Will President Trump Succeed?

Originally published in the Herald-Mail

Economic & Fiscal Policy, Government Transparency, Health Care, Taxes

by Thomas A. Firey


JANUARY 18, 2017 Bookmark and Share

I hope that Donald Trump is a highly successful president. I’ll try very hard to help him become so.

Eight years ago, I had the same hope for Barack Obama, and I’ve tried very hard to help him.

This doesn’t mean that I mindlessly support whatever policies they propose. Rather, I try to provide them and the public with serious, researched thoughts on social problems and possible government responses. All responsible policy analysts—and citizens—do this. Though these efforts produce a broad range of opinions, some of which are deeply flawed, they result in better political discussion and government policy.

Unfortunately, President Obama wasted many of those efforts. I say this not because he failed to adopt specific policy recommendations, but rather that he was unwilling—and perhaps unable—to consider many reasonable ideas advanced by good analysts. Candidate Obama in 2008 may have claimed to be a pragmatic, open-minded, consensus-building policymaker, but President Obama proved to be a narrow-minded, self-important, knee-jerk interventionist.

From adopting an extremely costly but predictably failed effort to spend the economy into good health,[1] to assembling and shoddily implementing a half-baked health care reform,[2] to orchestrating a foreign policy that further destabilized the Middle East and entangled the United States,[3] to suppressing Americans’ civil liberties by expanding domestic spying,[4] permitting federal agencies to wrongfully harass his critics,[5] and attacking First Amendment guarantees of free speech[6] and a free press,[7] Obama refused to temper his political ambitions despite receiving sound advice to do so. The high-minded ideals candidate Obama voiced in his pretty speeches were so much hot air.

Which brings us to soon-to-be President Trump.

To understand what sort of president Trump likely will be, consider what he has done professionally for the last half-century.

Though he talks about building buildings and running companies, he really isn’t a builder or a manager; he contracts with others to construct and run his hotels, office buildings, golf courses and casinos. In some cases, enterprises that he describes as “his” successes aren’t even his at all, but simply tenants on his properties or businesses that pay to use his name.

What Trump really is, more than anything else, is an extraordinary marketer. He is highly skilled at convincing people that his branded offerings are terrific, the competition is lousy, and anyone who says otherwise is a liar.

It doesn’t matter whether his offerings really are good, his competitor’s bad, or his critics wrong. What matters is that he convinces enough people that they are. To appreciate how focused he is at promoting his brand, remember his campaign event last March where he launched into a spiel about the fabulous quality of his Trump Steaks, some of which ostensibly were piled high on a cutting board beside him. Trump Steaks have been off the market for years; the steaks on display were purchased from a local meatpacker.[8]

Put simply, Trump’s success is largely a product of his hot air.

In 2016 he brought that marketing acumen to the campaign trail. If opponents criticized his ideas, he branded them dopes and liars—regardless of whether they were right. If different candidates began to gain traction, he convinced voters the candidates were unelectable—regardless of whether they were. If damaging information about him became public, he quieted the news by promising to “soon” deliver proof the revelations were false—though he never produced the promised evidence.

He persuaded folks that he is a better political thinker than the most studious wonks, he understands economics better than the nation’s top economists, and he is a sharper military strategist than the Pentagon’s top generals, admirals and analysts. Yet he has little if any training and experience in public policy, economics, or military strategy.

Now he has to deliver on his many promises to fix the nation’s promises. Marketing can get Trump to the Oval Office, but it can’t make him a success once he starts making policy.

In order to succeed, he’ll have to rely heavily on good policy advisers to guide him in the right directions. To his credit, he has nominated and appointed some surprisingly good people. But will he ultimately be able to distinguish good advice from good-sounding advice, and good advisers from advisers who are good at promoting themselves? And will he stand by the good advice and advisers when the going gets tough, which it always does in politics? Or will he fall back on marketing, only to discover it has little traction once policies start to fail badly.

As I said, I sincerely hope Trump succeeds as president and I will try hard to help him do so. But if he thinks good policymaking is easy and a successful presidency is a matter of good marketing, he’ll find his hot air is only good for cooking his nonexistent Trump Steaks.

Thomas A. Firey is a senior fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute.

[1] See Thomas A. Firey, “Keynesians Adrift,” Herald-Mail (Hagerstown, Md.), Feb. 8, 2015.

[2] See Thomas A. Firey, “Why America Still Needs Health Care Reform,” Maryland Public Policy Institute, Oct. 10, 2013.

[3] See Thomas A. Firey, “Politics and the Middle East,” Herald-Mail (Hagerstown, Md.), Nov. 24, 2015.

[4] Nat Hentoff, “Beyond Orwellian: What Are the Bounds of Obama’s Domestic Spying?” Cato Institute, July 3, 2013.

[5] See Walter Olson, “Prof. Laurence Tribe on IRS Targeting,” Cato-at-Liberty, Aug. 24, 2016.

[6] See Thomas A. Firey, “The Myth of the Citizens United Monster,” Herald-Mail (Hagerstown, Md.), May 16, 2012.

[7] Nat Hentoff, “Take Obama at His Word? Which One—and When?” Cato Institute, June 5, 2013.

[8] Caleb Melby. “When Trump Steaks at a Trump Event Aren’t Really ‘Trump Steaks.’” Bloomberg, March 9, 2016.