Opinion

When winning isn't possible

President Trump's need to dominate his adversaries could lead to disaster

This is the editor’s letter in the current issue of The Week magazine.

President Trump lives in a binary universe. All interactions are transactional, and you either win or lose. You either dominate and humiliate your opponent, as in the case of "Low-Energy Jeb," "Little Marco," or "Crooked Hillary," or you suffer humiliation yourself. It's zero-sum all the way. I'm not psychoanalyzing here — Trump has openly espoused this worldview for decades. "My whole life is about winning," he said early in the campaign. "I almost never lose." That core belief now shapes his presidency. He's furious that we're not still winning the 16-year-old Afghanistan war, so he's threatening to fire the commander and pull U.S. troops out. The Republican failure to repeal and replace ObamaCare so galls him that he's threatening to stop critical payments to insurers, so the whole system collapses. This week he warned he would rain "fire and fury" on North Korea if Kim Jong Un kept making nuclear threats. Exchanging trash talk about incinerating millions of people may seem a bit risky, but for Trump, being laughed at by a third-rate tyrant is just, well, intolerable. You think you have nukes, twerp?

In running for president, a relentless drive to win can be useful. But now that Trump is president, he faces a mounting list of complex problems that do not fit neatly into his binary box. The looming debt ceiling, the budget, health care, tax reform, North Korea, Afghanistan ... all will require negotiation and compromise, and at best, settling for Ronald Reagan's "half a loaf." Frustration is inevitable. Meanwhile, Trump must stomach galling reminders that special counsel Robert Mueller and his 16 crack prosecutors are digging through his tax returns and financial transactions, and summoning family members and campaign aides to a grand jury. What happens when a man who needs to crush and humiliate his enemies cannot? As the president is fond of saying, "We'll see."

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