The greatest challenge for those seeking to understand the Donald Trump presidency is recognizing how experienced and how competent he is.
The modern Washington models for an acceptable president are all managerial and corporate. The competent president is seen as a team leader operating within a larger system in a relatively harmonious way. In a variation on Antony Jay’s wonderful series, Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, the modern president is expected to accept a defined and limited role within a world defined by the mandarins of the bureaucracy, the think tanks, and the news media.
However, President Trump was elected by the so-called deplorables who despised the mandarins and felt they had been sold out by them. It was precisely the Trump ability to break the Washington-New York niceties which made him attractive to millions of Americans who felt they had been disenfranchised and treated with contempt by the establishment – whether in politics, the media, academia, or the bureaucracy.
Because the elites were so embittered by this rejection by millions of Americans, and because they came to hate the champion of those so-called deplorables, they have found it impossible to come to grips with the real Donald Trump. They focus on the kind of petty mistakes which would have brought him scorn at Yale, Harvard, or Princeton and cannot bring themselves to ask why he is getting so much done if he is so inadequate as measured by their values.
The key to understanding President Trump’s amazing success is to recognize that he is, at heart, an entrepreneur. It is this restless, always questioning, always seeking to accomplish something, always optimistic that tomorrow can be better attitude which gives him so much energy and makes him so formidable.
The only president who comes close to matching President Trump’s entrepreneurial spirit is Theodore Roosevelt. President Roosevelt was a prolific writer. He was the organizer of the Rough Riders in the Spanish American War. He advocated for building the modern navy and the Panama Canal. He was a big game hunter (the Theodore Roosevelt Wing of the American Museum of Natural History is a tribute to Teddy as a naturalist). TR, as he was called, won the Nobel Peace Prize mediating between Japan and Russia. He was so popular (maybe the most popular president since George Washington) that a toy manufacturer in Brooklyn produced a stuffed baby bear and called it a Teddy Bear, because Roosevelt had refused to kill a young bear in what became a national story of his sportsmanship.
I have argued that President Andrew Jackson is the only president as disruptive to the system as President Trump, but Jackson was not particularly inventive or entrepreneurial. He just believed in a bold set of reforms the establishment hated and fought for them.
The key to understanding the “Trump Method” is studying the Trump entrepreneurial history.
He moved to Manhattan and built a real estate empire in the most competitive real estate market in the world, which required constant interaction with city and state government. He learned to be a celebrity through constant skirmishes with the famous Page 6 gossip column (the most widely read page in New York). He realized that combativeness and constant news focus grow celebrity, and celebrity is a marketable commodity. He developed a casino project in Atlantic City, which required mastering the New Jersey state government system. He met Mayor Ed Koch’s challenge of fixing the Wollman Skating Rink after it had been broken for six years by turning to the best ice-skating rink builders in the world (Canadians). This is a model for how he brought in the best experts to fight the coronavirus. He wrote best-selling books, which helped make him a national figure. He routinely appeared on any television show available from Oprah to pizza commercials, because he understood that persistent noise works. He almost went bankrupt in 1990 and clawed his way back. This is a great lesson in perseverance and never giving up. He created and starred in The Apprentice for 14 seasons (reportedly making him more than $200 million). He created a Trump Tie collection, and before he ran for president, he had 19 companies paying him for the right to use his name. As one last example, Trump created the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League in an effort to compete with the NFL and paid legendary running back Herschel Walker millions to help create the league’s stature.
Not all of these ventures were totally successful – but the sheer amount of activity is what made Trump successful. It is this constant driving entrepreneurial spirit which we see every day in the briefings from the White House. It is this willingness to learn, question, be controversial, and risk making a mistake in order to push the envelope which President Trump is using to defeat the coronavirus.
He was right on pushing for much faster testing, and it is now down to 5 minutes. He was right on testing for off label use of drugs already proven safe in humans. He was right in suggesting that masks could be sterilized and reused (apparently up to 20 times) thus vastly expanding the available supply. He was right to focus both a Navy hospital ship and the Army Corps of Engineers in flooding New York City with facilities.
If the news media could suspend its hostility and just watch what is happening, it would have an amazing story of the entrepreneur as commander in chief.
The country knows it – even if the media doesn’t.