Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Listen: they won't make it up in volume.

There's an old story about a guy in retail.

He's having a great day in his store, moving a lot of product, feeling very successful -- when his accountant comes up to him.  The accountant is sweaty and panicked, and he grabs the guy's arm and says, "Listen, we're in real trouble!  I just ran the numbers and you're going broke!  Something's gotta change!"

The guy looks around the room and sees a ton of salesmen and a ton of customers.  His merchandise is flying off of the shelves.  He turns back to his accountant and laughs, saying, "Are you kidding?  Look at this place!"

"See," says the accountant, "that's just the problem!  I looked at the purchase orders, and you're selling product for less than you paid for it... everything you sell is actually costing you money.  It would be better for your bottom line if you kicked everyone out and didn't sell a thing!"

The guy just chuckles, shaking his head wisely.  He claps the accountant on the back and winks.  "Don't worry," he says.  "We'll make it up in volume."

This is the Trump approach to the presidency.  Or rather, the Bannon approach, because he has articulated it the most clearly.  Discussing the struggle to get things done under the darkening pall of the Russia investigation. Bannon recently told the Washington Post that their strategy was simple:  “This is not astrophysics.  You solidify your base and you grow your base by getting things done. That’s what people want to see.”

In other words, Trump's team believes that he can win success in the White House the same way he won the office itself: by doubling down on their core supporters, over and over.  They are applying this tactic across the board when it comes to both optics and legislation.  Trump and his core team crafts messages meant for their base and delivers policies designed to please their base.  As long as that core of ~35% of voters remains energetic and pleased, they're betting that they can be used to scare businesses and politicians into doing as the White House wishes, which will in turn allow Trump to scratch out even more policy victories.

Unfortunately for him, they've had to rely a lot on optics.  As it turns out, divisive and fact-free bloviating is not conducive to real statesmanship.  Trump hasn't had any problems when it comes to leaving deals -- Paris accords, TPP, etc -- but actually crafting new ones... well, this stuff is hard.  Trump has been president for 158 days and hasn't had any significant legislative or diplomatic achievements, for example.  That will probably change, eventually -- there are 496 days left before midterm elections, after all, and that's a lot of time to get something significant passed -- but he is performing poorly by most measures.  When asked about his accomplishments, it's hard to find anything significant beyond his nomination of Neil Gorsuch... and that should rightly be called the work of Mitch McConnell, not Donald J. Trump.  There's no wall, there's a crippled Muslim ban, there's no infrastructure or jobs bill, and so on.

But if you're wondering how to explain White House behavior, this is often the explanation.  Why do they do so many things that seem broadly unpopular, foolish, or otherwise contrary to their own best interests?  Well, they're trying to appeal to their base.

Most presidents try to do this, of course, but they don't take this approach exclusively.  In recent memory, every president has taken seriously the idea that they are the president of the entire country, and worked to unite the nation.  This has always been mitigated by their desire to achieve their own agendas, but at a bare minimum each previous president has always given lip service to an ideal of bipartisan unity.

Donald Trump is engaged in a bold and unusual experiment, devoting himself to policies, ideas, and rhetoric that are broadly unpopular in an attempt to govern with an impassioned minority.  In many countries, this would be reason to fear, since a minority can only solidify its hold on power by attacking the institutions that express the will of the majority.  But Trump has tried that, and they have been found unyielding.

So he's trying to do other things.  Antagonizing the press.  Flouting conventions of civility and ethics.  Brazenly discarding inconvenient realities.  Attacking allies and encouraging autocrats.  All brash and all dangerous, and all accompanied by a stream of state media that attempt to gaslight the public and redefine norms.

And if it's all unpopular among the public, and if even his base is shrinking at the reality of what they've wrought?  If every reckless action and feckless word sinks him deeper into the fever-heat embrace of his most fervent supporters?

It's okay.  They'll make it up in volume.


Sure you will, Mr. President.

Sure you will.

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