Let’s step back for a moment from the near-hysteria around our President’s performance in Helsinki, the cries of his “traitorous” capitulation to a classic dictator, the dark ruminations on what Putin may have over him. There’s another way of looking at this latest embarrassment, an indisputable fact that the vast majority of us, of whatever political stripe, can agree on:
This guy is really bad at being President.
To some, this is a good thing, but in the context of the Noh theater of international diplomacy, not so much. This is to say, among other things, that policy detail bores him, that he’s a terrible communicator, is incapable of nuance, has no familiarity with the verbiage and symbolisms of diplomacy, that his syntax is muddled, that his pronouns have no antecedents, that the preparation, care and precision that are traditionally applied to international exchanges of this kind are utterly foreign to him.
Instead, what I saw up there, standing next to Putin, was a business guy.
That Trump is, and forever will be in his heart and soul, a business guy, is something that should be obvious, but we lose sight of it from time to time when we want and need so much for him to be something more. In the business world you go to meetings – important meetings – and whatever awful things you might think or say about the guy or gal across the table before you get there, in the room you smile and make nice and shake hands and clap each other on the back. Politeness, however false, and exaggerated male bonhomie, are the coinage of these encounters. Things might get heated when you actually get down to negotiating — I’m sure Trump was a real sonofabitch with the bankers that held his companies’ paper in their various bankruptcies – but Helsinki, like Singapore, was designed to be a content-free summit, no negotiation necessary, an elaborate taxpayer-underwritten photo-op for Trump, which is the only analogue he knows for what being President might be about.
So of course he flattered Putin, and grabbed his hand like they were old fraternity brothers, and refused to say anything substantive about Russia’s flagrantly bad acts over, say, the last decade or two. He was just acting like a business guy at one of the thousand business meetings he’s attended over his career where nothing’s really going to happen, it’s just the principals meeting for show, and you just want to get in and out without breaking anything and let the minions do the work afterwards.
Which is to say, again, that this guy is really bad at being President, and is highly unlikely to get good at it. That’s obvious and wouldn’t be so terrible if he could take instruction from anyone, or follow anyone’s advice, but he can’t, because that’s not how business guys, at least not BSD business guys, behave. They know better than you, better than any of their advisors. That’s how they got where they are.
I’m going to try this for a while; stop thinking of Trump as a politician or a sociopath, and just think of him as a business guy who’s in ‘way over his head but can’t bring himself to admit it for even a second, and instead alternately blusters and fawns and insults and lies, because that’s what a BSD business guy does when he’s in ‘way over his head. It might not make him more sympathetic, but it may make him more intelligible.