Leading article

Donald Trump has a genius for damaging his own reputation

3 February 2018

9:00 AM

3 February 2018

9:00 AM

It’s easy to see why Donald Trump gets angry. He is presiding over a robust economy, growing at the fastest rate of any major economy. His recent tax cut has encouraged jobs and investment to come back to the United States. Apple alone is redirecting an extra $38 billion in tax towards the Treasury’s coffers. Other employers are using the tax cuts to pay workers a bonus: AT&T is handing 200,000 of its staff a payout averaging $1,000 each. There’s so much economic optimism that even Democrat voters say they feel better about the economy than they did under Barack Obama. But Trump isn’t taking much credit. He is still very much blamed — and his approval ratings are still very low, worse than any other President going into his second year.

Trump blames the media, and he’s not entirely wrong. But his real opponent is himself. He continues to behave in a way that disgraces his office and embarrasses millions of Americans. They dislike his use of profanity, his intemperate tweeting and his general refusal to behave with the decorum expected of a grown-up, let alone a President. No amount of economic growth can hide this fact. Americans would accept his tactics as an electioneering tool, a means of grabbing attention. But to have a commander-in-chief who talks and acts in such a way is, for many Americans, mortifying.

His State of the Union address sought to strike a very different tone from his ‘American carnage’ speech at his inauguration. He was more conciliatory. He talked about the virtue of compromise and said he stood ready to do a deal to offer citizenship to illegal immigrants. It’s tempting to dismiss such rhetoric, given the nature of his presidency so far, but there are grounds to think that he might be trying to set a new tone. When Steve Bannon was his chief strategist, his emphasis was on bomb-throwing and tormenting critics. With Bannon gone, Trump’s allies say he might move towards the centre — pointing out that he has been a centrist for most of his political life.

Trump has declared himself a ‘very stable genius’. He’s certainly a brilliant political entrepreneur, whose journey to the White House was even more extraordinary than Barack Obama’s. But he also has a genius for damaging his own reputation. His regular provocations on Twitter and elsewhere still suggest a man desperate to draw attention to himself. He fails to comprehend that, as US President, he does not need to do that; attention will come to him regardless of what he says or does. He continues to behave like an outsider throwing brickbats at the establishment without seeming to appreciate that the occupant of the White House is, by definition, the establishment.

It is right that he reads Kim Jong-un the riot act, reminding him that if he ever launches a nuclear weapon in anger the result will be his own annihilation. There is no point in trying to be diplomatic with a dictator who has responded to previous acts of diplomacy with contempt. It could well be that Trump’s belligerent posturing towards North Korea works better than the more measured tone of his predecessors. But it’s hard to see this as a carefully developed strategy, given that he deploys the same tactics to most problems.

His re-tweeting of Britain First messages, for which he has belatedly half-apologised, played directly into the hands of those who accuse him of racism. He might not know who Britain First are, but he does have advisors to handle Twitter for him and they ought to tell him if he is sharing concocted propaganda from a bunch of crackpots.

We have now seen enough of Donald Trump to know that his character is not going to change. He is a narcissist who will always value the sound of his own voice above the reputation of his country. But he is also an iconoclast and a winner. He has pushed through the most dramatic tax reforms America has seen for a generation, he identified the extent of the anger in his country and he won office by reflecting the frustration so many shared with the failed status quo that Hillary Clinton embodied.

Perhaps Trump is beginning to realise that as President he needs different advisors than he did during had election campaign. In the Art of the Deal, his 1987 book, he wrote that there is no such a thing as bad attention. But in politics that is not necessarily true.

If Trump decides to run for a second term in two years’ time he may not have such good economic news to carry him through. The now-rampant stock market may have corrected itself. It is not impossible that an overdue recession may have struck by then. If he wants to avoid the ego-crushing distinction of being the first one-term President since George H.W. Bush, he will have to make the most of this economic purple patch by moderating his behaviour. It appals not just establishment Democrats but many of his voters, too.

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