Politics in America

“Part of what makes the modern use of ‘winning’ so strange is that it’s often used in contexts that are not competitions”

Part of what makes the modern use of “winning” so strange is that it’s often used in contexts that are not competitions. The Trump campaign, for instance, only occasionally applied it to winnable things, like wars or the election itself. For the most part it remained notional, conceptual, a state of being. This makes more sense when you consider the core Trump worldview, in which winning and losing seem like existential issues — not the outcome of specific conflicts, but an almost theological separation of human beings into two types. Winners take bold actions, dominate others and impose their will on the world; losers hem and haw, dither and consult, exercise restraint. Trump may have joined Republicans in their flamethrower criticism of the Obama presidency, but his focus was rarely on policy, or what some considered tyrannical expansions of executive power; he saw Obama as weak and ineffectual, tweeting that it was “almost like the United States has no president” and telling a biographer that the “natural ability” for success was missing from Obama’s DNA.

One obvious drawback of this mind-set — a gut-level inclination toward the hyperbolic exercise of power — is that it makes winning purely about imposing your will on reality, rather than, say, reaching an outcome that’s actually desirable or defensible. As a candidate, Trump promised that he alone could provide such will to the country as a whole, racking up national victories like Olympic medals. But once his administration entered the White House, these goal posts shifted with alarming speed. Suddenly it was the administration itself that needed to demonstrate a capacity for imposing its will; the entity that needed wins ceased to be the nation and became the executive branch.

Hence this administration’s overwhelming attention to the form of victory, whatever the actual substance underlying it. Nowhere has this been clearer than with the American Health Care Act, an astoundingly unpopular measure that, according to Politico, Trump has very little interest in the details of, as long as its passage seems impressive. When the House eventually passed its version of the bill, Trump’s celebratory speech did little to mount a case that the bill would benefit American citizens; he spent far more time lauding a triumph of process. “A lot of people said, how come you kept pushing health care, knowing how tough it is?” he said. “Don’t forget, Obamacare took 17 months.” The speed of this bill’s passage, he reckoned, was praiseworthy in itself: “We’ve really been doing this for eight weeks, if you think about it.”

Similar stagecraft has been applied to far lesser accomplishments. Early in June, lawmakers and the press were invited to the White House for the kind of signing ceremony that normally accompanies major legislation — but the document Trump signed was merely a memo, outlining “principles” for a potential overhaul of the air-traffic-control system. During a trip to the Middle East, he signed what was touted as a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia — which, on his return, appeared to consist largely of “letters of interest or intent, but not contracts,” according to a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. In the run-up to Trump’s 100th day in office, both the White House and the media seemed to fixate on the idea that the president needed “points on the board” — simple demonstrations of his ability to accomplish things. Almost any things would do. After the House passed that health care bill, Fox News’s Howard Kurtz wrote that the law was “messy” and its passage “ugly,” but he concluded that it was, nonetheless, a victory: “Trump is triumphant, silencing critics who say he doesn’t know how to deal with Congress.”

Nitsuh Abebe, “Power Games”, The New York Times Magazine (25 June 2017), 12-13.