Jeb Bush was right.
“He is a chaos candidate,” the former Florida governor said of Donald Trump at a CNN debate in December 2015. “And he’d be a chaos president.”
At the time, Trump embraced the “chaos” moniker. He was chaos in the sense that he was the only candidate willing to shake up the status quo – to freak out the squares. Chaos worked for him, as both a symbolic image of the campaign he was running and a day in, day out approach to the race. None of the candidates he ran against – including Bush and Hillary Clinton – could ever settle in to any sort of campaign rhythm because Trump was purposely unsettling it all the time.
But the first year of his presidency has revealed the considerable limits of a strategy that relies solely on stirring chaos. It’s created uncertainty here at home, as no one – not even Trump – seems to know what he will say or do on a daily basis. And it’s stoked instability abroad as other countries – allies and enemies – find themselves sifting through Trump’s often-contradictory public statements and tweets for some semblance of a cohesive mindset.
The peril in this approach has been crystallized over the last 72 hours as Trump has, among other things, questioned the methods and credibility of his own Justice Department, played a game of nuclear one-upmanship with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un (via Twitter no less!), announced his plan to deliver “awards” for the worst of the worst in the media and broken – in fiery fashion – with former top adviser Steve Bannon.
Amid that chaos from within has come chaos from without: Excerpts of a new book by journalist Michael Wolff detail the first year of Trump’s presidency and paint the White House – and the president – as a sort of bad high school drama (think “Riverdale”) dominated by back-biting, big egos and little sense of continuity or strategy.
The response by Trump to the Wolff book, which isn’t even formally out until next week, has reaffirmed that sense of chaos and discontinuity.
The book is filled with lies, according to the White House. But they make few specific claims – or offer any specific proof – about what exactly Wolff got wrong. (On Thursday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders did cite one specific thing as false – the claim that Trump did not know former House Speaker John Boehner’s name following the 2016 election.)
Other elements are harder to dispute. Bannon is a crazy person who was less relevant to Trump’s success than he claims, according to the President after the excerpts were released. Except that, after Bannon said that Trump was a “great man” on the radio Wednesday evening, Trump was quick to note that fact when talking to reporters today.
The prevailing image created by the last three days – particularly in the broader context of Trump’s presidency – is one that was first suggested to me by longtime Republican consultant (and never-Trumper) Stuart Stevens.
“It’s like a car. Most cars do fine at 40 or 50 miles an hour. But the test comes when you take it up to 100 mph and run it all day and night. That’s when problems emerge and things start to fall off. Conventions and post conventions is when campaigns must start to hit the high speeds necessary to compete in a general election. I don’t think Trump or the campaign is any worse or better than a couple of months ago. They were just driving slower. As the speed increases, they can’t keep it out of the ditch.”
Obviously Stevens was wrong about the timing of when (or if) Trump would land in a ditch. Trump got elected president – running the engine at (or above) its top limits every single day.
But looking back at the last 72 hours, Stevens’ image of a car beginning to break down after running in the red for months on end keeps coming back to me.
Chaos, as Jeb Bush noted more than two years ago, is not a strategy. It is barely a tactic. And chaos – even when it works – stresses the parts of an administration tasked with carrying out the haphazard – and often contradictory – orders from a President who, increasingly, is facing questions about his competence.
Stress anything – a piece of metal, a person – too long and, eventually they (or it) snaps. Donald Trump is learning that lesson with each passing day.