Donald Trump: Improviser in Chief

Trump sends clear message on post-election tour
Trump sends clear message on post-election tour

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Story highlights

  • Michael D'Antonio: Donald Trump has been relying on his instincts and improvising much of his 40-year career
  • He's shown the same approach as president-elect and his time in the White House will be no different, writes D'Antonio

Michael D'Antonio, the author of "The Truth About Trump," is writing Trump Watch, a series of columns on President-elect Donald Trump for CNN Opinion. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Watch Donald Trump get ready to take over the world's biggest job and a central question will likely come to mind: Is he carrying out a strategic plan months in the making, or is he largely winging it?

If his 40-year career is a clue, the odds are you are seeing a man who is improvising as he has throughout his long life in the public eye. As a businessman/ entertainer Trump improvised narratives that could close a sale or make a TV show succeed. In the process he often staked out extreme positions as the first step in a negotiation that ended with him getting most of what he wanted. And if he didn't, he was always willing to walk away.
The elements of Trump's approach are constant -- his ego, his flamboyance, his scorn for those who oppose him, his readiness to strike back at any criticism, no matter how justified or well intended. When challenged in the past, by New York Mayor Ed Koch or the likes of Rosie O'Donnell or Cher, he defined them with insults. He prevailed in the 2016 election with similar name-calling -- Lyin' Ted, Little Marco, Crooked Hillary -- that defied convention and gave him the reward he sought.
    To his credit, Trump's record shows that he can back up his aggressive talk. During his feud with Mayor Koch he declared that he could renovate the ice skating rink in Central Park. The Koch administration's renovation of the famous Wollman Rink had been a disaster, with costs rising and deadlines missed. In addition to criticizing the mayor, Trump boasted that he could do the job for less and ahead of schedule. Koch gave him the job and Trump performed as promised.
    As president-elect, Trump has shown he is willing to follow his instincts and continue defying convention by choosing a recently retired general to head the Department of Defense and putting the CEO of ExxonMobil atop his list of candidates for secretary of state. The same is true of his decision to break with decades of US policy and presidential practice by speaking with Taiwan's president.
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    The Trump team's explanations for this departure from the longstanding "One China" policy wavered between the idea that it didn't mean much of anything and that it was an intentional effort to change the diplomatic dynamic. In this light, the Taiwan outreach could be interpreted as something similar to President Obama's move to normalize relations with Cuba.

    A genuine original

    Staying true to form, Trump trusts his instincts and understands that almost anything can be explained after the fact. Indeed, the explanation can be changed, as it was in the case of the call to Taiwan, to fit whatever story works best after the world reacts.
    As a genuine original who has been a Democrat, and independent, and a Republican, Trump may be less driven by ideology than any Republican president since Nixon. His talk of punishing companies for exercising their right to move facilities abroad is anathema to GOPers who worship the free market but if Trump sees he has public support for this or any other policy, he'll press forward.
    When he becomes president, Trump will have the world's attention for whatever stories he will tell to support his policies. In the past Trump's improvisations led to a significant number of failures, including several massive bankruptcies, to go with his achievements. In the Oval Office his moves will have far more serious effects on the economy, public safety, and even global security. And the world is such a complex and unmanageable place that Trump will soon discover the limits of his freewheeling style.
    Although the volume was turned down slightly compared with his campaign events, President-elect Donald Trump's recent thank-you tour included his usual bragging, distortions and attacks on the press. A clear example was the claim that "we won a landslide." This was both a shameless boast and a misrepresentation, since Hillary Clinton actually beat him in the popular vote by more than 2 million votes.
    Nuance, like a 2-point loss in the popular vote, has never burdened Trump and the victory tour crowds savored his performance. It was his style -- loose, emotional, spontaneous -- that won him the electoral college and the White House. Thus far, Trump-in-transition has stayed true to form. By attacking companies and individuals like a local union leader who accused him of lying, Trump is demonstrating that even the weight of the presidency won't move him to change his ways.

    From image to reality

    A natural and practiced showman, Donald Trump's personality is a character he created and then refined to appeal to great masses of people. In his earliest days, when he had accomplished nothing but sought recognition as a young tycoon, he conspicuously tooled around Manhattan in a Cadillac driven by a chauffeur who carried a gun.
    Trump dressed in mod suits with shoes dyed to match and brandished a mobile phone at a time when almost no one else had one.
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    The wealthy playboy act of Trump's youth won him lavish attention in the press, which he used to build his business brand. His first two projects, New York's Grand Hyatt Hotel and Trump Tower, were smashing achievements that proved that his base instincts and natural abilities were the truest guides to success. As he told me in 2014, "I consider talent much more important than experience. Much more important. Not even a contest."
    The President-elect's main talent is for playing on emotions to produce something tangible in the real world. His campaign was a lurching display of rage and fearmongering against immigrants and Muslims. When crowds chanted "Lock her (Clinton) up!" Trump basked in the taunt and once even said, "I'm starting to agree with you."
    The result, besides division, was an election victory. For the first time in his life, Trump went for a job outside of the family empire and it turned out to the most powerful office in the world. What more evidence does he need to confirm that style -- or to be more accurate, his style -- works?

    Trump believes in himself

    When Trump tweets his complaints about how Alec Baldwin portrays him on "Saturday Night Live," he diminishes the dignity of the office he was elected to fill and affirms the idea that he is thin-skinned and emotionally over-reactive. This is precisely the quality called into question by critics who wonder if Trump's temperament is suited to the Oval Office. His response during the campaign -- "My strongest thing is my temperament" -- reflected his belief that the White House doesn't need someone who fits a familiar template of sobriety, care, and maturity. It needs him.
    According to the circular logic in Trump's approach, the president-elect is justified in going after union rep Chuck Jones, who criticized him, because his methods have made him rich, and famous, and now the future chief executive of the United States.
    Trump sees his winning ways as proof that he is right, even if side effects included threats by his followers against Jones and his family.
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    Earlier in the week, Trump's personal tweet about abruptly canceling plans for two new, more efficient and technologically capable presidential jets sent Boeing's stock value tumbling briefly. The tweet followed a press report on Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenberg's defense of international trade. Muilenberg noted his company's huge export business with China. Trump campaigned on a promise to disrupt current trade arrangements, especially those involving China.
    Is Trump affected by the idea that his comments can damage a major American exporter like Boeing or cause Chuck Jones to fear for the safety of his family? It is hard to say that he would be moved by these events.
    Throughout his life, Trump has sought to steamroller those who oppose him and has expressed little regret for innocent bystanders whom he has harmed, whether they were creditors in his bankruptcies or neighbors he tried to bully as he developed properties. All is fair in love and war and Trump believes, as he told Bill O'Reilly of Fox News, "My life is war."
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    In love Trump has also practiced a self-interested style that justifies going to extremes. His first marriage ended in a blaze of tabloid scandal. After his second came apart he engaged in another messy and public battle over the terms of the divorce. In his third marriage he has reached a kind of stability where his public image is concerned, but it didn't keep him from engaging in the kind of grotesque banter that any wife would find extremely painful to hear.
    When it was made public, the "Access Hollywood" tape of Trump making lewd comments about women shocked people with tender sensibilities but it showed Trump in typical form, playing to his audience and acting on gut instinct.
    We should expect to see more of Trump acting on instinct and improvising as he settles into the presidency. He won't likely be caught saying anything as gross as his comments to "Access Hollywood," but other politicians have been caught in so-called "hot mic" moments. If Trump has his own, we should expect him to confidently sell us on the idea that he planned it all along.