How Competitive is Trump?

Donald Trump is blustery, aggressive and loud. But is he competitive? By that, I don’t mean whether his campaign is competitive with Hillary Clinton’s. If that were the question the answer would be relatively easy -- Trump isn’t very competitive right now, at least based on most polling data and what we know of his campaign’s organization and funding. That objective situation may be evidence of something more subjective and personal: whether Trump the man knows what it takes to actually win a tough contest.

Extremely competitive people understand that bluster and aggression generally won’t work against an equally tough opponent who will not back down. They know that victory requires very hard work, analyzing their own personal strengths and weaknesses, and finally buttressing those weaknesses while fully exploiting often only small but critical advantages over their opponent. Trump would certainly insist he is a highly competitive guy, and likes to put down opponents by questioning their competitiveness and/or “energy.” That’s belligerence and trash talk, which he has in spades. What is not clear is that Trump understands what it takes to win in a difficult, equally matched contest. Nor is this particularly surprising, given his privileged upbringing and easy successes in life.

Trump was born into wealth, got into and matriculated out of expensive schools, and went into his father’s business. In The Art of the Deal Trump describes his tough up-by-the-bootstraps father, the hard instructors at the military prep school he attended, and his willingness to fight. He developed a high degree of self-confidence in this process, though that doesn’t suggest that he earned it through any actual struggle or competition. He was also a student athlete but instead of going into the Army after military school (or college) where his privileged status would have done him no good, he got a deferment for bone spurs in his feet.   

Trump carried on his father’s work and is a successful businessman. He is by his own estimation a dealmaker. Yeah, he wants to make better deals than his competitors and he is litigious, but that doesn’t imply a high degree of competitiveness. He describes dealmaking (and by implication himself) in artistic terms, not that of the playing field. By definition both sides get something out of a deal. Elections are winner-take-all.

The Art of the Deal begins with Trump describing a typical manic, in which he clearly revels. It would be very difficult for most people to do the things he describes in the book -- juggling hundreds of phone calls, making trades, doing radio and television interviews -- but it is easy for him because it is good fit for his personality, and it is what he has done for his whole adult life. Is it hard work? Not for him.

So Trump not is conventionally lazy or uncompetitive. However, an extreme degree of competitiveness is necessary to win a presidential election. He might be energetic but that is not the same as deliberately facing a difficult direct challenge against an equal opponent. That requires expending the mental and emotional energy to overcome one’s own weaknesses, exploit an enemy’s and move out of one’s comfort zone. It’s not clear Trump has ever done this. In The Art of the Deal Trump bosses people around and manipulates them (as he does on his television show.) He’s combative, but always from a position of strength, outlawyering, outlasting, or outbullying those who stand in his way. Trump’s crowd of competitors in the Republican nominating process treated him with kid gloves until it was too late.  

Trump is big on instinct. He talks about it incessantly, but instinct is easy. In fact, at base it’s mindless. It’s what you are oriented towards doing. What is hard is going against your instinct -- learning to punch with the left instead of the right, changing your batting stance, taking a weak case to trial, concentrating under fire when instinct tells you to run. 

Winning the Republican nomination was no small thing.  But it was also within Trump’s professional and temperamental wheelhouse. There he followed his instincts and won. Indeed, during the primary contests one of Trump’s greatest advantages was it seemed he wasn’t trying hard at all -- just having a good time.

That is not working against Hillary Clinton, and it will not work in the general election. Trump operated with significant advantages he does not have in the general election against Hillary, most importantly a crowd of opponents who couldn’t get out of each others’ way and sufficient personal funding which when combined with the free media substituted for a competitive disciplined campaign.

I assume at least some of his advisor’s realize this and are talking to him. Trump’s organization (such as it is) has recently been trying -- apparently not very successfully -- to raise outside funding. I now get a weekly email asking for money.  

Trump explained his own past and expansive contributions to Democrats as business decisions to get along with people and gain influence. But with respect to his own fundraising Trump evidently wants to eat his cake and have it too, by not doing the hard things that potential contributors want him to do -- build a strong and conventional organization, listen to advice, study policy, and moderate rhetoric. The usual explanation for this failure is that Trump is a seventy-year-old man set in his ways.

That is probably very true, but it is hardly impossible for Trump to change. The problem is that analyzing his own strengths and weaknesses, effectively altering and expanding his organization, using his own and donated money in ways supporters prefer, studying policy, and tempering his temperament is doable, but hard work. An extremely competitive man who really wanted to win the presidency would already be doing these things. That Trump so far is not, suggests that he is not truly competitive in the sense of knowing what it really is to compete in a very difficult contest, that he actually interested in the presidency (a very real possibility) or both.

Say what you like about Hillary, but she is willing to work hard, evaluate herself, change if necessary, and fight. Trump appears full of fight, and that’s why his supporters love him, but that will not be enough to beat Hillary, who understands she is in a true winner-take-all contest and is acting like it. It is not too late for Trump but he needs to do the hard mental and emotional work of moderating his instincts, accepting advice, studying policy and compromising with donors and the Republican Party. If he won’t do that, he doesn’t really want to win.  

