Major nations always make intelligence assessments of both friendly and opposition leaders. In most instances these analyses are required to be simple, direct, and where possible, in unbiased terms. What follows is an attempt to reproduce such an analysis.
While Donald Trump was never in military service, he did graduate from military school. He never forgot that experience. In fact there are indications that in his mind his military school background is equivalent to actual military service. There are those among his detractors who suggest that such self supportive fantasy exists generally within his thought process. This is a phenomenon of projection not unknown among political leaders. His actual psychological makeup tends to be analyzed depending upon the source’s political orientation. One thing appears to be an area of agreement: Donald Trump is a far more complicated personality than he allows himself to appear.
“The Donald” is clearly a big man in size, and likes to consider himself athletic. He played varsity football in high school and reportedly did rather well. Now he devotes his sports energies to golf which he is characterized as playing with considerable seriousness – when he wishes to – even though he takes advantage of travelling the course in his golf cart. In other words, President Trump not only likes to think of himself as an energetic male, he vigorously pursues that self-characterization. The fact is that this demeanor keeps both his staff and detractors on their toes. It is really a very effective device and he clearly enjoys the image.
The military school influence has been carried on quite consciously in President Trump’s return salutes to the ever-present military escorts. The salute is straight out of cadet protocol: “Five fingers extended and joined snapped at a 45 degree angle to the edge of the right eyebrow.” It’s very impressive. Other presidents tended to a sort of wave somewhere in the region of the side of the head – if returning the salute at all. Donald Trump takes his role as Commander-in-Chief quite seriously and appears proud of his salute.
External symbols such as the salute suggest something more important. Donald Trump is extremely conscious of his position and rank, far more than a man of his accomplishments might be expected to be. Harry Truman certainly wasn’t and Dwight Eisenhower took his presidential rank for granted. Lyndon Johnson may have been far closer in his self-perception to Donald Trump than the latter would be willing to accept. The fact is that Johnson’s political flamboyance combined with Nixon’s calculative ways and an added combination of both men’s manipulative character is as close as one can come to a modern comparison with Trump. Indeed Trump’s perception of himself is well indicated in many other ways. His need to be in close proximity to family and supportive aides is matched by a tendency to require intellectual support of recognized intelligent “tough guys”. In this latter case he has chosen some of the best.
President Trump’s top military team, Kelly, Mattis, and Dunford is truly exceptional. They are now augmented by Mike Pompeo with his broad-based training and experience. John Bolton as National Security Advisor remains a question mark primarily because of his long record of consistent rigidity. In that he is an American version of Sergei Lavrov. His top military cadre makes Donald Trump as influential in world leadership as he is. It is not President Trump’s personal talent that gives him the “edge”, but it is his capability to choose these defense personalities that causes opposing national executives to hesitate in physical opposition to the United States. Unfortunately for Mr. Trump his military team is not matched by other leaders in his government, and that, too, is well known by his foreign adversaries.
With all that being said Donald Trump still is vulnerable on a personal basis. His most obvious failing is his obvious and overwhelming ego. He just doesn’t have the ability – or perhaps interest – in self-criticism. In fact President Trump tends to eschew self-criticism as an indication of weakness. Basically, weakness in any form appears to be perceived as a danger. He gives every indication that weakness in others is a characteristic to be exploited and thus seeks to hide any perception of similarity in himself. In this he utilizes several devices including exaggerated terminology and flamboyant claims. He becomes fixated on an idea and cannot be moved. An example has been his persistence in creating a new service, Space Force, in spite of vigorous objection of Secretary of Defence Mattis.
Perhaps Donald Trump’s most outstanding characteristic as president is his knowledge of finance and commerce. Aside from Herbert Hoover’s nineteen years in international mining and engineering activities, Donald Trump has few peers in business management in U.S. presidential history. Trump knows the civilian world of business and uses that knowledge at every possible occasion – domestic and foreign. This, of course, makes him a powerful opponent on the world scene and he utilizes that status to gain advantage wherever he can. Unfortunately for him the other world leaders have their own brilliant aides to counter Trump’s self- perception as a dominant negotiator. It’s really not that mano y mano game that President Trump seeks to believe it is.
Donald Trump’s perception is that foreign affairs and even defense policy can be defined in the context of his essential strength of commercial/economic negotiation. It is a unique device, though therefore easily analyzed. The most interesting element of this characterization is that Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping know all these elements of Mr. Trump’s makeup very well. How much he is aware of their insight remains a question. However, knowing with what President Trump is endowed does not create an advantage for them any more than it does for him in reverse. The real issue for him and them is how the knowledge is utilized. The truth is that other world leaders — both major and minor – find themselves at a disadvantage in dealing with an American president who is part politician, part business tycoon and part television performer. One wonders if Mr. Trump is himself aware of this image he projects.
Ultimately President Donald Trump is most fearful of any indication of weakness or vulnerability of his own. This basic fear is what pushes him towards extravagant statements. Whether this defense mechanism will someday push him to similar “extravagant” action remains to be seen.