"I do good deals, that's what I do," said Donald Trump in 2011, discussing the possibility that he might run for president. "I think this country needs somebody that can do the deal." Five years later, a healthy portion of the electorate (not a majority, alas) decided they agreed with him. Instead of another politician, why not give the presidency to a dealmaker, someone who could solve our problems by getting people around a table and using his extraordinary negotiating skills to work things out? A little horse-trading, a little posturing, a little compromising, bada bing bada boom, and it will all work out! Right?
But a few months into the Trump presidency, we haven't seen too much in the way of deals. As a matter of fact, we haven't seen any deals, at least not any of consequence. Is it possible that Donald Trump was never such a great dealmaker in the first place?
That's one way to look at it. Trump has made some lucrative deals; in fact, in recent years his company has been increasingly dependent on licensing deals, in which he sells the rights to use his name to a developer putting up an apartment building or a resort in some far-flung locale. The developer gets the cachet of the Trump name (such as it is), and Trump gets the licensing fees without having to do much of anything. It's a pretty good deal for all concerned.
But it's also true that Trump made some epically bad deals too, as his multiple bankruptcies show. His particular style of dealmaking often involved seeing how he could get over on people dumb enough to trust him. As he has made amply clear, he has a zero-sum worldview about nearly everything: Either you're getting screwed, or you're the one doing the screwing. In some contexts, it works. Trump could shaft a piano supplier, safe in the knowledge that the guy was just a small business owner who wouldn't have the means to fight him. That left him with a bunch of free pianos, and if he ever needed any more, he could get them from somebody else who wasn't aware that Trump was likely to stiff him on the deal. A great deal — at least for Trump.
But when you bring that approach to politics, you find that things don't work quite the same way. You can launch Trump University, scam the customers, and then move on to the next group of suckers (until the courts catch up with you, that is). But in politics, you have to keep making deals with the same people. You can lie and cheat a senator, but you're going to have to come back to her and ask for her vote on another bill, and you can bet she'll remember what happened the last time.
Trump has had one big test case so far for his supposedly superhuman negotiating skills (early in his campaign, one of Trump's spokespeople called him the "best negotiator in the history of this world"): the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. And it was a disaster. Not only was it an example of terrible legislating, it was also a master class in how not to negotiate.
Trump went in with no knowledge of the substance of the issue, leaving him unable to determine what was important, what could be offered as a bargaining chip, and what sorts of proposals would produce a public backlash. He also didn't bother to understand the people on the other side of the table, particularly the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus. He had no idea what motivated them, what repelled them, where their incentives and interests lay, and at what point they'd be willing to walk away.
In the end, not only didn't he get a bill passed, the whole bumbling episode made it harder to accomplish his goal in the future. The ACA is now more popular than ever, Republican members of Congress have been shown they don't need to fear him, and he's lost whatever public trust he might have had on the issue.
Let's take another example: China. During the campaign, Trump said that in contrast to the "stupid people" who had been negotiating for the United States in the past, he'd sit the Chinese down and say, "Listen you mother f---ers, we're going to tax you 25 percent." And then they'd give us back our jobs.
You may have noticed that this hasn't happened yet. China has not given us back anything (not that they could give back a bunch of low-wage, low-skill, labor-intensive factory jobs), and when he recently met with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Xi had to school Trump in the relationship between his country and North Korea. The master negotiator asked Xi to bring North Korea to heel, but "after listening for 10 minutes, I realized it's not so easy," Trump later said. "I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power" over North Korea, "but it's not what you would think." Trump also dropped his threat to label China a currency manipulator; someone must have informed him that while China used to devalue its currency in order to boost exports, it hasn't done so in years.
Speaking of trade, you might also have noticed that Trump has not yet renegotiated NAFTA to bring back all the manufacturing jobs the country has lost in the last few decades. And he can't seem to decide whether he's going to take another shot at negotiating a health-care deal, or move on to an equally difficult negotiation over tax reform.
The one thing Donald Trump was always great at was personal branding; the success that he had in business was in large part a product of people who had seen him on TV and associated him with wealth and success wanting to taste some of it themselves. If the image always outpaced the reality, so what? Doesn't every salesman exaggerate?
Perhaps, but when you're president, there's a point at which you have to deliver. It's becoming clear that Trump's supposed skill as a negotiator was all part of the act, just bluster and bombast, as thin as his gold leaf wallpaper. And everyone's beginning to figure it out.