Hopefully this scorched-earth inclination will be reserved for bureaucratic infighting. Indeed, whatever the effective limits of executive authority, it is obviously true that President Trump will have far greater scope for his grand ambitions than he ever did “in business,” and he would hardly be the first commander-in-chief to believe that he shouldn’t be confined to the water’s edge. Even for an erstwhile casino magnate with six bankruptcies under his belt, this is high-stakes poker. Domestically, the president-elect will be playing with house money. Overseas, he will be gambling with blood and treasure.
Whatever one makes of this prospect, the better framework for assessing what one may expect from a Trump presidency is less what might be extrapolated from the behavior of a conventional CEO than from that of a showboating businessman who has proven himself a mass-marketing savant and a master of self-promotion. To this end, rather than a proving ground for technocratic expertise, Trump favors another far less flattering vision of business, one in which the essential “arts,” as the economist Thorstein Veblen acidly described them, are “bargaining, effrontery, salesmanship, [and] make-believe.”
Trump’s success in the 2016 campaign surely involved involved all four of Veblen’s ingredients, and, in fairness, he is far from the only political candidate to have called upon them. Since the advent of television advertising, politicians have consistently relied on sales techniques more familiar to selling Doritos than domestic policy; the president-elect’s was a virtuoso performance. “Trump created a sense of what the problem was, framed it and then juxtaposed himself as the solution,” the CEO of the American Marketing Association, Russ Klein, told The Washington Post shortly after the election. If anything, this undersells Trump’s success. Think of how many campaign catchphrases are now stamped in the popular consciousness. There are the primitive epithets (“Little Marco,” “Lyin’ Ted,” “Crooked Hillary”), the crude promises (“Drain the Swamp,” “Build the Wall,” “The Muslim Ban”), and, most importantly, the very premise of Trump’s entire campaign (“Make America Great Again”). In every one of these respects, the electoral apprentice proved himself a master of political sloganeering.
Throughout the fall, Trump’s success was obvious to anyone watching his rallies. It wasn’t so much that the attendees knew all the old standards by heart; it was that, when they chanted “Lock her up!,” they believed fervently in the sordid request and that there was only one man who would honor it. In this conviction, they had encouragement. “I am your voice,” Trump declared at the Republican National Convention, adding “I alone can fix it.”
That promise was consistent with the bombast of the GOP nominee, and more than any other artifact of his outrageous campaign, or any element of his business record, it portends his likely undoing as president. Consider the warning of Jerry Cave, a media consultant and enthusiast of Trump’s. In a recent interview with The Atlantic, he described the perils that lie ahead for a president who has shown himself to be uniquely gifted at self-promotion in a campaign context. “It was the message and who he is and all this other stuff [that enabled him to win,]” he said. “But that has nothing to do with who’s governing.” Cave likened Trump’s electoral success to a used-car salesman getting a potential buyer to make his way to the dealership. Once the customer’s inside the front door, however, heady optimism soon gives way to hard reality, and there is almost inevitably a good deal of messy negotiation before the driver takes to the road.