And this is not a criticism, at least not exactly. It’s more an observation of his style, of what makes Trump tick.
A mad-for-Bernie friend, just yesterday, said to me, about Trump: “Well at least he’s for universal healthcare.”
“Yes, he’s said so.”
At one point or another Donald Trump has said just about anything one could possibly say about reforming healthcare without getting too specific — often contradictory things, often in the same sentence.
If you find this strange, you probably feel there is a mismatch between Trump’s policies and policies you would prefer. But that’s not really so. There is a mismatch, but it’s between how we think about politics and governance, and how Trump’s mind works.
He’s not being evasive or shallow. He is actually showing us how he thinks. If you read his books, if you read about his actual business dealings, if you peruse the interviews about how he would govern, a definite pattern emerges.
The Power of Being Unreliable
Donald Trump believes that he is a great negotiator, that he can get the best deal in any negotiation. Now here’s the key: He believes that his strongest weapon in these negotiating battles is his unpredictability. He believes in being an unreliable, even untrustworthy negotiating partner. Being a man of his word would be bad for business.
So in his business history, it’s not uncommon to see him put together a complicated deal to build some big resort, get the local authorities to commit to build roads, change zoning, give him the right tax breaks — then stop construction after land has been broken and cleared, when he’s already deep into the project, stop it all and walk away, declaring that it’s not going to work, the deal’s not good enough. All this is to get the local authorities to come back to the bargaining table and give him more concessions.
Or he will stop paying the subcontractors when they are already deeply committed to the project. When they are hurting badly enough, he will get them back to the table to re-negotiate for a lower price, take it or leave it, when leaving it could well mean bankruptcy for the subcontractors and a long tough season for the subcontractors’ employees.
So in discussing foreign policy, he has been known to refuse to say whether he would ever use nuclear weapons in a first strike. This is not because he is aching to start World War III. This is because he believes it is to his advantage to seem unpredictable. What good is having a threat like nuclear weapons, he would argue, if everybody is completely certain you will never use them?
In financial policy, he has said that if he felt it necessary, he might negotiate a discount with our creditors, make them “take a haircut” in their repayment. Many of these ideas he has walked back, or his spokespeople have, but even that serves to heighten the unreliability. The deep message is: You cannot rest assured with Trump, he will always as a matter of strategy go where you think he can’t go.
Does This Work?
As a business strategy, this can work, sort of kind of, in certain limited situations. It works specifically in situations in which you have the most power and freedom of movement, where you really could walk away from the deal and survive just fine, where it doesn’t matter to you if you completely destroy the other side, in which you don’t expect to be coming back for more deals with the same people, and where your goal can be strictly and clearly defined — making the most money for yourself.
None of these things are true in governance, in politics, or in international affairs. The U.S., while clearly the most powerful nation on Earth, cannot simply walk away from any of the complex world questions. We don’t get to pick who is on the other side of the negotiating table, and we will absolutely have to come back to the same counterparties over and over again into the future. It does really matter to us that those we are bargaining with have something to gain from working with us. What would constitute a “better deal” for the U.S. is a vastly complex question and is never just about money. And our greatest asset in foreign and financial affairs alike is that we are a reliable partner.
Similarly, success in politics and governance is famously the art of compromise, which almost paradoxically means keeping your word. If you are continually slipping away from your deal, people will stop making deals with you.
Most of us who actually care about politics carry the assumption that candidates should be evaluated based on their policies and proposals. And here we have a candidate who actually doesn’t believe in policies and proposals, because they telegraph your intentions and leave you open to attack.
So we cannot rely on anything Trump has said about healthcare. We can’t even reliably bet that he will attempt to repeal Obamacare. He might, he might not. The percentage of the tasks in reforming healthcare further that really is about beating some adversary into submission at the negotiating table equals approximately zero.