Trump’s winning weapon: Time
In the presidential campaign, in his trade and diplomatic negotiations, and in domestic policy fights, President Trump’s personal circumstances and the unwitting American media have dealt him a huge advantage: Although he is an impatient person, he is in no hurry.
In the current trade war, China has found a formidable opponent. In conventional political dogma, China can wait America out. Trade disputes put tremendous pressure on American presidents. Consumers complain about tariffs leading to rising prices. Businesses complain about higher costs and disrupted supply chains. Farmers bemoan lost markets. The stock market declines and there are dire forecasts from economic and financial experts.
Foreign policy experts opine on fraying alliances and permanent damage to the international trading system. Leading American academic and research institutes, beholden to Chinese contributions, trot out “leading authorities” to proclaim that the president is a bull in a China shop. Political opponents and media commentators label Trump as “unhinged,” and “reckless.”
Previous presidents would have caved quickly under this extreme pressure. They knew that China was a growing threat that needed to be dealt with, but they kicked that can down the road to avoid the inevitable political firestorm. They assumed that China had the best cards to play and would wait them out while doing them tremendous political damage. Trump has acted differently. He appears to be largely immune to much of the pressure.
Similarly, with North Korea, many previous presidents caved to the pressure, deceit and slow-walking negotiations, and granted North Korea benefits based upon empty promises. Again, Trump has ignored the huge pressure and not caved.
And, of course, with Russia, Trump has systematically upped the sanctions on Vladimir Putin’s cronies — a strategy vigorously resisted by President Obama and former Secretary of State John Kerry until they were forced to take action.
You can add to this list NATO budgets; European Union and Canada and Mexico trade talks; the Iran nuclear deal; the patient White House strategies involving the Middle East and Venezuela; and the rest of the huge messes that previous administrations swept under the carpet because they felt so much pressure to make a deal, exaggerate their treaties and “accomplishments,” get their Nobel prizes, and move on.
But impatient, predictable American diplomatic behavior has stopped — and that has left the world confused and put our biggest adversaries a little off-balance. Trump takes his time.
The reasons for this change are threefold.
First, Trump really is a hardball negotiator. He understands that the most important word for a negotiator to say is “no” as many times as necessary, before getting to “yes.”
Second, Trump has nothing to prove. Even with failed businesses, he has been a successful business person, very wealthy, and now, if he fails to strike a deal or is voted out of office, he still has a lot to fall back on. Literally, none of his domestic political opponents are in that position. To a person, the Democratic candidates have few real political or private-sector accomplishments; they are known for nothing but getting elected and running for office. They have few or no real options if they’re voted out of office, and so are desperate to win.
To use a favorite contemporary progressive word, it is “existential” to the Democrats; it is not to Trump. It is little wonder that they all lurch to the most radical ideas and attacks (free health care, open borders, reparations, free tuition, dismantling America’s energy sector, labeling opponents racist, etc.). It is media attention or death. Democrats are playing political “Hunger Games.” Trump is playing golf.
The same is true of Trump’s international opponents. Traditionally, the thinking goes that our foreign adversaries can wait us out. While they may begin to experience some level of internal pain during a war of wills with America, most assume that Iran, Russia, North Korea and even Cuba can out-wait us; that all have assembled sufficiently powerful police states that they can force their own people to absorb huge levels of pain to support national political objectives.
But those assumptions have proven wrong. Trump has shown that America can wait even longer. And as time goes by, economic pressure and sanctions begin to create serious pain in all of these states and their leadership. Perhaps the most vulnerable may be China, where the Communist Party stays in power by creating sustained prosperity. People think of China as playing the long game. That’s wrong. China needs continuous progress or it collapses. Even the leadership is vulnerable if the economy seriously falters. No amount of police force can contain the angry dragon. Again, Trump is unique in how he patiently plays the strong American hand.
The liberal U.S. media actually have become Trump’s best friend. Over-the-top, endlessly negative coverage of the president has put him in a position different from previous presidents. He neither needs nor seeks media approval. He is fully inoculated. His growing base ignores the blistering media.
Yes, he is rude and annoying. But that is baked in and already “discounted” (as Wall Street puts it). Most importantly, Trump has time — and “time is money.” And that is “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.
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