In his 1972 book The President Character, Duke University professor James David Barber characterized personality types to predict presidential behavior. His categorizations were based on whether presidents held basically positive or negative attitudes regarding their role as president, and whether they were active or passive in carrying out that role. When a president wears his character on his sleeve, those characterizations can provide insight in terms of what to expect. Such is the case with Donald Trump.
John Kennedy, an Active-Positive, liked being president and was actively engaged in policymaking, but had the flexibility to personally detach himself from policy failures when necessary. After a long career as a military officer, Dwight Eisenhower found the presidency less than satisfying, having assumed the role largely out of a sense of duty. As a Passive-Negative president, Eisenhower avoided conflict and politicking whenever possible. Ronald Reagan, a Passive-Positive, loved the role of being president, but was largely happy to delegate policy responsibilities to others.
The most dangerous presidencies are those of Active-Negative presidents because, though they are highly-driven, they tend to be compulsive, use power as a means to ego-gratification, are preoccupied with failing or succeeding, tend toward rigidity, and so can’t let go of failing policies or approaches, and have difficulty managing their aggressions. Active-Negatives see “enemies” and often face an issue or problem, sometimes self-inflicted, that results in their demise: Richard Nixon and Watergate, Lyndon Johnson and Viet Nam. Donald Trump has shown himself as compulsive as well as aggressive through his tweeting, ego-driven by his actions, and preoccupied by the need to show himself as successful.
To the consternation of the public and bi-partisan politicians, Trump cannot or will not say anything negative against Putin or Russia, even though there are a number of investigations being conducted relating to Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections, and potential Trump campaign involvement. Trump has called the issue a hoax, blamed the Obama Administration, and asked for an apology for being subjected to an investigation, which he referenced as a “witch hunt.” President-elect Trump fairly gushed his admiration of Putin in a tweet on December 16, 2016 in response to Putin choosing not to retaliate against newly imposed sanctions instituted by President Barack Obama: “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) – I always knew he was smart!” Trump, in his lack of response or even acknowledgement of Russia’s role in the hacking of 2016 U.S. election, reveals that he just may be the ultimate Putin fan boy. His Russia connections could be the self-inflicted issue resulting in his demise.
The danger that flows from Trump being an Active-Negative regarding U.S.-China relations is Trump’s propensity to take a wrecking-ball approach to past policies and approaches aimed toward maintaining a precarious regional stability. Yet now more than ever, the need to work well with China is critical given North Korea’s successful July 4th ICBM test. Kim Jong Un merely taunted Trump in response to the U.S.-South Korea military exercises subsequently conducted, preying on the President’s ego.
Trump as an Active-Negative
For a variety of different reasons, Republicans, Democrats, family members and—perhaps most of all—President Trump’s attorneys want Donald Trump to stop his often aggressive, personalized, and sometimes fabricated-fact-based tweeting. His personalized rant at MSNBC’s Mika Brezinski was shocking even by past standards, drawing ire from all corners, including GOP leadership. Trump’s complicated voter-base remain supportive of his Tweets, as echoing their own anger and frustration at a world they don’t understand or like, but even some of them grow weary at the sheer volume.
Trump tweets because it empowers him to say exactly what he is thinking in the moment. The problem with this is that his tweets are now, per White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, “considered official statements by the President of the United States.” In addition, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals cited the following tweet from June 5, 2017 “people, the lawyers and the courts can call it whatever they want, but I am calling it what we need and what it is, a TRAVEL BAN” to demonstrate that Trump “had exceeded the scope of authority delegated him by Congress.” About the only ones who eagerly welcome his seemingly compulsive tweeting are journalists, historians, and analysts who rely on those tweets for an unfiltered view of what Trump thinks and how he thinks—and comedians who see the tweets as an endless trove of material. He leaves no doubt through his contempt for political norms that the civility and official means of communicating, once held in high regard by past Presidents, is now a bygone relic.
Accordingly to linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff, since first setting up his Twitter account in 2009, Trump has consistently used Twitter to preemptively frame an idea (even if not remotely based on reality), divert and deflect attention from issues unflattering to him to others (even if not remotely based on reality) and as a trial balloon for policies and positions. Those trial balloons leave government agencies, especially the State Department, the arduous task of untangling and explaining what among the tweets is U.S. policy, and what isn’t. For the president, the tweets are largely a megaphone and a weapon to promote himself and attack others because he is, as Michael Kruse describes, “ impulsive and undisciplined and obsessed with taking shots and settling scores and with the sustenance of an image of success even when it’s at utter odds with objective reality. He can never back down. He can never let go.” Donald Trump’s ego rules his world.
It is clear that Trump believes his arguable success in business should make an elegant transition to the presidency and politics. Trump, in running his businesses, has operated in a closed-loop, and in attempting to position the U.S. on a more isolationist and nationalist footing, believes he is using a tried and true tenet of his business philosophy. But the world is not responding as expected and receives Trump’s tweets and statements with derision and mockery. Trump has only succeeded in revealing his level of discomfort – negativity – with the job of POTUS. The press, which Trump refers to as “fake news,” is his adversary, much as it was for Active-Negative Richard Nixon.
