Every once in a while – whether he means to or not – President Donald Trump offers a fundamental truth about himself and his presidency. Tuesday afternoon was one of those times.
Asked by reporters what the strategy was behind his ongoing attacks against Democratic Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, who is African American, and the predominantly black city of Baltimore, Trump said this:
“There’s no strategy, I have no strategy, there’s zero strategy. … There’s no strategy, it’s very simple.”
Yes! It is!
Ever since Trump won the presidency – in what is the largest upset in modern presidential history – in 2016, there have been those among his supporters (and even among people who are less favorably inclined to him) who subscribed to the three-dimensional chess theory.
That theory goes something like this: What looks like chaos and spontaneity from Trump is actually part of a hugely elaborate chess game designed to use the media and Democrats to achieve electoral success. Trump is always thinking four moves ahead and playing the game at a level most normals – like me – can’t understand. So normal political analysis cannot possibly cope with this sort of chess wizard.
I’ve long argued that such a theory is disproven – day after day – by what the President says and tweets. There’s lots – and lots – of examples that make clear that what Trump is doing is much closer to zero-dimensional chess (and, thus, not chess at all) than the three-dimensional version.
What Trump does – and has always done (just read the beginning of “The Art of the Deal”) – is act on impulse or gut, and then react to the reaction to his impulse tweet or statement.
There’s no grand blueprint. There’s no chess board that only he can see. There’s only Trump, his tweets and how we all react.
That’s not to say, of course, that once the reaction to his impulse is clear, Trump doesn’t lean in (often) or out (rarely) from the controversy he has created. Take his Twitter attacks on both the Squad – four female Democratic congresswomen of color – and Cummings over the past two weeks.
While I do not think Trump necessarily grasped what a firestorm his impulse would create, once it became clear that his tweets were being castigated as racist, he poured lighter fluid on both situations – knowing that his core supporters would rally to his side (and be energized) by his appeals to racial animus and resentment in the country.
But Trump’s leaning in to a self-created racial controversy is a tactic, not a strategy. Trump’s gift – such as it is – is not as the battlefield commander who can lay out the grand strategy of the fight, complete with the 18 steps that, if he follows, will deliver victory. Instead, he is the guy who in the midst of an ongoing fight can figure out how to leverage his side’s strengths best. How to take existing circumstances and play them to advantage. In short: how to win through a series of knife-fighting tactics.
So when Trump tells reporters that he has “no strategy” in his comments on Cummings, he’s being honest. Maybe he attacked Cummings because he saw a segment on Fox News about how parts of Baltimore had fallen badly into disrepair. Maybe he bore a grudge against Cummings because of the Maryland Democrat’s work as chairman of the House Oversight Committee, which has of late included seeking subpoenas for business-related emails and text messages from Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner.
Trump took to Twitter to attack Cummings on a whim. Everything he has done since then has been a series of tactics designed to push the race issue front and center. But that wasn’t Trump’s initial strategy. There was no initial strategy.