Donald Trump is blustery, aggressive and loud. But is he competitive? By that, I don’t mean whether his campaign is competitive with Hillary Clinton’s. If that were the question the answer would be relatively easy -- Trump isn’t very competitive right now, at least based on most polling data and what we know of his campaign’s organization and funding. That objective situation may be evidence of something more subjective and personal: whether Trump the man knows what it takes to actually win a tough contest.

Extremely competitive people understand that bluster and aggression generally won’t work against an equally tough opponent who will not back down. They know that victory requires very hard work, analyzing their own personal strengths and weaknesses, and finally buttressing those weaknesses while fully exploiting often only small but critical advantages over their opponent. Trump would certainly insist he is a highly competitive guy, and likes to put down opponents by questioning their competitiveness and/or “energy.” That’s belligerence and trash talk, which he has in spades. What is not clear is that Trump understands what it takes to win in a difficult, equally matched contest. Nor is this particularly surprising, given his privileged upbringing and easy successes in life.

Trump was born into wealth, got into and matriculated out of expensive schools, and went into his father’s business. In The Art of the Deal Trump describes his tough up-by-the-bootstraps father, the hard instructors at the military prep school he attended, and his willingness to fight. He developed a high degree of self-confidence in this process, though that doesn’t suggest that he earned it through any actual struggle or competition. He was also a student athlete but instead of going into the Army after military school (or college) where his privileged status would have done him no good, he got a deferment for bone spurs in his feet.   

Trump carried on his father’s work and is a successful businessman. He is by his own estimation a dealmaker. Yeah, he wants to make better deals than his competitors and he is litigious, but that doesn’t imply a high degree of competitiveness. He describes dealmaking (and by implication himself) in artistic terms, not that of the playing field. By definition both sides get something out of a deal. Elections are winner-take-all.

The Art of the Deal begins with Trump describing a typical manic, in which he clearly revels. It would be very difficult for most people to do the things he describes in the book -- juggling hundreds of phone calls, making trades, doing radio and television interviews -- but it is easy for him because it is good fit for his personality, and it is what he has done for his whole adult life. Is it hard work? Not for him.

So Trump not is conventionally lazy or uncompetitive. However, an extreme degree of competitiveness is necessary to win a presidential election. He might be energetic but that is not the same as deliberately facing a difficult direct challenge against an equal opponent. That requires expending the mental and emotional energy to overcome one’s own weaknesses, exploit an enemy’s and move out of one’s comfort zone. It’s not clear Trump has ever done this. In The Art of the Deal Trump bosses people around and manipulates them (as he does on his television show.) He’s combative, but always from a position of strength, outlawyering, outlasting, or outbullying those who stand in his way. Trump’s crowd of competitors in the Republican nominating process treated him with kid gloves until it was too late.  

Trump is big on instinct. He talks about it incessantly, but instinct is easy. In fact, at base it’s mindless. It’s what you are oriented towards doing. What is hard is going against your instinct -- learning to punch with the left instead of the right, changing your batting stance, taking a weak case to trial, concentrating under fire when instinct tells you to run. 

Winning the Republican nomination was no small thing.  But it was also within Trump’s professional and temperamental wheelhouse. There he followed his instincts and won. Indeed, during the primary contests one of Trump’s greatest advantages was it seemed he wasn’t trying hard at all -- just having a good time.

That is not working against Hillary Clinton, and it will not work in the general election. Trump operated with significant advantages he does not have in the general election against Hillary, most importantly a crowd of opponents who couldn’t get out of each others’ way and sufficient personal funding which when combined with the free media substituted for a competitive disciplined campaign.

I assume at least some of his advisor’s realize this and are talking to him. Trump’s organization (such as it is) has recently been trying -- apparently not very successfully -- to raise outside funding. I now get a weekly email asking for money.  

Trump explained his own past and expansive contributions to Democrats as business decisions to get along with people and gain influence. But with respect to his own fundraising Trump evidently wants to eat his cake and have it too, by not doing the hard things that potential contributors want him to do -- build a strong and conventional organization, listen to advice, study policy, and moderate rhetoric. The usual explanation for this failure is that Trump is a seventy-year-old man set in his ways.

That is probably very true, but it is hardly impossible for Trump to change. The problem is that analyzing his own strengths and weaknesses, effectively altering and expanding his organization, using his own and donated money in ways supporters prefer, studying policy, and tempering his temperament is doable, but hard work. An extremely competitive man who really wanted to win the presidency would already be doing these things. That Trump so far is not, suggests that he is not truly competitive in the sense of knowing what it really is to compete in a very difficult contest, that he actually interested in the presidency (a very real possibility) or both.

Say what you like about Hillary, but she is willing to work hard, evaluate herself, change if necessary, and fight. Trump appears full of fight, and that’s why his supporters love him, but that will not be enough to beat Hillary, who understands she is in a true winner-take-all contest and is acting like it. It is not too late for Trump but he needs to do the hard mental and emotional work of moderating his instincts, accepting advice, studying policy and compromising with donors and the Republican Party. If he won’t do that, he doesn’t really want to win.