The most egregious act of short-termism was Trump’s presidential candidacy itself. It’s clear he did not think through what might happen if he won.
Chess vs. checkers is standard shorthand for suggesting a president is either smart, or not. President Trump’s forte is the latter; it’s a simple game that doesn’t call for much strategic forethought. Who could have guessed that would be the wrong game for a president. The consequences so far have run a narrow gamut from bad to disastrous. With Charlottesville, Trump’s impulsive short-termism now threatens the values, identity and character, indeed the very exceptionalism, of a nation.
Whether it’s our heritage or our economy, peering around corners is not something Trump does. His quick end to U.S. participation in the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, covering 40% of the world economy, fulfilled a campaign pledge. But he abandoned it without an alternate plan in place for trade in that region and still doesn’t have one. Meanwhile farmers in rural America, which Trump carried handily, are paying the price as other nations leap in to make deals and grab market share.
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Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey was checkers writ gigantic. It was inevitable that someone, a special counsel or a new FBI director or a conscience-stricken congressional committee, would aggressively continue the Russia investigation. So why take a chance it would fall into the hands of a highly accomplished special counsel like, say, former FBI director Robert Mueller?
The escalating feud with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — like Trump, a Republican — is another mystery explained only by the checkers analogy. Do you really want to offend and anger the senator who would be key to impeaching you (and whose wife is in your Cabinet)? Yes, apparently, you do. And that’s just the tip of the Congress iceberg. Trump has publicly insulted or pressured countless senators and House members of his own party, setting the stage for them to feel, shall we say, less than loyal.
Trump is always setting himself up to be undercut or ignored, though gaming out even the sketchiest scenario would have shown that’s exactly what would happen. For instance, he told congressional Republicans to repeal Obamacare before leaving town (they didn’t) and to vote on health care again before taking up anything else (they said they’re moving to tax reform). He invited war with North Korea by mouthing off about “fire and fury” and the “locked and loaded” U.S. military, but his Defense secretary countered that war would be “catastrophic.”
Trump’s latest less than logical indulgences are cozying up to his white nationalist supporters (some of them “very fine people”) after their “Unite the Right” show of force in Charlottesville — and then firing their man in the White House, chief strategist Steve Bannon. He was either unaware or uncaring that his embrace of the white supremacist crowd would alienate most of America and the world, and provoke mass desertions by the business community. As with his immigration and travel policies, he was unaware or uncaring that he was stomping on our ideals. Worse, he was fomenting a splintered, angry America that could be his legacy long after he’s gone. Firing Bannon won’t turn back that clock. All it will do is enrage the fringe right, one of Trump’s last pillars of support. This does not remotely resemble chess.
Of course, the most egregious act of checkers was Trump’s presidential candidacy itself. It’s clear he did not think through what might happen if he won. That would have been chess. He was playing checkers to win big in business — quick victories of branding and profit. And he has achieved that, as illustrated by the massive success of his new hotel in Washington, D.C. Many of us were probably absorbed in our own deluded version of checkers by expecting that Trump would divest from his businesses. He’s still making money hand over fist, and so far the watchdogs and courts have been unable to catch up with him.
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Why does Trump insist on playing the short game? The hotel example is part of the answer. He’s in it to win it, and by “it,” I mean money. His temperament is another factor — the impulsiveness, the massive ego, the unfiltered brain.
But most of all I think it’s because Trump has never paid a real price for recklessness in pursuit of instant gratification and short-term gains. It’s not for lack of attempts by others to make him pay — women who say he has attacked or even raped them; Trump University students he has allegedly cheated; business associates appalled by their experiences with him; and Hillary Clinton, who had Trump’s number and said so throughout the 2016 campaign. Instead he has been rewarded all his life with business success, beautiful wives, children who seem to love him, and, now, the presidency with all its prestige, clout and money-making opportunities.
The stakes are infinitely higher at this point, among them failure to deliver on promises, failure to competently manage the government, multiple investigations that could expose criminal conduct, multiple lawsuits that could force Trump to finally divest, a dangerous adversary in North Korea who is even more erratic than he is. Ironically, at the pinnacle of power, Donald Trump may finally encounter his moment of accountability. He may finally recognize that, all along, he should have been playing chess.
Jill Lawrence is the commentary editor of USA TODAY and author of The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock. Follow her on Twitter: @JillDLawrence
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