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By Steve Yetiv


The Montréal Review, December 2017



From Paris to Toronto, Beijing to Washington, people are asking the same question: how does President Trump make decisions? This question is intriguing because Trump often deviates from the norm, opinions about him are so polarized, and the global stakes are so high.

To really understand Trump, we need various perspectives that offer different angles and explanations. I offer six of them below to tell the tale.

Strategic Trump: The first perspective is that Trump makes strategic decisions aimed at promoting the national interest. Seen this way, the "Make America Great Again" motto is not a political tactic but actually drives his decisions. And his strange antics are really part of a strategy to dragoon, scare or motivate others such as "Little Rocket Man." If so, there is good hope for avoiding major global conflicts and making progress on domestic issues. Yes, as odd as he can be, Trump is often an adept bargainer, drawing on his business acumen to solve problems. It's the "art of the deal." No need to worry in particular.

Loopy Trump: This perspective offers a different story. It is about Trump's mentality. It asks us to see Trump as at once insecure and overconfident ("I know more about ISIS than the generals do"), narcissistic ("I alone can fix it,"), hyper-sensitive (tit-for-tat twitter fights), sometimes crazy, and prone to ego-driven fiascos. His tweets and actions are more impetuous and infantile than strategic, suggesting that he may drag America down. Congress-take his nuke powers away! Impeach Trump movement-get going!

The Not Loopy Novice: Here Trump's decisions are not loopy but much more driven by ignorance about government, foreign-policy, history and diplomacy. And he's too proud or distracted to learn better or just has too big a task at hand. So he's not really strategic or loopy but just inexperienced and fumbling around.

Politicking Trump: Through this lens, Trump is seen as obsessed with domestic politics. Bravado, anti-globalization, xenophobia, and reversing the Obama legacy are catnip for his political base which supports his party and re-election. In his mind, disparaging his opponents and threatening North Korea and Iran can make him look strong, increase his credibility as a president, and divert attention from his low popularity ratings, not to mention the pesky Mueller probe. Forget "Make America Great Again"-it's really make Trump great again.

Tricky Trump: Here, we see a leader who seeks increased powers. Forget his idea of draining "the Washington swamp." He wants to drain the media and institutions that challenge him. And he'll even cozy up with the Vladimir Putins of the world to meet his goals. Tricky Trump makes Tricky Dick look tame.

Groupthink Trump: The last perspective is about how his decisionmaking is shaped by group dynamics. In this view, he is surrounded by yes-men who don't challenge him, no matter what they think, and if they do, they eventually get kicked out. This groupthink dynamic empowers Trump dangerously, especially in instances when he displays overconfidence (Loopy Trump) and ignorance (The Not Loopy Novice).

What do these perspectives tell us?

Trump's supporters tend to see him through perspective one as a strategic thinker with great business acumen who will solve national problems, while his detractors would favor other perspectives. But using one or two perspectives can mislead or blinker us. For example, through the first perspective Trump's bravado versus Iran or North Korea may be seen as a strategic, but through the loopy perspective, an entirely different, more dangerous picture emerges.

In addition, even if Trump is partly strategic, some of the other perspectives tell reasonable and unsettling tales about his decisionmaking and underscore the need for correctives. Indeed, they suggest that, despite the managing role of Chief of Staff John Kelly, the White House still needs to enforce better decisionmaking procedures to ensure that options for dealing with problems are presented, carefully weighed, and serve the national interest. John F. Kennedy instituted such procedures after the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba and it worked well.

In the end, we can ask for the real Trump to stand up but we will be disappointed. Who is he, really? There's not just one Trump but many and there's no telling which perspectives will be most telling any particular decision. Over the course of time, though, he's best explained by drawing on many perspectives, each yielding its own insights.

In fact, seeing situations from multiple angles makes people smarter in general. That's something we can aspire to in our daily lives, as we try to understand the presidency of Donald Trump in this high-stakes era of rising challengers, transnational terrorism, climate change, nuclear proliferation, and fast-paced globalization.


Steve Yetiv is the Louis I. Jaffe Professor of International Relations at Old Dominion University and the author of Myths of the Oil Boom: American National Security and the Global Energy Market (Oxford University Press, 2015); Explaining Foreign Policy (Johns Hopkins, 2013); and Challenged Hegemony (with Katerina Oskarsson) (Stanford University Press, January 2018). His web page is: http://www.odu.edu/~syetiv/


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