Without selling points, there is no Donald Trump. I don’t mean that without a pitch, and without marketing, and without a heap of non-binding “guaranteed” promises—without which, there’s no deal to even ponder—there is no Donald Trump presidency, even though that is likely true. I mean that the essence of Donald Trump is a loose and inchoate jumble of stated reasons to buy and upsell.
Trump’s speech is a relentless cadence of pitchman’s promises, branded content bearing the presidential seal, self-promotion set to Hail to the Chief. We’re going to take care of it, with the best men and women. Winning; believe me. Unspoken but always implied: If you forget, and I don’t have to follow through, that would be best.
An executive style predicated on lazy, no-follow-through bullshit produced the limp spectacle of last Friday and over the weekend, in which Donald Trump—the straight-talking, deal-making president—failed to execute, did not close, turned soft at the climactic moment on two issues key to his presidency: acting tough on Iran, and making life as miserable as possible for brown-skinned people.
Was he talking about himself or the military last week, when he tweeted that an airstrike on Iran—the country John Bolton, his national-security adviser, has been dreaming of attacking for most of this century, in a direct violation of an actually somewhat reasonable Trump campaign promise—was “cocked and loaded” only for he, the hard-line and decisive president, to find his feet ice-cold, leading him to change his mind and call it off, with the warplanes 10 minutes away from their targets? One-hundred and fifty Iranians would have died, the president said, a number far too high (and which is 143 more than the seven migrant children known to have died in Trump’s borderlands detention centers.) We are to believe that the president, who bellows and stomps about starting a nuclear war, is unwilling to press U.S. interests at the price of foreign blood. Obama would never be so weak!
And what is Trump’s base, the president’s buyers, on whom he is relying to become repeat buyers in November 2020, supposed to make of his neat turnaround on Sunday’s promised immigration raids, which Trump himself had been hyping, like a strip-club doorman trying to coax a fresh crop of rubes past the velvet rope, for most of the week, only to shut the door and call it off soon as a line formed outside? No show today folks, sorry.
The obvious conclusion is the right one: Donald Trump is scared, Donald Trump can’t execute, Donald Trump is all bluster and noise and no payoff. And while it may be ruefully enjoyable to watch the president’s tie flap around aimlessly like an unmoored Tube Guy lost in the rotor wash of Marine One, the fact is that this is not a positive development.
Mind, it isn’t bad on a micro level. Ratcheting up the standoff with Iran to a limited-war scenario via a direct attack is something desired only by the avowed hawks writing for The Washington Post opinion section and the military-industrial complex. Unleashing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on thousands of families, in order to further fill the country’s borderland detention centers and send desperate asylum-seekers to run even greater risks is a dark fantasy leaking from the distressed recesses of Stephen Miller’s mind—suffering for the sake of suffering, a taxpayer-funded horror show.
The president’s wilting into the right course of action is an unseemly and macabre occasion for a victory lap. We still have a president who likes to bully and threaten. We just have a president who, after the big talk, thrashes and writhes and yells “HOLD ME BACK, BRO,” while desperately praying that all he has to do is talk, that he doesn’t actually have to go through with it—the risk of taking a shot to the jaw and losing face. Iran knows the score. Trump vows “obliteration,” and he is countered with “mentally retarded.” Trump’s empty shell enablers in the State Department cobble together some more sanctions while America’s European allies cover their eyes, unable to watch. This is our foreign policy now. This isn’t good on the macro, at all.
Flip-flops like this present an opportunity for over-sexualized metaphors—something for which the president has demonstrated an open and adolescent fondness—but these, too, are garish and inappropriate, given the totality of the circumstances. This is a president, mind, who has been openly accused of sexual assault by more than a dozen women—the latest of whom, prominent advice columnist E. Jean Carroll, published a detailed account in New York magazine last Friday.
Trump is fine with preying on the weak and exploiting the advantages his celebrity and, now, his status as president afford him; it’s when he encounters real and actual risk, when he might take a shot in return, that he crumbles and withdraws to the therapy of executive-time tweeting.
All of his recent no-shows do fulfill the key Trump imperative—to be talked about, to have a brand, to market himself and it. Overselling himself and his presidency, and then isolating himself from the consequences via a bankruptcy or negotiated settlement or just a blanket denial, repeatedly shouted, is in line with most of his career in business. In broad strokes, there is some similarity between phoning in “tips” about his own love life to the local tabloid’s gossip columnist, up-selling stock tips and slapping his name on a slew of products that do not suffer scrutiny and making ominous rumblings about what he can and will absolutely do as president—or what he could have totally done, if he hadn’t also decisively changed his mind and slunk away from the brink.
But this isn’t vodka, steaks, real estate or an airline—these are the domestic and foreign affairs of the United States, still for now the world’s top dog and still for now commanded by a prevaricating president deeply unsure of himself. Blow a deal in real estate or business, and all you have is a lack of a deal or a lawsuit; you can bluster your way to the next deal or have your lawyers drag out the proceedings so long everyone forgets. Now, we have an emboldened Iran, a yapping chorus of right-wing attack dogs calling the president a coward and ICE agents leering at Americans cheering on the heavyweight champion of the world. We are in a crisis, and the captain steering the ship is a baffled and indecisive loudmouth, Captain Queeg with a tanning bed, terrified of taking a hit. How did that turn out? Treating the metaphor like a Guantanamo detainee, in The Caine Mutiny, the ship had other, better officers whose cool grasp of command saved the day. In our world, we have Stephen Miller, John Bolton and Elliot Abrams. It’s not going to get better.