Arm’s length is hard in political and ideological battle; and battle is more often than not the game these days. At considerable risk, I am going to attempt to keep some distance from my emotions while engaging in an even riskier task–gauging the prospects of a Trump presidency.
In the Administration of Ronald Reagan, I was frequently on the road working to sort out trade barriers blocking US telecommunication’s products and services. America had opened its market, while most other markets remained tightly controlled by government agencies.
On one occasion I was in London meeting with a longtime friend from Kansas City who was then Ambassador to the Court of St. James, Charles Price. Charlie had spent his career in banking and manufacturing. I asked him whether he enjoyed being our country’s Ambassador to the United Kingdom and will never forget his reply. He said, “This job is too g-damned qualitative for me.” I understood his frustration; I too was accustomed to looking at revenue, expense and profit reports.
The President-elect has a “huge” job and many more levers than a mere ambassador but will often find progress or not measured in small but necessary steps in a strategic plan.
Frustrations have begun, will intensify on January 20 and will then grow exponentially, even though his Party controls much of federal and state governments. He must never forget that his Party’s leaders want nothing more than to be re-elected. Washington is, to paraphrase my first boss, Secretary of Commerce Malcolm Baldrige, a tough town where everybody is after a piece of your ass.
Donald Trump has measured his business life against building permits, construction deadlines, occupancy statistics and the like. His internal operating system (IOS) is not predisposed to accept activity as progress. Does he, for example, regard having a phone conversation with Taiwan’s President moving forward or backward in dealing with China? Was this a tactic ordered by a strategic plan?
At any given time there are a relative handful of former business people in government. One of the more interesting ones I dealt with was Donald Rumsfeld. When I chaired the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Rumsfeld was CEO of General Instrument, an American electronics manufacturer. His company had made impressive progress on digital high definition television (HDTV) and the FCC was making the rules for a transition from analog to digital TV.
Rumsfeld was later Secretary of Defense in the George W Bush Administration. Americans, in the early stages, followed closely the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and many will recall Rumsfeld’s compelling press conferences. He enjoyed sparring with reporters and generally besting them; his repartee skills were impressive, and he controlled the microphone.
One of the more intriguing rhetorical refuges for the Secretary of Defense was the impossibility of knowing the unknown unknowns. In oversimplified speak, understanding the law of unintended consequences.
The President-elect will need to move both quickly and slowly. He will need to understand the importance of the unknown unknowns. And this will not be easy for him; but if he is to merit the job it will have to be a skill he learns.
On the hopeful side it is often said that Trump is transactional, which is to say he wants to conclude successfully whatever he chooses or is forced to engage. Hopefully, we can look forward to deals that breach the often impenetrable walls of ideology and polarization. As a nation we have been mired in angry denunciations. It would be ironic if a candidate that used denunciations as a daily tool actually brought disparate parties together in the “art of the deal.”But there is another side to consider. The Economist speculates that Trump might become America’s Berlusconi, as it recalled Silvio’s hapless and often corrupt run as Italy’s Prime Minister. It characterized him as using “crude appeals to wise-guy cynicism” to best the opposition while undermining trust.
Much of institutional America earned low trust ratings well before Trump became a viable candidate. Trump exploited this loss of trust as he took on every established organization (including his own Party) except the Red Cross. In recent weeks he has played off of the Intelligence community in various tweets on Russian efforts to affect our election.
Yet, trust building is the only way to succeed as President. Trump and his Party will soon be in charge of many of the institutions he has pilloried. If Trump charges institutional failure every time he is criticized, he will leave office as America’s Berlusconi. He will have become a loser in the work that will define his legacy; hotels will not lead his obituary.
When my friend left The Court of St. James he was eager to get back to a world he better understood and one that gave him concrete feedback. Some have predicted Trump won’t last four years, that he will miss his life as a high-living hotelier. It is my bet that he will persevere; although, he will need to be a more patient and generous leader or the consequences of what can’t be known will defeat him.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.