Picture Donald Trump on a series of calls with advisers and heads of government from around the region, and inside the NATO alliance, devising a constructive response to a coup attempt in Turkey.
I’m not someone who believes you need to understand the ins and outs of the relationship between Turkey’s ruling party and the Gülen Movement, or the history of military-civilian relations in Turkey, or the details of Turkey’s role in European Union policy toward refugees from Syria, to be a good president of the United States. Trump would have a lot of catching up to do as president, but so do almost all new presidents. And to be fair, despite his brash persona Trump is clearly very knowledgeable about commercial real estate development and some important aspects of corporate finance.
But to be a good president, you do need to be able to run good meetings. You need to get up to speed in a chaotic situation and talk to a bunch of people who are more knowledgeable than you but not ultimately empowered or accountable the way you are, and you need to try to steer some inherently unfavorable situations toward a non-disastrous outcome.
From everything I know about Trump — not just his temperament and his character but his actual ideas about politics and leadership — he simply doesn’t have what it takes.
What are Republicans thinking?
Over the course of the campaign so far, Trump hasn’t even bothered to go through the motions of demonstrating that he understands the president deals with difficult issues and needs to build competency to address a wide range of topics.
He hasn’t assembled panels of experts to advise him, developed detailed policy programs, shown off a growing body of knowledge about world affairs, consulted with respected former officials, or impressed other Republican Party officeholders. And this is, honestly, the gimme stuff. As a presidential candidate, you get to pick which topics you want to address and when you want to address them, and you have plenty of time to roll out your major speeches and 10-point plans and white papers.
Trump just isn’t bothering. He figures people don’t care. And maybe they don’t.
This all raises the question (and not for the first time) of what it is all the Republican Party leaders — from Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell to Scott Walker and Chris Christie and beyond — think they’re doing.
The best I’ve heard from party professionals is an optimism that Trump will rely on party networks to staff his administration, and is at least self-aware enough to recognize that he’s not really a policy guy. That’s fine for a House backbencher (who can take direction from leadership) or even for a senator (who can rely on staff), but things like the Turkey coup are why it doesn’t work for a president. You can get some experts together and tell them to craft a basic Republican Party tax plan or a Democratic Party immigration plan or so on for a dozen other issues. The fact that Trump hasn’t bothered to do this should, I think, scare Republican leaders more than they admit. But it’s at least possible.
Yet this only takes you so far. Partisan and interest group politics in the United States isn’t organized around how to respond to coups in Turkey or Chinese provocations in the South China Sea or a bus being used as a weapon to mow down French civilians or even a British referendum throwing financial markets into chaos.
At these moments of crisis, even a well-chosen team of well-informed experts are going to disagree. The president has to be able to talk things through, often quite quickly, start making decisions, and then start recalibrating those decisions as events play out.
If the people supporting Trump on Capitol Hill and in the media seriously think he’s up to the task, they are doing a good job of keeping that fact a secret while suppressing any evidence for it. What they mostly seem to be thinking is that Trump will probably lose, so they might as well play for the team while signaling quietly to reporters that of course they know he’s a disaster. That’s probably the smart, savvy bet. But it’s a risky one. Clinton’s lead in the polls isn’t that big. And it’s easy to imagine an international crisis atmosphere hurting the de facto incumbent.
In which case we’d all better hope Trump knows how to handle the fallout. I, personally, have a hard time picturing that. Maybe you’ll have better luck.