What’s Behind Donald Trump’s Impulse to Sabotage Himself?
On Monday morning, Potus put out a catty tweet about a senator whose vote he needs on tax reform. Why does he do this? The simplest explanation is probably the right one.
Why would President Donald Trump jeopardize the last shot he has of passing a major part of his agenda in 2016 (tax reform) just in order to fire off a couple of angry tweets?
In case you missed it, he did it again. What is more, one of his tweets was attacking Senator Jeff Flake.
On Friday, I warned about the tenuous nature of tax reform, and they can only afford to lose two votes in the senate (and, I should add, there are several Republicans who could conceivably vote against the Senate bill, including: Rand Paul, John McCain, Ron Johnson, Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins, Bob Corker, and… Jeff Flake).
Again, the question comes up: Why would Trump risk his own agenda just to send a couple of angry, vindictive tweets?
One theory holds that Trump is playing three-dimensional chess—that he intentionally wants to distract us with a salacious diversion, while Congress pushes through tax cuts for the rich. But there are problems with the “Trump knows exactly what he’s doing!” theory, not the least of which is the fact that this is a pattern that has demonstrably failed. Here’s something I observed in the immediate wake of health care reform’s failure in the Senate this past July:
In the days leading up to a vote in which Republicans fell one vote short of passing an admittedly ridiculous “skinny” Obamacare repeal bill, Donald Trump: (a) engaged in an ugly public dispute with his conservative attorney general, (b) threatened to veto a veto-proof Russian sanctions bill, (c) hired a new communications director who threatened to sic the FBI on Trump’s chief of staff for leaking (he didn’t leak)—and engaged in an expletives-laden interview with a reporter, (d) delivered a speech to the Boy Scouts that they had to apologize for, and (e) tweeted out a new policy on transgender military members that caught his joint chiefs unawares.
It should be noted that two of the five transgressions cited above involved his use of Twitter.
If Trump’s genius was to distract and to provide cover for the senate to stealthily repeal Obamacare (while he took all the heat) worked, then I missed the bill signing in the Rose Garden.
So why does Trump do this? I have three theories.
1. It’s possible that he is self-sabotaging. Psychology Today says that “behavior is said to be self-sabotaging when it creates problems and interferes with long-standing goals.” Sometimes people who are afraid of failing at something they earnestly attempted will give themselves an “out” by unconsciously engaging in behavior that can later be cited as an excuse for later failure. For this reason, people may go out drinking the night before they take the SATs. That way if they test poorly, they can always blame in on the hangover, because dealing with the possibility that they might not be that intelligent is too painful to confront.
According to Margaret Paul, Ph.D., “We all have a survival part that is programmed into us — which I call our ego-wounded self. It gets activated by fear and goes into action to try to protect us from getting hurt.”
It’s risky to put Donald Trump on the couch, but he is clearly someone who likes to blame others for failures, even as he shoots himself in the foot. By manufacturing excuses for his failure, Trump inoculates himself against some criticism, even as he undermines the kind of legislation that might someday help define him as a successful president who accomplished things.
Of course, circling back to the litany of distractions Trump dropped on us just prior to the failure of the health care reform vote, one could argue that he was simply engaging in his “normal” self-destructive behavior. At the very least, this is evidence that he doesn’t tone things down in advance of an important vote.
But again, the point here is that if this is some sort of grand scheme to distract us while Congress toils away under the radar, it isn’t working. That leaves us with options that are less Machiavellian, and more uncontrollable. And if Trump isn’t subconsciously self-sabotaging, maybe he is consciously doing it?
2. It’s the plan. Too often, we make the mistake of assuming that Trump is a normal politician who has normal goals (such as passing an agenda). But what if this is the old way of thinking? Here’s something I wrote about this theory a few weeks ago:
Those of us who assume that presidents have to put legislative points on the board assume that failure to do so will depress the GOP base. But Trump’s fans see victories everywhere. Picking a fight with the NFL is just as good as repealing Obamacare—maybe better in a pop-culture, reality-TV world. Ditto telling squishy senators like Jeff Flake “You’re fired!”
Think of it this way, if Donald Trump’s real goal is the Bannonite strategy of burning down the house in order to rebuild it in his image later, then who benefits most from passing tax reform? The truth is that mainstream conservatives and establishment Republicans like this supply-side tax bill that cuts corporate taxes much more than nationalists do.
If Congress functions correctly, the establishment wins. It means that governing is actually possible. It means that incumbent senators can run for reelection claiming they actually did something. Conversely, congressional dysfunction actually proves the Bannonite point about liberal democracy being impotent. So maybe Trump is doing this on purpose?
3. Impulse control. The first two theories are sort of opposites. One argues that Trump is unconsciously self-sabotaging, while the other argues that he is intentionally sabotaging the establishment. Occam’s Razor suggests that both theories are examples of a writer who is over-thinking this all.
The simplest theory is that Trump cannot resist punching back when he feels threatened or attacked. This might be a close cousin to self-sabotage, but it’s not the same thing.
When you consider that Trump’s Sunday tweets involved attacking the father of a basketball player (who, rather than praise Trump, sought to diminish his role in returning his son who was being held by China), and attacking Jeff Flake (who had recently been captured on a “live mike” criticizing Trump), this makes sense.
Trump isn’t self-sabotaging on purpose, instead, he’s just easily bated into counter-punching—regardless of the impact it might have on his long-term goals
So which of the three theories is correct? I’m only an amateur Trumpologist, but my gut is always to assume the simplest explanation is correct. Having said that, I think all three are plausible. And I’m not sure, frankly, which is the worst.