Ten months into Donald Trump’s presidency, pundits seem to have set aside partisan differences to reach a consensus about his skills as a negotiator.
Politico: Trump is a bad negotiator.
The Daily Caller: Trump is a terrible negotiator.
The New Republic: Trump is a terrible, terrible negotiator.
Jennifer Rubin: Trump is world’s worst negotiator.
I actually think Trump is a pretty good negotiator. His trip to Saudi Arabia in May and his current tour of Asia may have been panned as ineffectual, confusing, and self-defeating, but I think these criticisms misunderstand Trump’s actual goals—and, by extension, his negotiation skills.
The second half of Jennifer Rubin’s tweet belies this misunderstanding: “Trump is world’s worst negotiator. Bring a band, a carpet and he’ll give you anything you want. He is a patsy[.]” (Emphasis added.)
Rubin thinks foreign leaders are able to distract and dissuade Trump from pursuing his goals by plying him with pomp and circumstance. (Think of Emmanuel Macron’s Bastille Day parade in Paris, or the Saudis’ tacky avalanche of gifts.) According to Rubin (and most analysts), these performances of opulence and adulation are used as leverage over Trump, leaving him blindsided when it comes to pursuing his actual goals.
But these parades and gifts and gaudy displays of deference are Trump’s goals. These idiot tokens of elite acceptance are all he’s negotiating for. Everything else is expendable. When Trump watches people in old-timey clothes parading by, or receives a fancy sword from a Saud, or is granted access to the Forbidden City (first President to receive it!) he has reached the effective end of his negotiation. He has won.
This is because Donald Trump has only ever really cared about one thing: the adulation of elites. Ever since he was a tacky Queens developer longing for the acceptance of Manhattan swells, his insecurity and resentment have defined his every desire. Because on some level he knows he’s too stupid and clumsy to earn the respect of elites, he has willed himself to settle for the simulacrum of deference—even as those who bow (as he’s lumbering by) rise to pick his pocket as he passes.
If I spent my life’s savings renting hotel rooms I didn’t actually sleep in, you’d think I was crazy. But if I revealed that my only goal in life was to eat complimentary chocolate chip cookies provided by hotels, you’d have to admit I had come up with a brutally effective way of achieving that goal. China, Saudi Arabia, and everyone else sitting across the table from our walking walnut-cheddar loaf of a chief executive have learned—very, very quickly, and to their nations’ considerable benefit—that in Trump’s mind, the opening gambit just is the goal.
And because Trump’s neediness is so transparent, he has effectively become his own negotiation. His entire life amounts to a screaming announcement that all he wants is a stupid parade and a gift from a man in a fancy suit—a man who would otherwise have the good sense to turn his nose up at him. We can criticize Trump for failing to negotiate on our behalf, or for failing to see beyond his short-term animal appetites, but we can’t criticize him for being an ineffective negotiator. Every time a nation’s leader debases himself or herself by pretending to respect Trump, he wins.