clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Donald Trump’s fragile machismo would make him a terrible president

Donald Trump with entourage at a press conference in Mar-a-Lago in March.
"You talkin' to me?"
Win McNamee/Getty

Criminal charges were dropped against Donald Trump's campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, on Thursday. The prosecutor in the case said that Trump himself had personally called several members of the office and urged them to "do the right thing" — implying that Trump's intervention made a difference in the outcome of the case.

But make no mistake: If Donald Trump were as good a businessman or potential president as he says he is, this would never have happened.

Trump has a characterological inability to let go of a perceived slight or back down from a fight — even when it's clear he's in the wrong, and, more importantly, even when it's clear that rationally he has more to lose by staying in than he would by getting out.

That trait (in Trump, his campaign and and his hangers-on) is what turned Lewandowski grabbing the arm of Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields from a brief, single-news-cycle outrage to the subject of a criminal prosecution.

It is, to say the least, not a great attribute to have in a presidential candidate or a likely major-party nominee. Or, for that matter, a president.

Trump and his campaign created a situation where everyone was afraid to back down

The incident between Lewandowski and Fields happened on March 8. The initial press report, from Ben Terris at the Washington Post (who'd been standing next to Fields when it happened), appeared March 9. But Fields didn't file a police report until March 11. (For more about the backstory of the Fields incident and its aftermath, read the explainer by Vox’s Tara Golshan.)

What happened over the first 48 hours or so after the story broke was that the Trump campaign, Lewandowski, and other Trump supporters attacked Fields vociferously and viciously — and that one of the ways they denied her account was by saying that if she'd really been assaulted, she would have gone to the police.

Lewandowski implied that Fields had a history of making allegations but didn't follow through on them, tweeting that Fields was an "attention seeker" who had claimed former Rep. Allen West had groped her "but later went silent."

The site that Lewandowski's tweet linked to,, published its own post about the Fields/Lewandowski incident called "Calling Bullshit on Michelle Fields," and made the challenge explicit. "Why didn't she file a police report if it was 'battery?'" author Charles Johnson wrote. That line was echoed by Trump campaign strategist Karina Pierson on CNN the next day (ironically, after Fields had in fact gone to the police): "If this incident occurred, why not go to the authorities?"

Fields told Fox's Megyn Kelly that she initially hadn't wanted to go to the police at all. But the Trump campaign and its allies essentially challenged her to do just that.

As in so many things, Team Trump is simply taking a cue from the man at the top. Trump's behavior throughout the Lewandowski/Fields scandal has shown a bullheaded determination to escalate the situation in the name of protecting Lewandowski.

Donald Trump reading a statement from Breitbart's Michelle Fields, who accused Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski of assaulting her, at a rally in Wisconsin.

This is Trump literally reading a statement from Fields aloud at a rally in Wisconsin, for the purposes of mocking her. Sad! (Scott Olson/Getty)

The week after the incident, Trump gave a victory speech with Lewandowski prominently placed right behind him — a place of honor he hadn't had before being accused of assault. And Trump called him out by name, which he hadn't done before: "Good job, Corey."

In theory, Trump was praising Lewandowski for his victories in the primaries. But everyone in the room got the message: The more trouble Lewandowski got in, the closer Trump would hug him.

After the charge was filed against Lewandowski Tuesday, Trump's messaging got a lot less subtle — and a little more, frankly, obsessive. He gave a television interview challenging Fields's credibility from about three different angles in the course of a single minute. And on Twitter, he obsessively zoomed in on a photo that showed Fields standing close to him and holding a pen.

This is patently ridiculous. But it is pure Trump. At every turn, Trump has chosen to get involved, to keep fighting, to escalate the situation. Because the alternative, to him, seems like giving up. And Trump does not back down.

This is the definition of machismo. And like most machismo, it is born of vanity. Bear in mind that — as reported by Maggie Haberman and Alexander Burns of the New York Times earlier this month — Donald Trump is running for president in 2016 in large part because he was offended that the political establishment didn't take him seriously five years ago.

