Trump’s Tactics to Take on the World

Trump’s Tactics to Take on the World
Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像

What you need to know

'Trump has one basic strategy: Seize the initiative and never let it go," writes Courtney Donovan Smith.

President-elect Donald Trump has already made big waves on the international stage, sending ripples of fear and confusion throughout the diplomatic world both abroad and at home. Get used to it, that’s the way he wants it.

Over the course of the election, if you were looking closely, certain patterns emerged that hint at his strategy and showed how he works tactically. How will this translate on the world stage? Why are his moves on Russia and China so different? How are diplomats and world leaders to cope with The Donald?

At the core, as he frequently states, is his love of winning, and yuge. He’s relentless in pursuit of it, he’s not afraid to set seeming outrageous goals, he’s not beset with too many scruples, he doesn’t play by the rules if they don’t suit him and he dispatches anyone in his path. He’s psychologically and mentally a predator in pursuit of ever bigger and better wins.

He has one basic strategy: Seize the initiative and never let it go. Never, ever. He employs a wide range of tactics to accomplish this, and which tactic he uses has much to do with what he wants from the other player, whether they are friend, foe, pawn or the object of his desire (the American electorate, particularly in key states, being his most recent conquest).

He’s already begun to use some of those tactics diplomatically. The easiest way to seize the initiative is to knock an opponent off balance. Confuse them, confound them, infuriate them, insult and demean them, bait them, intrigue them, flatter them, overwhelm them, woo them, bully them. He’s inconsistent and unpredictable–a moving target can’t be pinned down. He doesn’t play by the rules when those rules could pin him down. Once pinned down, the initiative is lost. He used all of those tactics and more during the election campaign. He seized the initiative and never let it go.

Those aren’t the only tactics he uses. Sometimes he’s a salesman, a populist pitchman. At his election rallies he would identify a problem or a fear of his target audience. He’d set up scary villains – ”Mexico is sending rapists,” “China is stealing your jobs,” “politicians are the pocket of Wall Street,” “crooked Hillary Clinton.” He’d play it up as a yuge problem, but in straightforward language “calling a spade a spade” giving the impression he could really see through the problem. With the audience’s ire up and concerns and fear aroused he’d pitch them that he was the man to solve their problems: unlike those crooked politicians who’d created the problems in the first place. Simple: Here’s your problem, here’s a solution and here’s why I’m the man to give your vote to to deliver it. Drain the swamp, build a wall, slap a tariff on China. It’s gonna be yuge, folks, believe me it’s gonna be so yuge you’re not gonna believe it. It’ll be done on time, folks, and under budget–believe me. Seize the initiative and never let it go.

He also woos, and negotiates – for example “like fine wine” Paul Ryan, whose position as Speaker of the House makes him valuable. Other times he woos with language or coded wording that will appeal to his target audience, in the election older whites. He can be friendly and charming. His “thank you” tour post-election was to woo his base, he wants their undying loyalty – there’s a lot of power in an ultra-loyal base. Sometimes a simple “thank you” can mean a lot–other presidents haven’t done this, or paid any attention to the voters in many of those states. Seize the initiative and never let it go.

Sometimes he bullies, insults and demeans. “Little Marco,” “Crooked Hillary” and “Lyin’ Ted” come to mind. When he didn’t have anything that was working, he’d just make stuff up or pass on blatant lies – that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the Kennedy assassination, for example. You can bet that Cruz and his team were totally disoriented and knocked off their feet by that one, inundated with phone calls from the press and concerned voters and constituents eating up valuable time and attention. Plus relentless insults and attacks take a psychological toll on most people, especially when amplified in the press. His attacks against Saturday Night Live no doubt make their writers think over whether they want to go after him again more seriously, especially considering he’s about to become the most powerful man in the world with the NSA at his fingertips. Seize the initiative and never let it go.

He’s also vengeful, see how he got Mitt Romney to come crawling to Trump Tower to show off his victory and show off Romney’s total failure to stop him after so publically attempting to bring Trump down. That’s a warning to others, you will be defeated if you stand in my way. Striking fear in possible challengers. Seize the initiative and never let it go.

And to succeed you must have the right tools. In his case, up to this point that has been Twitter, the media and his followers. He isn’t going to stop using Twitter because it is “unpresidential,” it’s a big part of his strategy. What is a 140-character tweet but a headline–with Twitter he gets to write the headline! In the case of his vast Twitter following of friend and foe alike, that’s powerful. Then, the media passes it on for him – frequently paraphrasing it in their headlines. In many cases the media quotes directly or paraphrases the original tweet, or runs an image of it in their coverage – even in China where Twitter is blocked. To ensure everyone pays attention to his tweets, he employs his tweets like click-bait headlines. Of course people pay attention when the larger-than-life Trump, and now president-elect, tweets something controversial. The press was eating out of his hand, following his every word and giving him constant coverage–on his tweeted terms. Seize the initiative and never let it go.

