Donald Trump’s base spends a lot of time celebrating his alleged strength. In fact, throughout Trump’s presidency, he has retained positive polling numbers on the attribute of “strength” from a majority of Republicans, even as his overall support has often dipped. Yet, what Republicans see in Trump as strength is a complete facade. While Trump’s actions may take on the appearance of strength, he only puts on this show of power when using other people as bargaining chips, knowing that any and all repercussion will be levied against someone else.
This blustering chest-puffing was put on full display this week during the President’s meeting with presumed Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. After being cornered by Schumer, Trump boastfully announced “I’m proud to shut down the government…” — something his base and colleagues in the Senate, like Lindsey Graham, took to be a real display of strength, urging him to “dig in”. However, Trump wasn’t gambling with his money, his reputation (given that his base will stand by him no matter what), or anything else of personal consequence. He was perfectly comfortable threatening to shut down the government, because the suffering parties would be the hundreds of thousands of government employees who will have to find a way to get by without paychecks during the holiday season. Trump has also paraded around his faux toughness, risking the stability of our economy and the incomes and well-being of countless citizens (many of whom voted for him), in his ego-driven fervor to escalate trade and tariff wars. There is no strength or courage when you have nothing on the line.
This behavior by Trump is nothing new. He’s brought the same practice he employs in every aspect of his life to government: aggression made possible by the reality that he has nothing to lose.
In business, Trump ensured that all of his tough talk and risk taking — both perceived to be displays of strength — triggered the downfall of others, while he walked away mostly unscathed. There are numerous examples of this, most notoriously his raking in millions from his failing Atlantic City casinos, while his investors, partners, and stockholders suffered massive personal and professional losses. The same is true of his building a Trump Tower in Toronto. In similar, dishonest fashion, Trump guaranteed the venture would be a success, claiming he was and would continue to inject his own money into the project, but never following through, taking money without contributing a penny.
Trump makes no more of an attempt to shoulder potential consequence when he engages in explicitly illegal behavior, furthering the reality that his tough guy routine is a massive charade. He sends others out to do his dirty work, making sure not to memorialize his orders in text (so as to avoid any potential liability), then throws them under the bus when the fallout comes barreling his way. We need look no further than two very recent examples. Trump had Michael Cohen, his lawyer and fixer, threaten journalists and arrange hush payments to women he’d had affairs with, which his base often portrays as indicative of his strength, but as soon as the justice system caught up with Cohen, Trump immediately distanced himself from him, claiming he had nothing to do with any of Cohen’s actions. In addition to this, Trump cut and run when Donald Trump Jr’s infamous Trump Tower meeting came to light. He, to this day, maintains he knew nothing of the meeting, going as far as to lodge this very denial in his responses to the Special Counsel’s questions.
Trump’s base, and much of the public more generally, fail to see past the simple exterior — the forward displays of aggression, the threats, the rage-induced machismo. The primary problem with calling any of this “strength” is that it doesn’t take any strength or nerve to gamble with the house’s money. It’s easy to issue ultimatums, threats, and demands when there’s no personal stake in the matter.
Trump isn’t strong, powerful, or tough — he’s a guy who starts a fight at a club, knowing he rolled in with a security detail.