WHY TRUMP ACTS THE WAY HE DOES
HILLARY CLINTON WAS RIGHT WHEN SHE PROCLAIMED THAT TRUMP WAS “UNQUALIFIED” BUT THAT’S NOT THE REASON WHY TRUMP KEEPS ON FAILING AS PRESIDENT
I have consistently pushed back against the popular liberal memes that Trump is deranged, or insane or mentally unstable. Why? First of all, I think they’re wrong. But second, such descriptions provide a convenient, if false, justification for what appears to be Trump’s erratic behavior and unfathomable policies and dunderheaded decisions thus far, six months into the Trump Administration. As much as Trump goes directly to deflection and spin (or outright lying) when confronted with evidence of his own duplicity and nefariousness, his actions aren’t the result of mental deficiency or emotional instability (yes, he is a narcissist but this is hardly a rarity among politicians) but essentially a reflection of his life experiences as a New York developer. Seen in this light, the mindset of a successful developer in one of the planet’s most desirable, most lucrative and most dynamic of real estate playgrounds, his actions are, in his and my mind, eminently rational. Developers are control freaks. They crave control in all things. Developers, unlike dentists or accountants, must be able to control a broad, complex and complicated set of circumstances and actors if their shopping center or condo projects are going to be approved and constructed.
What Trump has failed to understand and adapt to is that the Office of the Presidency and his role as the world’s most powerful leader do not share the same characteristics, dynamics and ground rules that the New York real estate market does. It is this aspect of Trump’s responses to attacks on him personally, attacks on his policies, his personal predilections, idiosyncrasies and his often baffling administrative actions that reveal his lack of recognition that the rules have changed. So too have the metrics by which his actions are judged. Washington, Congress, the Federal Establishment, the bureaucracy, the media, are simply foreign territory for Trump, ground and ground rules that he has never faced before in New York and never had to respond to from the position he now finds himself occupying. For him, it is as if he has de-camped to a foreign country where he doesn’t speak the language and has no road map to guide him.
I know developers. In more than 20 years in the business of architecture, I know how developers think. I know the “developer mindset.” I understand their penchant for “shading” facts. I understand why they “slant” narratives based on the audience that they are presenting their narratives to. Presenting their latest mega development project that’s going to transform the very face and economic status of XYZ city district before the city planning commission, developers tout the number of jobs created, the vast tax revenues their project will send to the city coffers, the environmentally friendly features they have incorporated into their projects. Touting their project before a potentially hostile neighborhood civic association they highlight the minimal traffic impacts on the community, the increased number of neighborhood friendly small businesses their project will generate, the neighborhood appropriate architectural design their proposed project demonstrates and the number of bike racks they’re providing.
Because developers must deal with a host of characters while trying to get their projects approved and built, they are always on the lookout for betrayal. Two days away from that final Zoning Commission hearing to green light a zoning change and some do-gooder environmental group files a complaint in court. Planning Commission members were so supportive when Developer ABC testified a month ago but their final order nixed his project. That reporter who promised him a positive newspaper article just published a diatribe in the local paper. Developers see themselves as they only guy in a white hat surrounded by a sea of black hatted folks out to get them.
Developers actually hate publicity since they are showered with local publicity most often when their development projects run into citizen or governmental opposition. Sure, they love the positive local newspaper articles that highlight the number of jobs their project will create or how much in local tax revenues their projects will generate. But more often than not the publicity generated by development projects is negative, particularly after developers have lined up local official support but have run into opposition from local historic preservation organizations, local community organizations and neighborhood coalitions opposed to gentrification, or mega-developments that portend radical neighborhood change or will simply increase traffic congestion.
This is the world that Trump has grown up in. This is the world that he knows and is comfortable with. In New York City, mega developer Trump could depend on his friends in the local press, on borough council presidents, contacts in the Mayor’s office, acquaintances in the Historic Preservation Society where a telephone call or two would alter negative press or change a vote to Trump’s favor. New York, as big and complex as it is, was approachable, amenable to alternative narratives, of presenting and promoting the developer’s view of life in the city, of supporting and promoting him, Donald J. Trump.
