by Bruce Dunlavy (My blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)
There is a certain sort of person for whom achievement is conflated with attainment. S/he is motivated and energized by attaining a goal more than by the goal itself. Acquiring something becomes an end rather than a means. We all know people who become single-minded about buying a boat, gaining membership in an exclusive club, or earning a promotion at work. They are nearly obsessed with it; they talk about it constantly. Yet when they finally get it, it is as if they don’t want it any more. For many, they just move on to the next acquisitory challenge.
Donald Trump may be such a person. He has dallied with runs for the presidency before, and in 2015 he finally made a full commitment to getting the job. To the surprise of many – perhaps even himself – he won the nomination of the Republican Party and is now one of two people who have a realistic chance of being the 45th USA president.
Image credit: bgr.com
The reality of the situation now seems to have hit Trump. Dahleen Glanton suggests as much in her op-ed piece in the Chicago Tribune. He is within striking distance of the goal, and he seems to be realizing that the job of president is not something you can just win and then find new achievements to pursue. This has left him with a conflicted mind.
Trump has realized that being president involves actual work, complex and challenging work, and not just sitting on a throne being showered with adulation by adoring underlings. That’s why, when he realized he was actually going to get the nomination, he tried to have John Kasich come on as VP candidate, Kasich to be responsible for all foreign and domestic policy while Trump would just go around “making America great again.” Kasich acknowledged in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper that Donald Trump, Jr., had inquired of one of Kasich’s aides whether Kasich would accept the VP nomination under those conditions.
This bizarre overture from the Trump camp suggests that the Republican nominee is not really interested in the job of president so much as he is in the office of president. Most of his public life has been a quest for affirmation. What greater affirmation can there be than having the voters of your nation place you in its highest office?
However, as the possibility becomes real, Trump seems to be discovering that there is more to being elected president than just basking in the sunshine of affirmation and saying whatever may be on his mind at a given moment. He will be expected to make serious and often irrevocable decisions about things that don’t interest him very much, to practice the grimy give-and-take of politics, and to engage in the unseemly activities connected with running a government. All are things to which Trump seems particularly unsuited, and which he does not appear to be looking forward to. What he has been looking forward to is getting the presidency, not what he would do with it if he got it.
Being any sort of effective president would mean Donald would have to stop being Donald. He would have to become nuanced where he is now straightforward, to employ tactful delicacy where he is now unapologetically crude, and to be contemplative and measured where he is now impulsive and abrupt.
The days after the Republican National Convention showed Trump at his most Trumpian: thin-skinned, competitive, and vindictive. Any challenge must not go unanswered, and he must be the center of attention. When he was called out at the Democratic National Convention by the parents of a soldier who died in battle (“You have sacrificed nothing!”), he raised his hackles and hit back at them more than once. As if criticizing a Gold Star family were not a big enough blunder, in a speech in Virginia he ordered a crying baby out of the hall. If there is a true “third rail” in political campaigning, it is attacks on those who have lost family members in war, and nearly as bad as that is failure to acknowledge the irresistible cuteness of babies. Trump did both within a few days, and compounded it by accepting a gift Purple Heart from the soldier who had earned it, remarking that it was easier to get that way than to earn it yourself. This only a day after reports circulated that he had received five draft deferments during the Vietnam War.
Since then, Trump’s handlers have attempted to keep him on script. He has been using a teleprompter to restrict his ability to ad-lib whatever half-formed thought might be coursing through his mind at any moment, but after seven decades of being an undisciplined speaker, of saying whatever pops into his head, of swerving to every side on every issue – sometimes in the same sentence – it is not likely that he is going to change. It is even less likely that he is going to allow others to change him.
Perhaps Trump never wanted to be president. Perhaps he never even wanted to be elected president, but only to run for the nomination in order to feather his ego and sell some more books. No one knows; maybe he himself doesn’t know. But he appears conflicted about whether he wants the job that is now so tantalizingly close.
What to do now? He can’t quit, because he’s not a quitter. He can’t back up, because he only forges ahead. Could he have an escape hatch in the form of some medical crisis or a business crisis that will require his full attention? He could look into the Richard Nixon file to see how a real pro turns being a quitter to his own advantage.