’s management and political styles are rude and awkward. Threatening huge punitive tariffs on Mexico, one of our largest trading partners, has brought outcries across American industry dependent on Mexican imports, as well as some Republicans in the Senate. Moving additional battle groups to the Persian Gulf to challenge Iran has brought fear of war and disruption in the oil markets. Insulting our NATO and European Union partners caused former Chief of Staff John Kelly to visibly cringe and resign soon afterward.

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Abruptly firing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a former chairman of ExxonMobil, and embracing Kim Jong Un caused many to fear a naive and reckless policy shift on North Korea. Publicly admiring the leadership style of Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping caused an outcry over the abandonment of core American values of human rights. Starting a hot trade war with China has caused many to fear a complete cratering of the U.S. economy. Announcing an abrupt withdrawal from Syria after discussions with Putin and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan caused an uproar among military planners and led to the resignation of former Defense Secretary James Mattis, who left emitting a cloud of unkind words.

Trump’s embrace of nationalism in the U.S., as well as overseas (e.g., Brexit), has led to cries of racism domestically and scolding from French President Emmanuel Macron. Strengthening America’s alliance with Saudi Arabia, which seems to actively flout human rights norms, has created really bad “optics.” Aggressively siding with Israel has driven the pro-Palestinian, anti-Semite American progressive left to new extremes.

Economic, financial, foreign policy, communications and political “experts” have flocked to the media to proclaim that Trump is doing it all wrong. Last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel excoriated Trump at Harvard. Obama foreign policy quislings have begged Iran not to “overreact.” The markets have been rattled. American business leaders have publicly warned of a recession or worse. The Russians and Chinese have unveiled new weapons and may have restarted nuclear testing. North Korea has fired some short-range missiles. Iran has fired up the “death to America” sound machine.

Domestic U.S. media and political machinery representing Chinese, Islamic, Hispanic, “civil rights,” progressive, and hundreds of other factions have engaged in withering criticism and diminishment of the president and his policies. The Democratic-led House has been emboldened, if not driven, to move toward impeaching an elected president found guilty of ... nothing.

By most measures, Trump is making huge mistakes and doing it all wrong. Any president over the past hundred years would have folded under this much personal and political pressure. All would have broken at some point.

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And yet, he hasn't. He has fumed, and then flourished.

The economy is humming. Unemployment is at record lows. “Fairness” and “opportunity” for all Americans is at all-time highs — Trump’s opponents are forced to stretch all the way to socialism and communism to find “grievances” and offer alternatives to his successful policies. Merkel and Macron speeches aside, NATO allies finally have started living up to their commitments and the EU has come to Trump to negotiate trade agreements that give him much more leverage against China.

Most Europeans are actively questioning their open immigration policies. China has seen growing American military and economic pressure responding to its aggressive and predatory mercantilist policies, and prodding for more cooperation on North Korea and other areas. Russia has seen an expansion of the Magnitsky Act, which create real pain for Putin’s allies. Both Russia and China have seen a smarter America, with a more aggressive defense strategy that avoids costly and unnecessary military conflict.

North Korea is so frustrated with Trump that it is killing its own negotiators, while avoiding the provocative behavior it successfully used on Trump’s predecessors. Trump has strengthened the key alliances with Israel and Japan, and has built Saudi Arabia into a more reliable counterbalance to Iran.

He has isolated Democrats as irresponsible, open-border advocates — a winning issue for him. He has built a strong case for re-election against a radical, inexperienced and weak Democratic field. If he wasn’t named (and didn’t behave like) Donald Trump, he would be hailed as a great president.

And so, while the Chinese were playing Go, the Russians and Iranians playing chess, the Democrats playing checkers, Trump has swept all their pieces off their boards and started a poker game — and may be winning.

Grady Means is a writer and former corporate strategy consultant. He served in the White House as a policy assistant to Nelson Rockefeller and as a staff economist for Secretary Elliott Richardson of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Follow him on Twitter @GradyMeans.