There’s been a change in how I see Donald Trump.
A few months ago, I saw him as an accomplished actor, able to pick what role to play for the occasion– such as to become the dominant figure in the race for the Republican nomination. I believed he had understood how he could tap into the passions simmering in a large part of the Republican base and ride those passions to power.
If those Republican voters were feeling angry, he could give voice to that anger, belligerently picking fights with opponents and a variety of others. If they were feeling humiliated by an economy that was leaving them behind, and by a political system unresponsive to their needs, he could offer them a bold and boastful hero to identify with, and promise them all kinds of “victories” to restore their rightful place in the world.
Through Trump playing that role, his supporters would experience vicariously a greater sense of power and worth. So Trump harnessed their appreciation to gain the nomination.
Imagining that Trump was showing great skill designing and playing that role, I concluded one could not know for sure just how he might conduct himself as president. In that new situation, in which he would be pursuing new goals, he would create for himself a different role to achieve his new purposes.
But now it seems I was wrong.
Once Trump had the Republican Party’s nomination in hand, everyone understood that the next phase in his rise had to be bringing that Party together behind his leadership. Some of that unification wasn’t going to be easy – not after the ways he’d defeated his rivals (like Little Marco and Lyin’ Ted). But that was the job that needed doing.
But Trump doesn’t even seem to be trying. Faced with this new situation, calling for a very different new role, Trump has instead continued exactly as before.
Trump has surprised everyone with his continuing needless attacks on some of the very Republicans whose support he needs. One dramatic example was Trump’s attack on the Republican Governor of New Mexico – a woman and a Hispanic – punishing her for not having yet gotten in line behind him. But there have been a number of other Republicans who have been targets of Trump’s recent put-downs.
No one has offered a rational explanation for his behavior. Unlike in the primaries, it seems pretty clear that he’s working against his own interests in this new phase, heading toward the convention.
Which leads to the conclusion: this is not an actor, choosing a role. An actor can play many parts, but Trump appears stuck in this one. Rather than being in control of his belligerence, Trump appears to be controlled by it.
And that leads to yet other conclusions.
First, unless he can soon turn this pattern around and show greater range in his behavioral repertoire, the likelihood of the American people electing him to be their president now seems smaller than I’d have estimated before.
Second, if Donald Trump is indeed possessed by the need for conflict, as he now seems, that tells us plenty enough about how Trump would behave as president for any reasonable person to conclude: Trump is not the president this nation needs.
Someone who can’t help but pick fights is clearly not suitable to be the architect of American foreign policy and commander-in-chief. That should be obvious on the face of it.
But in the domestic realm, too, a penchant for needless conflict is precisely not what the doctor ordered for our present ills.
Consider what’s become dysfunctional about our politics: More than at any time since the era of the Civil War, America has stopped having the ability to overcome our partisan divisions to move the nation forward. Too much conflict, and too little cooperation in our political system.
As a result of our having lost the capacity — that has characterized American history generally — for overcoming our partisan divisions to cooperate to achieve the common goals of the American people — America’s problems are festering.
That’s our dysfunction.
What we need in a president is someone who can bring people together to work toward a common goal. But Trump is showing he’s precisely the opposite: someone who cannot stop creating conflicts even with people he needs now to achieve his own goals.
A president needs to know how to fight. But he should be wise in what fights he chooses and how he fights them. Trump, it now seems clear, lacks that wisdom.