Neil Buchanan: Why Is Trump Bothering to Govern?

Neil H. Buchanan

This article first appeared on the Dorf on Law site.

Why should Donald Trump bother trying to do anything during his presidency?

One answer might be that he has a list of things that he genuinely wants to accomplish, but that hardly seems likely. He never really cared about anything other than insulting Barack Obama and spewing bigotry, and his views on substantive policy issues have always been, shall we say, fluid.

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Even so, Trump has shown signs in the past few weeks of actually caring about notching "wins" in his presidency. This is perhaps understandable for a person who loves to pin the loser label on everyone else. Yet it truly is surprising that Trump is putting in something resembling real effort on various issues, especially issues on which he need not weigh in.

In a recent column, for example, I discussed Trump's unexpected embrace of the American Health Care Act, and I asked why he would "put his own credibility on the line with a bill that is obviously a train wreck." The train subsequently crashed, and sure enough, Trump looks like a loser.

Unsurprisingly, he has been spending his time over the past week or so blaming everyone and anyone for that embarrassing defeat. And now he wants to get involved in the tax reform food fight? That is a recipe for political disaster for even a skilled politician.

The question is: Why does Trump not simply give up now and play-act his way through a presidency in which nothing much happens? This would make it possible for him not ultimately to be judged the worst president in history, and it would also allow him simply to enjoy the pure ego trip of being president. Does he have the survival instincts to decide to do nothing?

The most obvious response to these questions is that Trump would be deemed a failure if he is a do-nothing president. Presidents are expected to rack up lists of accomplishments, and if Trump wants to make America great again, he has to make changes that would correct the supposedly disastrous policies that have led us here.

As plausible as that sounds under normal circumstances, however, the things that make Trump abnormal suggest most strongly that he is better off trying not to do things rather than pretending to be a real president.

Before pursuing that line of thought, however, I should note that even relatively normal presidencies can be deemed successful when nothing happens. Popular culture during and after the 1950s suggests that Dwight Eisenhower was beloved specifically because nothing happened while he was president.

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Donald Trump in Bethesda, Maryland, on June 27, 2012. Neil Buchanan asks, Why does Trump not simply give up now and play-act his way through a presidency in which nothing much happens? This would make it possible for him not ultimately to be judged the worst president in history, and it would also allow him simply to enjoy the pure ego trip of being president. Jonathan Ernst/reuters

In an episode of The Bob Newhart Show in the late 1970s, for example, the main character complained about how unpredictable life had become, adding something along the lines of this sentiment: "Why can't it be like in the '50s? Everyone liked Ike because they knew he wasn't doing anything."

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Given that Trump and many of his culturally conservative followers are pining for the pre-'60s certainties of life, being like Ike might not be a bad thing. And it is not as if nothing was actually happening in the '50s. Eisenhower, for example, was notably silent even as the McCarthy era played out in its ugly way, yet the president's popular legacy is almost untouched by that leadership failure.

I confess that I have policy preferences here, which is to say that Trump's preferred policies all reside somewhere along a continuum from unwise to horrific. From my standpoint, then, having Trump do nothing is better than any plausible alternative. But my point here is that Trump himself should embrace the do-nothing presidency.

To a certain degree, Trump has already figured out how to use his abnormality to craft this new kind of do-nothing presidency. He is most comfortable when he is selling something, hyping worthless products and pretending that they are the greatest in the world. Why not go with that strength in the White House? He certainly knows how to make nothing seem like something.

For example, even before he took office, Trump bragged about having "saved" 2,000 jobs at a Carrier Corp. manufacturing plant in Indiana. Like Trump University, this deal was quickly revealed to be a scam. More importantly, even on its own terms, it was an incredibly small-bore deal. An economy with a labor force of almost 160 million people is not going to rise or fall on things like Trump's Carrier intervention.

Similarly, Paul Krugman noted earlier this week that "Trump Is Wimping Out on Trade," by which Krugman meant that Trump's big talk about bringing back manufacturing jobs is not—indeed, cannot be—backed up with real policies. The good news is that, rather than pursuing his worst ideas, Trump currently seems satisfied to sign some symbolic orders and then hype them as major victories.

This idea of talking up meaningless accomplishments is actually a viable strategy for a president who wants to look like a winner, because there are so many misleading facts that can be spun as wins for Trump. Last month, for example, PolitiFact contacted me about Trump's claim that the federal debt had declined in his first month in office, an assertion that was deemed "Mostly False."