Trump manifests his anger and frustration with the confines of the Presidency by issuing a constant narrative of “fake news” and positioning the mainstream media as the enemy. Trump targets the mainstream press because it does not align with the positive image he has of himself. He and his surrogates state that the mainstream press fabricates stories and bullies him to degrade him and tarnish his presidency.
Lawmakers, psychologists, co-workers, and others have referred to Donald Trump as a narcissist, at levels including “world-class” and “toxic.” Everyone has an ego and a strong ego is often associated with leaders and leadership. The pathology of narcissism includes consideration of ego-related factors in the extreme, including: grandiosity and unlimited brilliance (“I know more about ISIS than the generals, believe me.”), requiring excessive admiration (having every Cabinet member lavish praise on him during a meeting) lacking empathy for others (mocking disabled New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski), and arrogance (“I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn't lose any voters"). While a diagnosis of a narcissist disorder is beyond the scope and expertise of this analysis, clearly a case can be made that Donald Trump is driven by strong ego considerations.
Trump’s preoccupation with a need to show himself as successful has been shown repeatedly. Trump referenced his electoral-college victory as a “massive landslide,” though it was not. Trump insisted (through Press Secretary Sean Spicer) that attendance at his inauguration was “the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period." And the President has proclaimed that, "Never has there been a president....with few exceptions...who's passed more legislation, who's done more things than I have."
What all this personality-driven drama means for U.S.-China policy is an unprecedented amount of instability in a region where stability has previously been a carefully orchestrated goal.
An Active-Negative at the Helm of U.S.-China Policy
A 2016 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report looked into the future of U.S.-China policy, given China’s economic and military rise and the inevitable relative decline of U.S. global power. “Efforts by the United States or China to secure future predominance will prove futile and dangerous, given a host of security, economic, and diplomatic factors. Instead, creating a stable de facto balance of power is necessary and feasible for both countries.” Two recent books on China, Howard French’s Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power and Graham Allison’s Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides Trap? emphasize the need for Washington to better understand Chinese strategic motivations and ambitions and respond in thoughtful, carefully considered ways if military confrontation is to be avoided. Unfortunately, prudence, careful consideration of facts, and buttressing stability are not characteristic of Active-Negative presidents.
In December 2016, President-elect Trump took a call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen – and then tweeting about it – raising immediate questions regarding whether U.S. policy toward Taiwan and China – a policy long-focused on maintaining regional stability in favor of the U.S. – would change with the new administration. Then in April 2017, Trump said in an interview that he would check with Beijing before another phone call with Tsai, a move likely calming to China and upsetting to Taiwan. Apparently Trump’s change of attitude toward Taiwan was related to needing China’s help with North Korea, not a new factor on the Asian chessboard of international relations and likely the “most urgent item on the national security agenda.” Being interested in and knowing basic facts and parameters of U.S. foreign relations is not always a priority for individuals driven by ego. While President Trump was seemingly pulled back on track regarding the need to cooperate with China, and whether this realignment can always be counted on, is uncertain.
Candidate Trump spent considerable time lashing out at China on issues, especially trade deals, claiming, “the money they’ve drained out of the United States has rebuilt China.” To halt that unverified claim and fulfill his campaign promise, Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Trans Pacific Partnership, perhaps not understanding that the agreement was as much about U.S. strategic influence in the region as trade, influence now ceded to China. And China can’t be all-bad for U.S. trade, since entering office Trump businesses have been awarded new Chinese trademarks, allowing them entry into the lucrative Chinese market.
Perhaps most importantly, according to Michael Fuchs, senior analyst at the Center for American Progress and former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, “it appears that Trump doesn’t know how to deal with China.” Policy fits and starts, and paper-tiger rants will result in China taking away the lesson “that Donald Trump’s threats are not to be taken seriously.” So while Trump Administration policy has not in actuality “deviated much from conventions” (the President eventually reaffirmed the long-standing U.S. “one China” policy and discarded his campaign pledge to label China a currency manipulator), China could be emboldened to assert itself more aggressively, thus rocking the stability that has benefitted the U.S. for many years.
Donald Trump is not the first U.S. president to be considered erratic and a loose cannon. Analyst Tom Barnett wrote an article for Esquire in 2005 urging President George W. Bush (also considered by some analysts to be an active-negative) to take advantage of his globally-scary “cowboy” image and “make sense of your second term, secure your legacy and, oh yeah, create a future worth living.” But with the advantage of hindsight being 20/20, those “cowboy” years did not really work out well for the United States, and Bush had a fully staffed, experienced national security team, which the Trump Administration does not. There are still hundreds of jobs to be filled, many of which deal with day-to-day issues that are an important part of stability. Further, members of the military who—while outstanding at their operational jobs—tend to see every problem as a nail that can only be fixed by a military hammer, consequently fill many of the top security-related jobs.
An erratic president focused on things—ego, the family businesses, Russia—other than policy, and without a knowledgeable, experienced staff, does not bode well for the future of US-China relations or the stability of the Asia-Pacific region, especially when dealing with an emboldened China. Hopefully, regional leaders, country teams, and those national security practitioners in place will be able to convince President Trump that stability rather than chaos is in the best interest of the United States. Hopefully, as well, Chinese leaders will understand that an active-negative president may double-down in dangerous situations, simply to show himself “in charge” and so refrain from reckless moves. Recklessness does not behoove either the United States or China.