It's a character trait that endears him to many Americans who feel the political establishment doesn't take them seriously, either. But the determination to escalate isn't just "unpresidential" in the sense that it's not how traditional politicians operate. It's unpresidential in that it would make Trump a terrible president.

Donald Trump's master class in victim-blaming

Real executives don't let their enemies set their priorities

The best case for President Trump has always been that he's a successful businessman, who understands the art of dealmaking and could therefore negotiate congressional horse-trading and international negotiations without doing too much damage. But that case has always rested on a middle-class, managerial idea of what it is to be a "businessman" — an ideal that Trump does not now and has never embodied.

The businessman is supposed to be coolly rational. He cuts good deals because he's a shrewd negotiator.

Trump is not really a negotiator. He calls himself a dealmaker: On everything from trade and manufacturing to the nuclear deal with Iran, he offers the proposition that he could get a better deal for America simply by threatening to walk away. But that's not actually how negotiation works.

One of the most important skills for a negotiator to have — maybe even the most important — is the willingness to actually make concessions: to realize when you're losing more by fighting for a particular provision than you would by losing the thing itself, and let those things go accordingly.

Trump can't do that. To him, fighting for things makes those things all the more important. That leaves him, time and again, a victim of the sunk cost fallacy. It makes it essentially inevitable that he'll lose the forest for the trees. And it makes it extremely easy for someone else to control Trump's priorities, simply by picking a fight.

I'm not spelling all this out simply to show that the central qualification Donald Trump offers for the presidency is an exaggeration at best (though that is also true). The point is that someone with these qualities would make a terrible president.

Richard Nixon making a fist during a press conference. Ellsworth Davis/The Washington Post via Getty Images

(Ellsworth Davis/Washington Post via Getty)

We know what happens when the president of the United States is obsessed with personal score settling and unable to let go of a grudge. Those personality traits defined Richard Nixon. Watergate, too, started as a minor crime; it tanked the Nixon presidency because Nixon became too invested in managing the fallout to be able to hide his connections.

"Heckuva job, Brownie"

In another White House, Trump's tendency to fixate on grudges might be kept in check by a relentlessly professional chief of staff, who understood it was his job to keep the White House running. But in the Trump White House, the chief of staff might well be Lewandowski himself.

As a manager, Trump is defined by his interest in personal loyalty over competence. His inner circle, as McKay Coppins of BuzzFeed put it last July (in one of the most essential articles about the Trump candidacy that has ever been written), is "a retinue of mini-Trumps."

The rational businessman hires underlings based on competence rather than loyalty. When an employee is attracting attention that distracts from the company, he cuts the employee loose. That's cold, but it's business.

And it's something that the president, as chief executive, needs to be able to do too. Sometimes, when there's a massive scandal in the Department of Veterans Affairs over wait times, the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs needs to resign.

A president who doesn't do that ties the fate of his whole presidency to the mast of one sinking individual. When George W. Bush, in the middle of his administration's disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina, told FEMA Director Michael Brown, "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job," it didn't help Brown (who ended up resigning several days later anyway) — but it hurt Bush tremendously.

It turns out that the federal government is a tremendously complicated thing, and making off-the-cuff decisions and unplanned remarks — or getting more and more bogged down in a single fight — might have consequences for the rest of the government. It doesn't take a thermonuclear war to see how this could go terribly wrong.

The problem is that something similar could be said of a presidential campaign — especially a campaign, like Trump's, that has partly attracted and partly germinated a full-blown social movement. Without thinking like an executive, Trump can't understand the role that he personally needs to play in, say, keeping his supporters from punching protesters in the face on a regular basis.

Without being able to just once admit that he or someone who supported him was wrong — or even be able to let go of a fight once it's clear that he'd lose — Trump is never going to be able to stop Trumpism from getting dangerous.

Donald Trump's ideology of violence