Most people suffer the consequences of their actions. So far, Trump has not.
It sure seems like Donald Trump hates being president.
Each insider account of the White House — the latest of which comes from Robert Costa and Philip Rucker at the Washington Post, based on conversations with a typically impressive 18 Trump aides and confidants — portrays a president more isolated, more frustrated, and more rage-prone than the last.
The clichés are pretty well-known at this point. Trump has “turned on” one key aide. He “resents” another. His staff are dismayed with his tweets. He is increasingly prone to “dark moods” (a phrase that is alarmingly recurrent in profiles of the most powerful man on earth).
He wants to do more of the things that make him happy, like talking to outsiders and holding rallies — things that are, notably, not part of the job of being a first-year president, and that can in fact get in the way of accomplishing an agenda.
It’s hard not to wonder, upon finishing one of these pieces, why Trump wants to keep being president at all. Even if quitting mid-term is extremely unlikely, there’s nothing forcing him to run again — yet he’s already making references to being in the office for seven more years. Does Trump really want another full term of dark moods and slamming doors? Why?
The answer is beginning to emerge in the same pieces that raise the question. Increasingly, reporters are acknowledging that when Trump blows up at people, it’s not the symptom of a permanent dissatisfaction with them — it’s a way of blowing off steam, or a temporary irritant he’ll soon forget about. In other words, Trump makes his anger other people’s problem; he doesn’t actually grapple with it himself.
Donald Trump gets to treat everyone around him, from his aides to the press to the people targeted by his policies, as his own personal punching bag because he’s never been confronted with anyone more powerful than he is who punches back.
It’s a behavior pattern that most people are forced to mature out of. Because most people, at some point in their lives, suffer the consequences of their actions. So far, Donald Trump has not.
Trump’s anger isn’t a way to express his dissatisfaction — it’s a way to get rid of it
When Republican Sen. Bob Corker referred to the White House as “adult day care,” he was probably adding a layer of snark to what he’d heard from staff — but he was also expressing an important truth. The key management question of the Trump White House, as it’s depicted in articles like Josh Dawsey’s Monday piece for Politico, is how to keep President Trump from doing anything he or the nation will regret. And one answer keeps coming up: Stay calm, do nothing, and hope that whatever the president is so worked up about right now will be forgotten by morning.
According to Dawsey, this strategy has successfully kept the US from blowing up several diplomatic agreements:
Decisions on Chinese steel tariffs, NAFTA and other issues were simply delayed past major events, like Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort or the G-7 or G-20 conferences. ”You have to just move the conversation along to something else,” one White House official said.
It goes without saying that this strategy would not work on a president who was in office primarily to enact an agenda. Someone who woke up every day thinking about how to protect American markets from the trap of cheap Mexican cars and Chinese steel would keep bringing up the issue and demand action. Trump shows that level of commitment to some things — firing James Comey and pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, for example — but he fixates on individual trees he wants to chop down, rather than having a vision to raze forests.
When it comes to relationships with people, it turns out, Trump is even more mercurial. He blows up at even the people he generally has good relationships with, like Chief of Staff John Kelly; after one early eruption, according to Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman of the New York Times, Kelly later told colleagues “that he had never been spoken to like that during 35 years of serving his country.”
But Trump never stays mad. Even the things that seem like permanent grudges, like his anger with Attorney General Jeff Sessions over Sessions recusing himself from the DOJ Russia probe, turn out to be tantrums that can be waited out. (According to Politico, Trump wanted Sessions fired, but his aides successfully used delaying tactics to keep it from happening.)
“Donald Trump never truly severs relationships. There is always a dialogue,” confidant Chris Reddy told Politico.
It’s worth thinking through the consequences of what that means. Trump blows up at everyone around him as a matter of course, but he also doesn’t expect those things to damage his relationships permanently. He expects the people he interacts with to understand that he doesn’t really hate them even though he yells at them — to absorb the abuse as simply part of the job, and move on.
It is, as Zack Beauchamp has pointed out, a trait that makes Trump a truly toxic boss. It also threatens to turn even the most independent people into yes men; Kelly said after Trump’s early tantrum that he wouldn’t tolerate being spoken to that way again, but the president appears just as rage-prone as ever and Kelly is still in the job. It forces everyone around Trump to make his anger their problem, because Trump himself expects it to be absorbed without consequences.
Most people find other ways to cope with frustration, because they are punished in life if they don’t
The latest Washington Post piece features an anonymous warning from an aide that’s actually more alarming in what it says about Trump’s normal state of mind than it is as a prediction of what’s coming:
One Trump confidant likened the president to a whistling teapot, saying that when he does not blow off steam, he can turn into a pressure cooker and explode. “I think we are in pressure cooker territory,” said this person.
Blowing off steam can definitely be healthy, and bottling up massive frustration can often be bad. But usually, people find coping mechanisms that don’t involve taking out their anger on others. They find other ways to engage with their jobs, even when they find the pace of change frustrating, rather than just repeatedly demanding that things be done. They don’t do things they know their colleagues won’t like just because they can, and then brag about it.
That’s because if they do those things, they will face consequences. They will lose friends and allies. They will be fired, or at least unable to get ahead in their careers. Their marriages will suffer.
The fact that Donald Trump goes through his days continuing to expect that his expressions of anger will harmlessly evaporate into the ether is all you need to know about his previous 71 years of life. If he’d ever had to live with the consequences of his actions, he would have learned that he didn’t like where that behavior got him. Instead, he has turned consequences into another set of rules he gleefully evades — another thing to make everyone’s problem but his own.
He allows his companies to go bankrupt, but never himself. He brags with impunity about assaulting women but can shrug it off as “locker room talk.” He feels no need to honor his own agreements with contractors or alliances with senators, because when he forgets he ever cared about something, he expects them to do so too.
Most people learn that bottling up anger can sometimes be a good thing — if it’s a superficial enough frustration that the anger will evaporate even if the problem isn’t fixed, it’s usually not worth the trouble to express the anger in the moment. Trump has not learned this, which suggests that for him, it’s never caused enough trouble to worry about.
Trump doesn’t even appear to be bottling up a whole lot — the morning ragetweets continue, as do the tantrums at staff. Even this level of “presidential”-ness appears to be more control than he’s ever had to deal with before. His inability to deal with even a modicum of control over his behavior suggests that, for decades, his feelings have been everyone’s problem but his own.