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Trump's Operational Code

Donald Trump claimed that German news agency reporter Kristina Dunz was interested in "fake news" when she asked him 17 March 2017 about isolationist policies. In her report, Dunz later wrote, "It is no longer a custom in the White House that hard, uncomfortable questions receive factual answers." Trump was also asked point-blank by one reporter why he keeps making statements he knows are not true. It was a question that DW's Brent Goff said "shocked" US reporters. The straightforward line of questioning visibly put off Trump, according to Goff.

Theoretical frameworks that examine a political actor’s personal characteristics and how they affect the foreign policies of their respective states are useful tools for analysts, researchers, and historians. One of the most widely used frameworks has been operational code analysis, introduced by Nathan Leites in this seminal RAND Corporation volume, The Operational Code of the Politburo (New York: McGraw Hill, 1951 - not "The Operational Code of the Kremlin"). Others followed, scuh as Alexander L. George, “The ‘Operational Code’: A Neglected Approach to the Study of Political Leaders and Decision-Making,” International Studies Quarterly 13, no. 2 (June 1969), and Huiyun Feng, “The Operational Code of Mao Zedong: Defensive or Offensive Realist?” Security Studies 14, no. 4 (October–December 2005).

Trump's 1987 book "Art of the Deal" included passages that stand out now that Trump is president:

  • On a daily schedule: "I try not to schedule too many meetings. I leave my door open. You can't be imaginative or entrepreneurial if you've got too much structure. I prefer to come to work each day and just see what develops."
  • On critics: "The way I see it, critics get to say what they want to about my work, so why shouldn't I be able to say what I want to about theirs?"
  • On flexibility: "I never get too attached to one deal or one approach. For starters, I keep a lot of balls in the air, because most deals fall out, no matter how promising they seem at first."
  • On the press: "One thing I've learned about the press is that they're always hungry for a good story, and the more sensational the better. It's in the nature of the job, and I understand that. The point is that if you are a little different, or a little outrageous, or if you do things that are bold or controversial, the press is going to write about you.
  • On bad press: [F]rom a pure business point of view, the benefits of being written about have far outweighed the drawbacks. It's really quite simple ... The funny thing is that even a critical story, which may be hurtful personally, can be very valuable to your business."
  • On exaggeration: "The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people's fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That's why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It's an innocent form of exaggeration, and a very effective form of promotion."
  • On fighting back: "[W]hen people treat me badly or unfairly or try to take advantage of me, my general attitude, all my life, has been to fight back very hard. The risk is you'll make a bad situation worse, and I certainly don't recommend this approach to everyone. But my experience is that if you're fighting for something you believe in — even if it means alienating some people along the way — things usually work out for the best in the end."
  • On results: "You can't con people, at least not for long. You can create excitement, you can do wonderful promotion and get all kinds of press, and you can throw in a little hyperbole. But if you don't deliver the goods, people will eventually catch on."
  • On competing: "I'm the first to admit that I am very competitive and that I'll do nearly anything within legal bounds to win. Sometimes, part of making a deal is denigrating your competition."

Trump may believe that most modern states are dominated by oligarchical business cricles, whose interests would ultimately triumph over other domestic political considerations and other elements of statecraft. In Russia and China, the opposite is clearly the case. And many world leaders have a strong sense of their own dignity that could spell trouble. None would be eager to be publicly humiliated by Trump, as this would be a domestic disaster, dispelling their reputation for power in the face of domestic competitors.

A policy of winning through intimidation may have served Trump in private life, but may not do so well the world stage. But Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's said 25 January 2017, "We can see a growing demand in the EU business community and society for the normalisation of relations with Russia. We hope that Brussels will be able to sensibly set priorities and will not take its lead from a small but very aggressive group of Russophobes."

Bob Bruner observed "One of the most important ways to parse a corporate culture is the extent to which it is transactional versus relational. The ultimate transactional firm is the piece-rate environment: everything about the progress of the enterprise is measured in financial terms; extra effort or output wins immediate reward; similarly, retribution for failing to meet goals is quick and Darwinian; and everything is measured by the size of the paycheck.....

"The relational firm is all about a more complicated social contract. What matters is the mission of the enterprise, rather than the prosperity of the individual. Surely, as the firm prospers, the individual tends to prosper. But the contract goes well beyond piece-rate and may include expectations for a contribution to the success of others, contribution to successes that probably extend well beyond the reporting period, and contribution to quality rather than simply volume. As the term, “relational,” implies, the glue for such firms is not the individual transaction, but rather the relations among employees, and between the firm and its customers and suppliers."

Thomas Berger said "His is a fundamentally transactional approach to foreign policy making. Instead of emphasizing the US as being in a complex network of relationships with other countries, be they traditional friends and allies (like South Korea) or long-time enemies and rivals (like Russia), Trump seems to view the US as having made a number of deals with other countries which can be challenged and renegotiated as the needs of the moment require."

Roberto Menotti wrote "A transactional foreign policy is systematically advantageous to American interests only under one set of circumstances: if both negotiators assume that the US has superior hard and soft power, as well as more willpower and stamina. If these conditions are not met (and in several instances they will not, as Washington is often an outside or distant player in areas that are of vital importance to countries like China or Russia – think of the South China Sea or Central Asia), then there is a serious problem. A set of open-ended "clean slate" negotiations actually gives away one important (possibly irreplaceable) American card from the start, i.e. the unique position the US occupies in global relations as the hub of an overlapping network of alliances, bilateral arrangements (such as the detailed protocols that formally govern bilateral relations with China) and multilateral commitments. In other words, the weight of history helps make the US the stronger player, thanks to a variety of tangible and intangible resources. Negotiating without those resources in the background – a sort of firepower stored over the horizon that can be called upon in case of need – is a big gamble."

Jim Swift noted in 2015 that "The 1998 best selling book, The 48 Laws of Power, is a Machiavellian Bible of sorts.... How does Trump's success comport with Robert Greene's 48 laws?... It's safe to say Donald Trump is well on his way to making more enemies than ever, and in a short period of time. Why? Friends can turn on you, as Greene observes, and if you "hire a former enemy ...he will be more loyal than a friend, because he has more to prove." .... Conceal Your Intentions: Trump did this from the very start... Law 17 -- Keep Others in Suspended Terror: Cultivate an Air of Unpredictability... Trump loves, perhaps even enjoys, offending people... Incorporate dramatic devices into your public gestures and actions – your power will be enhanced and your character will seem larger than life.... Law 27 -- Play on People’s Need to Believe to Create a Cultlike Following: As Greene writes: "People have an overwhelming desire to believe in something. Become the focal point of such desire by offering them a cause, a new faith to follow." How about "Make America Great Again?" .... "Any mistakes you commit through audacity" observes Greene, "are easily corrected with more audacity." Think Trump would back away from criticism on ___________? No, he pretty much doubles down every time. And it's worked!"



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