What was funny about Trump's claim was that he had essentially noticed a blip in a series of numbers that could make him look good. PolitiFact asked me if Trump deserved credit for the one-month decline in the debt, but I rejected the premise of the question:

There is no credit to take, because it's like noticing that rainfall numbers from one month to the next are not exactly the same or that attendance at baseball games is not a constant number.

Trump's claim was ridiculous, but so what? His original tweet, "The media has not reported that the National Debt in my first month went down by $12 billion vs a $200 billion increase in Obama first mo.," was pure Trump, combining self-promotion with media bashing. This is what he does best, and just as important, it seems to be what he enjoys most.

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It would actually be possible for Trump to do this kind of thing every day, looking for statistical coincidences that make him look good. His climate change-denying friends have already perfected this strategy, seizing upon any climate numbers that do not show temperatures rising every single month to say, "See, it was cold in New York in January. No global warming!"

Why would Trump not spend his time looking for good things that he could claim as his own accomplishments? Every time the trade deficit goes down, declare it a Trump Effect. When it goes up, change the subject. If murders in Chicago level off, say that killers are afraid of Trump's tough policies. If they go up, blame Black Lives Matter.

Again, Trump is already doing all of this, but my point is that he could make an entire presidency out of doing nothing but puffing himself up by taking credit for good news (even temporary or illusory good news). Far better to do that than to look like the total amateur that he is when he puts his name on unpopular legislation, especially legislation that fails.

It is true that the strategy I am describing here has a downside for Trump, which is that it could alienate his adopted party. Republicans in Congress might well complain that their president is not delivering on his promises to their voters.

There is no reason to believe, however, that Trump's voters would agree that Trump is to blame. Again, Trump is in his comfort zone when he is blaming other people for his failures. One small, illustrative example, was when a reporter called him on his claim that his Electoral College win was historically huge, and Trump quickly said, "I was given that information. I don’t know."

Here, all Trump has to do is continue to blame the Republican leadership in Congress. "I promised cheaper, better health care for everyone, but Congress never sent me a bill to do that. In case no one has noticed, the Constitution says that Congress has to pass bills before I can sign them."

Similarly, Trump could easily weasel out of every promise he ever made. "I said that we would build a big, beautiful wall, and it would not cost the American people anything. It's not my fault that Congress won't send me that bill."

He could even have avoided the disastrous things that he has already done: "I said that I would bring back coal jobs, but it turns out that simply gutting environmental regulations won't do that. Congress has to take responsibility to make coal great again. I'm only one man!"

This strategy does, however, raise two dangers for Trump. The first is simply that his act could wear thin, even among his fellow Republicans. The ferocity with which Trump's voters support their man, however, suggests that Republicans in Congress have more to lose from abandoning Trump than he risks by attacking them. As a matter of standard political positioning, Trump seems more likely to win that face-off.

The other danger, however, is much more interesting. At some point, the Faustian bargain that Republican leaders have made with Trump is going to look less appealing. If he is not aggressively pushing their regressive, socially backward policy agenda, they might ultimately decide that he is no longer worth defending.

And here I am no longer talking about the standard political positioning that I described above. Instead, what Trump should be most worried about is the possibility that congressional Republicans will decide to allow or encourage damaging information about Trump to become public.

It would be a rather easy move for one or more Republican senators to look the other way while Russia-related information leaks to the press. Someone like Lindsey Graham might even get in on the act, saying in grave tones that his higher duties are to the Constitution and the American people than to a president who is an embarrassment to Graham's version of the Republican Party.

To some extent, therefore, Trump is not actually the dominant player in this game. He does have what currently appears to be the unwavering support of his base (although that might change when people start dying after Medicaid funds are cut to their states), but his room to maneuver has definite limits.

That would merely mean, however, that Trump cannot literally do nothing. He could certainly figure out how to do as little as possible, supporting some bills without really putting himself on the line to pass them. Tossing the Republicans some judicial appointments is sure to ease the sting too.

In the end, however, it is truly puzzling that Trump is bothering to make an effort to govern. He clearly would like to prove his detractors wrong and do great things, but he also would have liked to succeed in the casino business.

He knows that sometimes you get out when the getting is good, and leaving other people to clean up the mess is merely a perk of being Donald Trump.

Neil H. Buchanan is an economist and legal scholar, a professor of law at George Washington University and a senior fellow at the Taxation Law and Policy Research Institute at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. He teaches tax law, tax policy, contracts, and law and economics. His research addresses the long-term tax and spending patterns of the federal government, focusing on budget deficits, the national debt, health care costs and Social Security.

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