Washington has local communities that react to developers precisely as I have described, but D.C. also possesses a much larger, much more complex, and much more intricate set of influences that New York simply does not possess. We Washingtonian residents pay scant attention to the mechanizations on Capital Hill and in Congress or the latest battles on The Hill, except when the actions of Congress or Federal Agencies impact our lives, which, by the way, they often do. But like every other community in the country, we respond to the inflated benefits of developer’s sky high claims of nirvana with skepticism just like other communities across the country. But Washington is not your average urban city. It is also the seat of the Federal Government: Congress and the Executive Branch with all its Federal offices and agencies and even the Supreme Court. We D.C. residents have had our local laws vitiated by Congress time and time again attesting to the power of the House and Senate District Committees who have the final say about our local laws and preferences. We District residents are very cognizant of the power of Congress and the federal establishment although we resist such intrusions into our local affairs, most often with no redress and quite often with the Supreme Court upholding Congress’ meddling in our local affairs.
There’s hardly a local city employee who, at one time or another, hasn’t had to respond to some Idaho Congressman’s complaint that his neighbor was building an illegal porch or some Assistant Director at HUD or Commerce who wants to weigh in at some local public hearing. We D.C.’ers do not ignore such requests. We might not be all that helpful, in the end, but ignoring some Oklahoma House Member’s nasty letter is one way to end your public career quickly. Some Federal higher ups are polite and conciliatory and willing to listen to you. Others treat you as if you were a piece of dog shit they're trying to remove from a left shoe.
It is this overlay of Federal power and influence that Trump is either ignorant of or chooses to ignore. At his peril, by the way. Here in D.C., the seat of the Federal Government and the nexus of power throughout the United States, you do not ignore the powers that be – Congress and the Federal Agencies, for the most part – without risking all that you are hoping to achieve. Although most of the media news outlets have their headquarters in New York City, their primary focus isn’t New York but here in Washington, which is where Breaking News Headlines are most often focused. In New York, Trump could call on (or tweet) his buddies in the New York Post or in the Mayor’s Office to counter a negative report about him, his family or one of his mega projects. But Washington, although much smaller than New York in population, Broadway shows and upscale retail outlets, contains a much more expansive network of insiders, pressers and power brokers than NYC could ever imagine.
This is the “atmosphere” that Trump either doesn’t grasp or willfully ignores thinking that all he needs to do is to publish a tweet on Twitter and he can achieve the same pro-Trump responses that he was accustomed to receiving as one of New York’s primo developers. But Washington, as provincial a backwater that it might be compared to uber-cosmopolitan and ultimately uber-chic NYC, what Trump has failed to achieve is a transition from a New York City milieu where “deals” can be consummated with a few telephone calls, to Washington where dozens of phone calls to members of Congress, to Senators and lobbyists are required if one is to succeed in getting that prime piece of legislation passed. This is the failing of Trump and it continues to be the primary reason why Trump seems to be stuck in a circular firing squad of his own making.
Trump has failed to make the transition from a New York City primo developer to the prime leader of the Free World in the Capital of the Free World where all the rules that he’s used to are just very different. Any Presidential Candidate who slimes our intelligence agencies – NSA, CIA, FBI – and expects that there will be no fallout later from such aspersions or expects that he can repair ruffled feathers with a few telephone calls or Twitter tweets (or even a selective "You're Fired") simply doesn’t grasp both the dedication of Federal employees and the power of our nation’s Federal establishment. You can dis Federal bureaucrats to the nines but if you hold the view that as President you have no threat of pushback from these government slugs, you have seriously misjudged the long-lasting and pervasive power of our Federal agencies and their minions. No President automatically gains the support of the FBI’s 12,000 G-Men and G-Woman just because, as President, he is their ultimate boss man. The system is designed this way and intentionally so. Loyalties must be earned and Trump failed bigly when he did not understand this fundamental lawn of Washington politics.
Frankly, I think that this, his re-location to D.C. rather than craziness or insanity or mental instability is what’s behind Trump’s fairly incoherent responses to folks who attack him, his family and his policies. It may have to do with his age. He is 71 years old and maybe this is the reason why he can’t seem to adapt to what is clearly a changed environment. As far as I’m concerned, there is no rational explanation for Trump’s erratic approach to the President other than he still sees himself as a developer in New York City deflecting attacks from local communities who object to his mega developments. This stance – developer vs. detractors – given that developers firmly believe that they are doing God’s work (a fundamental theme that all developers embrace) writ large onto the national scene is what Trump and we are experiencing. It is not a comfortable fit.