How is this playing out on the world stage?

He will continue, and has already started, using these tactics. China is a great example. During the campaign he set China up as villain. That by itself is classic politicking, most candidates have used China as a foil during the election – but always back off afterward.

Not The Donald. He came out in full form right off the bat. For the reality star Trump China is a perfect foil. China is a big power that is growing increasingly hegemonic in its neighborhood and openly challenging U.S. influence, but with a military decades away from seriously challenging the U.S. It’s also a communist dictatorship with an economy Americans envy and with all the resentment that comes with lost jobs. While for most countries China looks fearsome, they’re nothing compared to the U.S. and rely mostly on empty bluster.

First, he takes a call from President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) of Taiwan, something no president or president-elect has done since the 1970s. Worse, from China’s perspective, he “called a spade a spade” by referring to her in a tweet as the President of Taiwan. He went on to – to the absolute horror of China – to question the American “one China policy,” noting that Taiwan buys a significant amount of military hardware from the U.S. and that it is polite to take a congratulatory phone call from her and later noting that he wanted a better deal on issues like trade and North Korea.

Then he announced that a long-time friend of China’s, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, is to be his ambassador to China, commenting: “He successfully developed close trade ties with China while serving as chief executive of the Hawkeye State,” Trump said. “That experience will serve him well as he represents America’s interests and further develops a mutually beneficial relationship with Chinese leadership.” This was followed by the choice of fierce China hawk Peter Navarro, author of Death by China as his pick for top trade negotiator.

What is Trump up to here diplomatically? First, he’s seized the initiative with the Chinese. China’s government is confused, concerned and don’t know what to do. He’s spotted one rule that China needs to play by to maintain its legitimacy with its own people the – China’s One China Principle – and has grabbed on firmly to that cage China’s government is in, and shook it hard (see how the repercussions could play out and why China is so stuck on this policy). Second, he’s seizing the initiative with the world’s diplomats and leaders–they have no idea what’s he’s going to do next. World leaders have been so browbeaten by China’s constant bullying attacks (much like Trump does to wear down some of his adversaries) about “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people” they’ve been brainwashed into thinking this actually makes sense. Trump is forcing the world’s leaders and diplomats to rethink the premises underlying their relationships with China. That terrifies the Chinese Communist Party–their legitimacy depends on a return of China to great power status. China is shaken, Trump now has the initiative.

Then, when China attempted to send a warning by seizing a U.S. research drone and the current administration responded weakly, Trump issued a sneering tweet ominously telling China they should keep it. That, of course, would have left the door open to future retaliation. The current administration was given the drone back, but you can bet China was non-plussed by Trump’s response.

Domestically his China moves have also shaken things up. He didn’t consult the State Department on these moves, leaving them confused and shaken. He’s going to keep confusing and shaking them, because confused and shaken people will jump to his bidding when he gives them the marching orders he wants them to have. And of course, he’s signaling to his domestic base that he’s serious and following up on his campaign promise to be tough on China–unlike every presidential candidate before him. He’s establishing control by destabilizing the Washington elites at State, giving him the initiative–and he’s keeping his base loyal to himself.

But then there is Russia. Vladimir Putin is an ex-KGB agent with an excellent understanding of power and the psychology of control and psychological warfare. Trump can’t destabilize him with asymmetrical attacks using confusion, cage rattling or bullying, and he knows this. In dealing with ISIS, Iran and a host of other issues, Russia could be very useful. Perhaps he likes Putin, or respects him, for their many similarities–but that is speculative. Knowing that Russia could be useful and their leader being a tough nut to crack, Trump has chosen mild flattery and a nominee for Secretary of State that is close to–but has a lot of experience negotiating with–Russia. However, he also picked John Bolton, no fan of Russia, as his choice for Assistant Secretary. Trump is leaving the door open for all kinds of possibilities.

Another area to watch is Trump’s references to “Islamic Terrorism” in Europe and recent positive conversion on Brexit. He has committed himself to taking on ISIS, but didn’t say how. If he decides to bring Europe in, or wishes to change the nature of the relationship with Europe, keep an eye out for him appealing directly to the European far right. If he handles it right, he potentially could have a significant following in Europe of people pressuring their governments on Trump’s agenda, such as on immigration, security, military expenditure as a percentage of GDP.

A warning: if Trump’s presidency is effective at all, what bigger win is there beyond president of the United States? Will the ceaseless predator finally stop?

Editor: Edward White