Trump White House Blends Reality TV With Reality

(Bloomberg View) -- The Trump Era began when the future president descended into Trump Tower's lobby on June 16, 2015, aboard an escalator. He launched his campaign there with a speech in which he promised, among other things, to build a "great, great wall on our southern border."

Trump has clung to that idea ever since. On Wednesday he vowed to send the National Guard to the southern border to patrol the area until the wall, which hasn't been built, is built.

Trump also vowed in that 2015 speech that "nobody would be tougher on ISIS than Donald Trump." Trump has held on to that idea too, successfully deploying troops in Syria to help push the terrorist group out of about a third of the country. But the ongoing challenge of stabilizing those areas so that Islamic State, or any other terrorist group, won't return, still presents Trump's team with complex policy challenges.

Trump also campaigned on a promise of avoiding military entanglements overseas. To that end, he said last week that he'd pull U.S. troops out of Syria "very soon." That statement reportedly surprised his own White House staff as well as seasoned military advisers like Defense Secretary James Mattis. On Tuesday, after huddling with Mattis and others, Trump agreed not to pull out troops until Islamic State is "defeated" (however that may end up being defined).

Trump's 2015 speech also gave him an opportunity to slag China, which he described back then as an even "bigger problem" than Islamic State. "When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let’s say, China in a trade deal? They kill us," Trump said. "I'll bring back our jobs, and I'll bring back our money."

Yep, that promise is still alive and well, too. Trump stirred up a nascent trade war between the U.S. and China this week, sending financial markets into a series of tailspins and recoveries. On Thursday evening, he ordered the U.S. Trade Representative to consider imposing $100 billion in tariffs on Chinese products — on top of tariffs covering $50 billion worth of Chinese goods that he proposed on Tuesday. Those moves sandwiched China's own salvo; on Wednesday, it announced a 25 percent tariff on about $50 billion of U.S. goods.

While the president tries to make good on his pledge to beat China at trade deals, that particular war is also freighted with complexities and perils he didn't understand and probably didn't even consider back on the campaign trail. As my Bloomberg Gadfly colleagues David Fickling and Shuli Ren have noted, China's tariffs include U.S. goods like cars, soybeans, plastics, tobacco, sorghum and chemicals largely produced in Midwestern and Southern states that are home to workers who will cast pivotal votes in midterm elections and beyond.

QuickTake Free Trade and Its Foes

Last month, Trump authorized tariffs on aluminum and steel imports. While benefiting domestic producers, the move also has increased costs for U.S. factories that buy raw materials from overseas. The profit squeeze has forced the National Association of Manufacturers to ask Trump to seek a truce in his trade war with China. Instead, the president has threatened to escalate it (while simultaneously negotiating numerous exceptions to some levies), putting him at odds with some of his advisers and members of his own party who support free trade.

All three of these moments — the wall, Syria, and tariffs — reveal Trump as the circus acrobat he's always been, captured in mid-flight this week as he tries to swing safely from one policy trapeze to another.

The president is used to being a performance artist, of course, and he relishes the role. His entire presidential campaign resembled the reality TV performances that helped salvage his faltering business career, and the historic turnover of his White House personnel echoes his signature TV line, "You're fired."

But the transition from reality TV to presidential reality is tricky for Trump because he never acquaints himself with the substance of policy issues he'd have to master if he really wanted to deliver on the grandiose, divisive promises that fueled his campaign.

Trump first leapt into the public eye decades ago on the back of what he called "truthful hyperbole," his willingness to dissemble about his business accomplishments to get good press. Playing that game instead of managing his operations effectively unwound his real estate and casino holdings in the 1990s and almost left him personally bankrupt. He would have remained a punchline had "The Apprentice" not come along in 2004 and rehabilitated him.

Trump offered voters heaps of hyperbole as he dissembled his way through the 2016 campaign. He now has the federal government, an economy, and national security to tend to — and promises to keep. Everything that follows from here will be a referendum on whether or not the reality TV star who glided down an escalator at Trump Tower nearly three years ago can get away with running a reality presidency.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Timothy L. O'Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Gadfly and Bloomberg View. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include "TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald."

For more columns from Bloomberg View, visit http://www.bloomberg.com/view.

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