President Trump is said to demand a folder of favorable news clippings every morning, and to refuse to deal with bad news, delegating it to staff. This runs contrary to the “buck stops here” ethos of the American Presidency, and to management textbooks which demand that the CEO be informed of all problems. Yet the Oval Office is a uniquely stressful environment, that wears down most occupants, making them ineffective in their second term. Maybe, as in many areas, Trump has found a better way.
The U.S. Presidency is a uniquely difficult job and has burnt out several Presidents. The combination of awesome responsibilities and the huge number of decisions that need to be made make it quite unlike the job of a conventional CEO, so rules that are appropriate for a CEO do not necessarily apply to the Presidency. Then the barrage of unremitting criticism to which Trump is subjected from the very unbalanced media makes the job harder still.
250 years ago, the Earl of Bute became the first Tory prime minister for almost 50 years under a new, young and inexperienced King, George III. As today, the media were entirely slanted against the new ministry, in that case because newspapers were paid off by the government, so 50 years of Whig one-party rule had led to a Whig press monopoly. Worse still, Bute was Britain’s first Scots prime minister, so racial animus was also prevalent. Notable among the opposition press was the “North Briton” edited by John Wilkes, who gained an entirely spurious reputation as a “people’s friend” when he was really after a government job. In addition, Radicals in the American colonies were inexorably opposed to Bute’s new government – the colonies were primarily Dissenter, with few “Church and King” Tories, so the ending of the Whig monopoly of government felt to them like the imposition of a new tyranny.
Alas, Bute was a sensitive soul, and so resigned within a year – he could not take the unremitting media hostility. His secretary Charles Jenkinson wrote to his successor George Grenville: “As to the paragraphs in the papers, they are to be slighted. If the enemy finds they give any uneasiness, there will be ten thousand times more, for they are easily invented and Lord Bute suffered much by being known to be sensible to them.”
Fortunately, Trump is a less sensitive soul than the unworldly Bute, but Bute’s example indicates how much an almost universally hostile media adds to the stress of the job of political leadership. Imagine Trump and his aides trying to deal with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Instead of the almost universally fawning and adulatory media coverage that President Kennedy received, they would have to cope with a nightmarish tsunami of panic and vitriol from the press, TV and social media, not only attacking Trump but trying to undermine his negotiating position with Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Nuclear war in those circumstances would be very likely indeed, more so than it was in Kennedy’s reality, and that war would be the result not of any defects in Trump or his aides, but of the vicious irresponsibility of the mainstream media.
The mistake lies in the conventional wisdom that the President’s job is to take decisions, and that he needs all available information in order to take them. In the modern American Presidency, there are too many decisions, and they are too complex. No President can absorb all the available information for each decision the President must theoretically take, and if he does not have all available information, but takes the decision based on partial knowledge, that decision will be perilously suboptimal – a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, after all.
President Jimmy Carter wore himself to a frazzle trying to absorb the information he needed to take every decision, and the result was not especially successful, partly because Carter was not of especially high intelligence or good judgement. Why should he have been? – intelligence and judgement cannot communicate themselves accurately to the electorate in a campaign, and the vast majority of the electorate would be incapable of recognizing superior intelligence and judgement even if it were so demonstrated. Democracy is the form of government we have, and it works pretty well, but let us not ascribe supernatural powers to it.
One central function of a President is the avoidance of unnecessary decisions. President Calvin Coolidge, who truly was of especially high intelligence and good judgement, said: “Don’t you know that four fifths of all our troubles in this life would disappear if we would just sit down and keep still?” Hyperactive governments do a great deal of damage, in both domestic and foreign policy. For one thing, they hugely increase the uncertainty to other decision-makers in the global economy and that uncertainty has economic costs in terms of missed investment and lost growth and jobs.
Allowing the vast majority of government decisions to be routine and minimal, taken by underlings, is one of the principal criteria for a successful government, of whatever its political color. By not taking most decisions, while setting an overall direction for guidance (so that the leftist Deep State does not keep operating as usual) Trump is maximizing the power and success of his Presidency.
The most important of all Presidential functions is the selection of competent aides and Cabinet members. They need to be committed to the President’s agenda, and they need to be able to work with Trump’s own ebullient personality. With the right aides, even important decisions can be delegated or, if there is disagreement between two aides or Cabinet members, the disputants can be summoned to a meeting refereed by Trump, and including a selection of other aides with knowledge of the subject matter but no pre-determined position on the issue in question. By such a process, optimal decisions can be taken, without the President himself having to take them. They will simply emerge from a consensus of the knowledgeable people present at the meeting.
There is however one additional factor which Trump needs to and does insert, especially on foreign policy. If all decisions were taken by a known and stable group of aides, it would become too easy for foreign countries whose interests conflicted with those of the United States to optimize their behavior for their own interests, knowing the predictable reactions of the U.S. decision-makers concerned. Hence the need for what Henry Kissinger called the “Madman theory” by which Richard Nixon would pose as a man prone to uncontrollable fits of anger, who must hence not be aroused by bad behavior on the part of foreign counterparts. This was a remarkably successful element in Kissinger’s foreign policy; it is also a role that Trump is adept at playing. As any Game Theorist will tell you, unpredictability rather than outbursts of rage is a very useful characteristic in a game between antagonists. Trump is nothing if he is not unpredictable, to the great potential benefit of the United States.
Trump in early life was a disciple of the New York pastor Norman Vincent Peale, whose 1952 magnum opus was entitled “The Power of Positive Thinking.” According to Peale’s teaching, if you focus on the positive in your life and the good things that can happen, you will achieve more in life. For a CEO at a major corporation, this is a simplistic way to live; by not knowing the competitive and environmental threats surrounding the company, the CEO becomes unable to do his job properly, and succumbs to the next downturn.
For a President of the United States, Peale’s approach makes much more sense. There are simply too many factors to be considered, too many competitive and environmental threats, too many things that can go wrong. A President who focuses on the threats, or still worse on criticisms being made in the media, can quickly become depressed and operationally paralyzed, as did Presidents Johnson (both Johnsons, it was true of Andrew as well as Lyndon), Nixon and Carter towards the ends of their periods in office. Franklin Pierce ended up a hopeless drunk, Woodrow Wilson ended up physically not just operationally paralyzed, with decisions being taken by his grade-school-educated second wife.
Trump’s approach makes most sense, and in many respects resembles that of Ronald Reagan. Use media criticism simply as fodder for angry tweeting; make your aides bring you a steady diet of good news. Fill your days with ceremonial appointments, that don’t require much thought but build your internal self-esteem and your external stature. Play golf at weekends, ideally with Tiger Woods (especially if a combination of Tiger’s deference and a little judicious scorecard manipulation can cause you to win the odd hole). Don’t take too many decisions, delegate those you must take to capable aides, follow the consensus of your best aides in most cases (between them, if you have picked them right, they will know more than you ever can about their subjects). Every now and then, especially in foreign policy, do something unexpected, to keep America’s adversaries guessing.
With that approach, given good health, President Trump will remain psychologically capable and upbeat throughout two terms in office. What’s more, he will have the potential to be a very good President indeed.
(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)