The zero-sum presidency

Why Trump insults foreign allies, can't see past the short term, and pulled out of the Paris deal

President Trump.
(Image credit: AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

On Wednesday we got the news that should surprise no one except perhaps Ivanka Trump: The United States will reportedly be pulling out of the historic Paris climate accord, which was signed by every country in the world with the exception of Syria and Nicaragua. The reason it's not surprising has nothing to do with the merits of the agreement, the substance of which I'm sure President Trump couldn't describe if his life depended on it. The problem was its very nature: a rare example of global cooperation in which the entire world came together to move toward a goal that would benefit all of us. That kind of thing just sticks in Trump's craw.

Because as he sees it, being president of the United States — like life in general — isn't about cooperation, or mutually beneficial action, or overcoming differences. It's zero-sum. There's always a winner and a loser, and if somebody else isn't losing, Trump isn't winning.

In recent days we've heard a lot about the tug of war over this decision, between senior adviser Stephen Bannon and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt on one side urging Trump to abandon the agreement, and aides like economic adviser Gary Cohn and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, along with corporate CEOs, trying to convince him to stay in the agreement. (And yes, this is the Trump era: The official charged with protecting the environment argues for more greenhouse emissions while the job of advocating for the planet is left to former and current CEOs of oil companies).

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That took place behind the scenes. But in public, all of Trump's aides, even the ones who are supposed to be more clear-headed, are forced to advocate for the zero-sum worldview. Consider this paragraph from an op-ed in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal, written by National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Gary Cohn:

The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a "global community" but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors, and businesses engage and compete for advantage. We bring to this forum unmatched military, political, economic, cultural, and moral strength. Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it. [Wall Street Journal]

That's a pretty remarkable statement. It says that we have no real friends and no real principles other than what's good for us. Sure, we might maintain an alliance, but it's always contingent, ready to be abandoned if doing so might give us a momentary advantage in this "elemental" war of all against all.

Imagine living your life that way — which I suppose is what Donald Trump has done in his 70 years on Earth. Not only did he leave a trail of unpaid bills and victims of his various scams behind him, he demanded absolute loyalty from those who worked for him — loyalty that he returned only so long as it benefited him. (That may help explain why he has put the laughably unqualified and increasingly scandal-tainted Jared Kushner at the very center of his administration: not because of his boundless love for his son-in-law, but because almost alone among White House staff, Kushner's loyalty to the boss cannot be doubted.)

But to Trump, everything is a competition, and in competition you don't know you're winning unless someone else is losing. That's why, after the terrible bombing in Manchester, he said of ISIS terrorists, "I won't call them monsters, because they would like that term. They would think that's a great name. I will call them, from now on, losers. They're losers. And we'll have more of them. But they're losers. Just remember that." To Trump, no insult he could think of was more biting than to call someone a loser.

Which is why so often on the campaign trail he promised that "we will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with the winning." Every element of public policy could be reduced to whether America was winning or losing, and he told the voters that the country was losing on everything and would only start winning if he was elected. "How do we start winning again?" he asked in the book he "wrote" for the 2016 campaign. "To start with, we need a government that is committed to winning and has experience in winning."

So: Are you bored with all the winning yet?

While it might be impossible to convince Trump to set aside his obsession with winning, we'd be much better off if he could narrow it a bit — say by accepting that there doesn't always need to be a loser. You can proclaim "America first!" and still enter into an accord to reduce emissions. It's a "win" if the planet survives, right? Even if you can't identify someone you can cast as a loser, to insult and humiliate?

I suspect I'm being too optimistic. Trump hasn't shown much of an ability to see past the short term, where wins and losses are tallied. The idea that certain relationships are important to maintain even if they might not translate into tangible victories while he's president is alien to him — as is the idea that there's something important about American leadership that transcends what we get out of it in the here and now. But perhaps at some point he'll say to himself, "I don't seem to be winning as much as I had hoped. Maybe there's another way to go about this."

Probably not though.

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