Crisis is the new normal under Trump

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, March 10, 2017


Fifty days into his administration, it would premature to speculate as to how successful the Trump presidency will be.  However, we can safely predict that, regardless of whether the U.S. will be better or worse off after Trump, his presidency will transform crises into the new normal. Under President Trump, Washington politics will be characterized by crises and scandals. Though nothing can be ruled out—including the possibility that Trump will not complete his term—a crisis-ridden White House is the inevitable consequence of a President who seems to govern in the same way as he conducted his successful television program, The Apprentice. Trump strives to create tension to keep the focus on how he does things rather than on the content of the policies he wants to push forward.


As he inches closer to completing his second month in office, President Trump has endured a series of controversies and scandals over his appointments and some of the policies he rushed to implement shortly after taking office. Compared to previous leaders, Trump has managed to alienate a larger percentage of Americans. His presidential approval is the lowest on record for any president in his first two months in office.  As it also happened with several previous administrations, the process of settling in and filling all the key positions in the executive branch has taken longer than it would be ideal.  Several key appointees not properly vetted have resigned before their confirmation hearings. Other key positions have yet to be filled. The Senate will likely be confirming key appointees well into the summer.


Unlike previous administrations, Trump has also seen some of this first policy initiatives run into trouble. The surprisingly rushed travel ban on citizens from 7 majority Muslim countries was his first big policy setback.  The decisive rejection of the travel ban by the 9th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals was resounding defeat for the administration. Other policy initiatives have also found resistance and will likely be challenged in court.  Trump’s promise to repeal and replace Obamacare will soon be tested when Congress begins to discuss the recently unveiled Republican proposal.  As an attempt at a compromise between the promise to repeal Obamacare and the popularity of several provisions in Obamacare, the Republican proposal has sparked resistance from liberals who worry about the millions of people who will lose insurance and fiscal conservatives who are concerned with the high price tab of the Republican initiative.


Trump has also contributed to the perception of chaos in the White House with his incontrollable urge to turn to twitter to vent his discontent and to launch attacks on rivals. The most recent incendiary twitter attack launched by the President against his predecessor for allegedly taping—the president misspelled the word “tap”—his phone lines during the campaign triggered all sorts of speculation about the reason behind Trump’s outburst and the possibility that a FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance) Court might have authorized the secret surveillance of then candidate Trump based on credible evidence of links with the Russian government.


Many observers seem confused by the fact that, in addition to all the problems generated by the difficulties of setting a government in place and the transition into the White House for a businessman with no prior government experience, Trump has contributed to deepening the perception of a crisis by triggering new conflicts and opening new fronts in his war against the political establishment and traditional media.  They don’t understand why, rather than trying to control crises and prevent new ones, the administration seems to thrive on chaos and new crises.


What those observers do not get is that Trump uses crises to control the political agenda. Rather than use his policy initiatives as the driving force to control the public agenda, Trump wants scandals and crises to be the dominant driver of the political agenda. Policies are boring, and the process of policy design inevitably leads to bargaining and compromise. When governments focus on policies, people stop paying attention. But when governments deal with crises—regardless of whether those crises have policy consequences—people pay attention.  Because President Trump wants to keep ratings high—rather than increase his presidential approval—a crisis-ridden White House helps him achieve that objective.  Trump knows that he will not be popular with Americans who despise him, but he does want those Americans to keep on paying attention to what he does as President.  So far, he is being successful in his strategy.


The Trump presidency should not be measured with the same yardstick as previous presidents. Because Trump is more concerned with capturing people’s attention than with the policies his government will implement, his administration will continue to jump from one crisis to the next.  Trump will make a crisis-ridden administration the new normal in Washington politics.  The consequences of that strategy are difficult to anticipate—and might be costly for the stability of the country—but we should not expect that, as time passes, the administration will learn to prevent new crises.