May 16, 2017 By FTI Consulting
Originally published on the FTI Journal April 2017
Since the first hours of his administration, President Donald Trump’s actions have provoked every conceivable response, from outrage to befuddlement to bipartisan praise. And every evening pundits on cable news do their best to rationalize those actions. In doing so, they deploy a political framework that has been reliably used since the White House days of Ronald Reagan. Big mistake.
One hundred days into the new administration, it’s apparent that the old model of analysis is inadequate for understanding and predicting what we should expect from the new president. Why? Because it fails to incorporate all the elements at play in his decision-making process. President Trump has demonstrated that he will not be bound by past statements or campaign promises if the circumstances of the day compel another position. At his meeting with Big Pharma executives in January, for example, he reversed his campaign pledge to lower drug prices. He has launched military strikes in both Syria and Afghanistan despite his platform of “America First.” And he has moved from a clear intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change and is now entertaining a more nuanced position.
Despite the frequency with which the news media points out these contradictions, Trump offers no justifications nor makes apologies for his changes in opinion. What should we glean about his unorthodox approach to governing?
Trump offers no justifications nor makes apologies for his changes in opinion. What should we glean about his unorthodox approach to governing?
The answer lies in his 1987 bestseller, The Art of the Deal. Within its 300-plus pages, the president’s behavior is consistent with his expressed opinions about the path to success. As detailed in the book, Trump’s fundamental philosophy is not a coherent, big picture strategy, but a set of guidelines to help anyone make the best call about the unique decision in front of them right now. Indeed we learn that his nature is not that of a policy maker, but of a deal maker. It is this pragmatic, unconventional approach that quite possibly underpins his major decisions as president (and likely contributed to his electoral success with his populist base as well).
An iconic moment from the final presidential debate, which coincidentally troubled his opponent and the media alike, shows Trump’s commitment to deal-making above all. When asked whether he would support the results of the election should he lose, Trump famously replied that he would look at the results “at the time.” What many immediately disregarded as bluster was actually an honest insight into how this president thinks. Trump said, in a word, that he would make the best call in the moment. Understanding this tactical approach — governing as a string of well-made deals — may be the best framework with which to assess and predict the president’s future actions.
The Art of the Deal contains 11 principles of advice, with three that stand out as particularly relevant to Trump’s decisions during his first 100 Days: “deliver the goods,” “fight back” and “get the word out.”
This is Trump’s admonition against conning people. It’s fine to say outrageous things to position yourself correctly, Trump argues, but if you don’t eventually deliver on the promises you make, people will catch on and punish you for it. The key here is understanding what is bluster and what is promised.
At first glance, Trump’s decision on April 6 to strike a Syrian airbase in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad seems to go against this advice considering the president’s populist America First platform. Indeed the event has been held up by conservative and liberal pundits alike as an example of Trump’s inconsistency. They cite his opinion, expressed before the election, that the U.S. should stay out of Syria.
But in the context of Trump’s vision of all things as deal-making, the president’s Syria decision is actually quite rational. By choosing to retaliate, Trump did what was necessary to show that America stands with its allies around the world in defense of human rights. Analyzing the decision in the moment, Trump did what he felt was best for the country, his past statements be damned. It wasn’t a long-term policy that governed his actions, but his analysis of a tactical, short-term win.
Trump’s refusal to back down from a fight has led to some of his most controversial moments, while simultaneously demonstrating his commitment to stay in the ring on principle. Consider his continued insistence that President Obama engaged in illegal wiretapping of Trump Tower during the presidential campaign despite the media’s repeated call for concrete evidence. Or his criticism of Mexico’s border security that led Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to cancel a planned January summit. In the case of wire tapping, the story has reached a stalemate, but in the case of Mexico, Nieto has since reported that he and Trump have a “very good relationship.”
The 100 day mark is insufficient to determine if this strategy will translate into better deals for America, but there is no doubt that the president can be relentless when it suits him.
More than any other advice, Trump has proven himself the master of spreading the word. His ability to shape his own story has undoubtedly made him a more resilient politician. In this, he’s aided by his long experience in the public eye. Trump’s trademark look and his patterns of speech are a form of visual rhetoric that reinforces Trump as a brand unto himself.
We have to look back as far as President Reagan to find a politician whose very image conjured up such a reliable emotional response. True, Trump’s unique facility with social media comes into play here, but image management is something that many great politicians have long understood. Trump’s unexpected performance at his joint address to Congress in January bears out his ability to rise to the occasion. Immediately after the speech, 7 in 10 viewers felt more optimistic about the future of the country, according to a CNN/ORC Poll.
Agree or disagree with this president, it behooves both sides of the aisle to do their best to understand him. He employs a more agile, flexible approach to governing than we’ve ever seen before — delivering on his promise to be a businessman in the White House and not another politician. Whether this will lead to a successful four years in office is something we cannot know. But in the meantime, here are some tactics for companies interested in practicing the art of the deal with our commander in chief.
Deal-making is bargaining, and with this president, an ideology is not enough to impress him. Proving that you’re willing to invest in America, however, is one way to get some bargaining chips. One might heed the lessons of Lockheed Martin, who lowered the price of a new Air Force One, or Ford’s decision to cancel a $1.6 billion Mexican factory as proof that Trump can be an effective negotiator.
No company will be immune from the possibility of being targeted by President Trump — a hard lesson learned by the CEOs of Pepsi and New Balance, whose misinterpreted statements about the president made trouble for their brands. The takeaway for any brand or public figure is this: have a plan. Decide now how you’re going to engage with the president and keep your strategy current. In the age of the social media presidency, whose tweets are not bound to working hours, responding in minutes, not hours, can make a difference.
Trump is a powerful character in his own story, and it’s one the public loves to consume. A CEO that finds himself or herself in negotiation with Trump, or a brand caught in a Twitter war (or even a friendly exchange) with him, must do everything it can to shape the story. In short, headlines matter. A big part of this is knowing what you want to achieve and investing in your own narrative. The president is a voracious consumer of cable news, and has been influenced by such coverage. Underestimating the impact of the media narrative could be a missed opportunity or it could be devastating to a brand.
Above all else with the Trump administration, it’s imperative not to make the tactical mistake of believing that the traditional two party framework, with established alliances and tired old arguments, will provide any framework to predict the policy future.