How do you 'win' at being president?
Cheering crowds. Huge ratings. One winner. It's not the Super Bowl, it's President Trump's worldview.
Several months before the New England Patriots won Super Bowl XLIX in a nail-biter against the Seattle Seahawks, reality TV host Donald Trump quoted his friend Tom Brady in a tweet.
Trump's favorite word is any form of "win," and naturally so — he made a career out of it. From being a ruthless dealmaker in the cutthroat world of New York City real estate to his role as a merciless game show judge, winnowing contestants down to a single champion, Trump has always seen the world as a contest with clear winners and losers.
Winning is all fine and good, but winning has its place. Football games. Reality TV contests. Even elections. But you do not "win" at being president, and until Trump stops treating the highest office like the Super Bowl, the United States has dark, dangerous, and lonely days ahead.
Trump has nevertheless long made it clear that he is going to figure out how to "win" at being commander-in-chief. "You're going to be so proud of your country if I get in," Trump told a crowd in Albany, New York, last April. "Because we're going to start winning again. We're going to win so much. We're going to win at every level. We're going to win economically, we're going to win with the economy, we're going to win with military, we're going to win with health care and for our veterans. We're going to win with every single facet. We're going to win so much you might even get tired of winning and you'll say, 'Please, please, it's too much winning, we can't take it anymore.'"
It isn't exactly clear what Trump means by winning, except that it seems to abstractly have to do with large crowds, big ratings, and humiliating people.
When his inauguration crowd was not up to a winner's standards, Trump lashed out at the media for allegedly misreporting the size. In his first week in the White House, Trump went as far as to announce he'd investigate demonstrably false allegations of voter fraud, with particular scrutiny going to large blue states, just because he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton.
Trump has also spent an exorbitant amount of time as president talking about ratings, with White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer repeatedly trying to assert that "if you add up the network streaming numbers, Facebook, YouTube, all of the various live streaming that we have information on so far, I don't think there's any question that [Trump's] was the largest watched inauguration ever." Politifact deemed such claims "pants on fire" false.
Trump is even preoccupied with ratings that no longer concern him, asking the attendees of the National Prayer Breakfast to "pray" for Celebrity Apprentice. "They hired a big, big movie star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to take my place. And we know how that turned out," Trump said. "The ratings went right down the tubes, it's been a total disaster, and [producer Mark Burnett] will never, ever bet against Trump again. And I want to just pray for Arnold if we can for those ratings, okay?" In the TV world, tangible Nielsen numbers make it clear who the winners and losers are.
But Trump has even bragged about the size of his victory and his inauguration's turnout on phone calls to foreign leaders. And on Wednesday, The Washington Post reported that Trump somehow managed to get in a fight with Australia, despite the country being a longstanding U.S. ally. "This is the worst call by far," Trump spat at Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over the phone, ranking him last in a lineup that included Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Trump has repeatedly managed to sour his relationship with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, too. The border wall is nonnegotiable — Mexico will pay for it, Trump insists, and anything short of Mexico paying for it entirely would be considered a loss. Trump doesn't do losing.
As a result, American allies across the board are suddenly finding themselves playing against the U.S. Trump's win-or-lose view of international relations means there is no room for anyone else's name on the trophy; the concept of mutual success and striving towards the same goals baffles him. Compromise is out of the question as it would be "weak." The only thing to do is win so much "we can't take it anymore."
Trump has hardly made his approach a secret — it is epitomized by his motto, "America first," a slogan right off a foam finger. Trump distrusts U.S. allies, who he sees as trying to exploit the country with bad "deals" or insulting him by not caving to his demands. Allies on NATO or the signatories of the Paris Accords and the Trans-Pacific Partnership suddenly find themselves alone in the ring with no one in their corner.
The world is bigger than the United States, though, and some degree of collaboration will always be essential, even in an increasingly isolationist America. Australia has more troops fighting the Islamic State than any other U.S. ally. Mexico is America's third-largest trading partner of goods. But instead, Trump is apparently content representing America to the world in a way most people learn doesn't do them any favors by third grade. There is no "I" in team, as coach used to say. Even Tom Brady needs teammates.
Ultimately, it is no wonder Trump loves football — the most gladiatorial of sports — nor is it any surprise that he worships the Patriots and Brady above all else. They are unquestionably winners. When that winning threatened to be delegitimized by the Deflategate scandal, Trump even tried to personally intervene:
After the Deflategate ruling was handed down by the commissioner [...] Trump said he tried to persuade Brady to sue the league personally. "I said, 'Tom.' — I gave him a lawyer. — I said: 'Here's what you do. Sue the NFL for $500 million tomorrow. Sue 'em up in Boston, for everything. They'll come to the table.' He said, 'Aw, man.' He really was torn. He's not Trump. He said, 'I just want to win another Super Bowl.'" Trump told Brady that he understood. [The New York Times]
And Trump probably did understand, too. Nothing makes more sense to Trump than winning. In fact, nothing else makes sense to him.
But the presidency is not the Super Bowl, and it's only a matter of time before Trump learns it the hard way.