Much ink has been spilled on the Donald Trump phenomenon. Practitioners and the public seem obsessed with the guy, and pundits are analyzing every dimension of his presidential campaign.
He is, after all, rewriting the rules by rejecting outside money, taking clear and controversial positions on the few issues he talks about, and making use of a very small organization.
How has he stayed at or near the top of every poll in every place for so long?
The Republican establishment’s initial response to Trump’s rise was to leave him alone. The campaign would surely implode. Of course, it did not.
So as we entered 2016, it was time to go after “The Donald.” In late January, for example, National Review devoted an entire issue — 31 articles — to why Trump should not be the presidential nominee. To date, these efforts have had minimal effect.
That’s because the attacks only make Trump more appealing. The way to defeat him is not to call him callous, unsophisticated, and foul-mouthed. It is to hone in on the basic fact that the real estate investor is a bundle of contradictions.
It’s not just that he has made inconsistent statements and shifted his policy positions; these are things critics have pointed out for some time. Trump is a candidate whose argument for his election is entirely incongruous with the kind of man he is and therefore the kind of president we should expect him to be.
For example, Trump says he is self-financing his campaign so he can serve the American people. Instead, he is running one fueled by celebrity, putting very little of his personal wealth on the line. Trump supporters should be prepared. There is no easy way to win the GOP nomination, and when he really needs to pony up, the candidate will side with his wallet.
This is all about him, not you.
Throughout the campaign, Trump has presented himself as a “man of action,” a doer not a thinker, a manager and businessman, not a procrastinating and hand-wringing politician. He’ll cut through red tape, breeze by Congress, and have foreign leaders eating out of his hand. But a Trump presidency is really a recipe for gridlock.
An effective Republican administration must have strong connections to all corners of the business community, state capitals, and other core constituencies. It must have some coherent theme, an ideological character. Smart, experienced, and like-minded partisans are recruited through an existing series of networks so they can hit the ground running.
Of course, a Trump administration-in-waiting presumably would be assembled soon after he won the nomination. But it would be impromptu. It would be a government of strangers because Trump has no deep relationships outside of his bubble of New York financiers and Hollywood celebrities.
He constantly talks about assembling the brightest minds, but he doesn’t really know many of the people whose heads they occupy. He has only superficial roots in the Republican Party.
It is with Congress that a president has his most important relationship. Again, party and ideology provide the glue. The support of House and Senate leaders is required to shepherd a president’s agenda through the legislative process. Strong ties to the rank and file assist in the building of coalitions.
Trump has none of this. In fact, a Trump candidacy is likely to have negative down-ballot effects, costing Republicans seats, if not majorities. If he were to win, President Trump would be working with a smaller, demoralized, and resentful congressional GOP.
Trump’s response to this might be that he knows, to quote the title of his famous book, “the art of the deal.” All you need is to grease a few palms, and everybody’s friends. Political differences are bridged, and all parts of the federal government will mesh seamlessly together to execute the president’s plans.
Trump’s previous political experience, which amounts solely to writing campaign checks, including to the Clintons, is emblematic of this.
To some Americans, this is what politics is. It’s really just business, a purely transactional way of life full of fluid relationships between autonomous individuals all out to make a few bucks. Nothing is personal, there is no history, and there are no other principles.
But true leadership is about ideas. A president must have a vision, a clear direction toward which he wishes to take the country. It is also about building solid and dependable relationships to help those ideas into policy outputs, to become reality.
Good presidents look for agreement, but they are not compulsive dealmakers and understand you can rely only on handshakes forged by trust. Let’s hope Republicans realize this before they finish selecting their nominee.
Andy Taylor is a professor of political science at the School of Public and International Affairs at N.C. State University. He does not speak for the university.