Who needs a plan when you have high ratings?

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, May 12, 2017


With Donald Trump about to complete his first trimester in power, the footprint of his presidential style is becoming more well-defined. Though many feared that Trump would deliver on many of his extremist campaign promises — and others hoped for the institutional setup to serve as a straitjacket that would limit presidential authority — the past three months have shown that the US president does not have a roadmap to deliver on his promise of making America great again.


A combination of fiery declarations, contradictory statements and hasty decisions have confused many observers who have failed to determine if Trump is a man with a plan or the improvisor-in-chief. But the logic behind Trump’s actions does respond to a logical pattern. The US president wants, above all, to attract high ratings. His decisions and policy choices are influenced by his uncontrollable desire to be the centre of attention. As long as his decisions produce high ratings and the president remains at the centre of the news cycle — even if there are no policy changes — Trump will feel that he is on the right track. The US president is much more concerned with television ratings than presidential approval ratings.


After a polarising campaign in which he fought with fellow-Republican contenders and then took off his gloves to go after Hillary Clinton using as style so vicious that he set new ground in a country where negative advertising regularly turns campaigns into efforts to destroy adversaries, Trump surprised everyone by delivering a victory speech that seemed intended to heal wounds and reunite the country. However, the sigh of relief that many people breathed was short-lived as in the following weeks, President-elect Trump made appointments and decisions that fed suspicions that he intended to deliver on many of his decisive campaign pledges.


The relationship Trump developed with outgoing president Barack Obama also sent out mixed signals. In their first meeting, the two men seemed determined to put their past differences behind them. It was no easy task — after all, Trump had led a campaign questioning Obama’s place of birth. Over the past few years, Trump had insisted that there was no proof that Obama was born in Hawaii, and thus that the first African-American president of the United States was illegitimately occupying a position for which he had no constitutional right. After their first meeting, things quickly took a turn for the worse. Trump eventually accused Obama of illegally spying on his campaign. Though Trump has gone back and forth on his assertions about Obama’s alleged espionage, it would be fair to say that relations between the current and former President have significantly deteriorated in the past three months.


Back and forth

Trump has made it a pattern, going back and forth on some of his campaign pledges. The way in which he has referred to the North Korean leader Kim Yong-un, for example, exemplifies the president’s apparent flip-flopping. After defining him as a threat to US security, Trump almost casually said that it would be an honour for him to meet with Kim. Relations with Russian leader Vladimir Putin have also gone from excessive and worryingly close to Siberian coldness.


Though he has been more consistent on his hard stance against illegal immigration, the travel ban on Muslims and his promise to build a wall on the Mexican border, Trump has gone from having a seemingly irresistible urgency to deliver on those promises to an apparent total loss of interest in those issues a few days later.


Though some observers would conclude that the US president is erratic and lacks a coherent game plan, an alternative conclusion is also possible. It seems that the only thing that Trump consistently wants and cares for is being the centre of attention and attracting high ratings. To be sure, all presidents everywhere in the world care about ratings and their approval. But normally, they want to be popular so that they can implement their preferred policies. For President Trump, policies are just a tool for him to achieve high ratings. If moving forward with a travel ban on people from majority Muslim countries makes people pay attention to the actions of the president, then Trump will issue such travel ban. If the courts rule that the ban is unconstitutional, then Trump will rally against the judicial power not because he wants the ban in place but because that fight — which he is unlikely to win — will give him high ratings. In the three months that President Trump has been in the White House, his decisions have been erratic and his priorities have constantly changed. His administration has little substantive changes to show as accomplishments. For those who mistakenly think that he cares about results and policies, Trump has not been successful. But since President Trump has continued to capture the attention of the world and he remains at the centre of the 24-hour news cycle, his first three months in office have been an unquestionable success — for a president who cares about ratings

more than about policies.