From the moment he descended the escalator at Trump Tower in New York to declare his candidacy for the Republican nomination, to the chaos and animus of his first two weeks as President, Donald Trump has flummoxed his political opponents.
This has got to stop. Mr. Trump has been behaving the same way for years. The public is now fully apprised of his operating baseline – he lies and bullies, and is completely lacking in civility. We know it. Now we have to accept it. The man is not going to change.
What has to change instead is the way his opponents and critics respond to him. People are honestly at a loss. They are exhausted by Mr. Trump's barrage of executive actions – 19 in the first 14 days – some of which are either contrary to what he promised, damaging to America's allies or borderline illegal. Critics are left sputtering with rage.
What are they to do about a president who, among other outrages, tramples the U.S. Constitution with badly executed restrictions on Muslims entering the U.S., and then ignores federal court orders to take his boot off that hallowed American document? How do they deal with a president who acts like an omnipotent monarch, dispensing edicts from the throne, firing those who displease him, and turning his nose up at the rule of law?
It has gotten to the point that a few pundits have openly speculated that Mr. Trump is orchestrating a stealth coup d'état in the American government. The less excitable describe him as a dangerous blend of incompetence and weak temperament, while others have made armchair diagnoses of his alleged narcissistic personality disorder.
Those analyses contain grains of truth but they offer no solutions for dealing with the new President. What can anyone possibly do to change Mr. Trump's personality, or make him more capable?
Perhaps a simpler analysis is required: that Mr. Trump's words and actions are an approach to politics; a technique for gaining and keeping power used by those who are otherwise unsuited to a job in high office. If you can see Mr. Trump's madness for the rather commonplace method that it is, he might become less of a four-year migraine and more of a dull, on-again-off-again ache behind the eyes.
The President follows four rules: knowingly lie; denigrate your enemies in cartoonish terms; flood the media with your bombast; and never, ever stop doing the first three things. It matters not a whit whether they are expressions of his tangled id or are in fact a conscious strategy. What matters is that they work, and that it is in everyone's interest to break them down, understand their purpose, and focus on the best response.
Knowingly lie: Mr. Trump is a calculating fibber. He does it to exasperate and distract his critics, who get stuck on the idea a president should never lie. Should. Shouldn't. Whatever. It's too late for that now. Mr. Trump lies with brio. His biggest fabrication is his claim that three million people voted illegally in the election – every single one of them against him. Yes, it's laughable. Yes, it's beneath the dignity of his office. But focus on the lies and you've been had.
Focus instead on the truths he is inadvertently telling: that he and the Republicans want to justify the continued passage of state laws that suppress the vote among black and immigrant voters, who tend to support the Democrats; and that he knows Democratic voters will be reinvigorated in 2018 and 2020, and his best hope for a continued Republican majority in Congress, and a second term in office, is to increasing voting restrictions, and suppress the number of voters, on election day.
Denigrate your enemies in cartoonish terms: "Crooked Hillary Clinton." "Fake Tears Chuck Schumer." The press are "the most dishonest people in the world." Again – whatever. Politicians always define their opponents in negative terms; it's up to the opponent not to let the definition stick. Sometimes it's effective (Clinton), and other times it flops (Schumer). The real reason he resorts to colourful name-calling is that it helps him apply his third rule.
Flood the media: Got Mr. Trump on the brain? Can't think of anything else? Can't sleep? He's got you where he wants you. As Jon Stewart, the American comedian, said this week, Mr. Trump is wearing down his opposition by never giving them a second to regroup. The President is "exhausting because it is going to take relentless stamina, vigilance, and every institutional check and balance this great country can muster" to rein him in. Which leads to Mr. Trump's fourth rule.
Never, ever stop doing the first three things: Three years from now, when Mr. Trump is campaigning for re-election, he will still be insisting that three million people voted illegally in 2016 and that his inauguration crowd was the largest ever. He will have a derogatory nickname for his Democratic opponent. Executive orders pushing the limits of legality will be flying off his thick-nibbed pen. And he will be tweeting inflammatory provocations, daily. His hope is that an exhausted nation will no longer be able to raise its weary head in protest.
So that's the choice for his legions of opponents. Either throw up your hands in despair, or recognize the game Mr. Trump is playing and refuse to join in. Smile and sigh at his little tricks the way a parent does when a child caught in a lie throws a tantrum, and they will lose their effectiveness.
That's not to say Mr. Trump is a toddler. He is a man in full command of his faculties who is employing dangerous brinkmanship to keep the world, and Congress, one step behind him. He must be challenged in the courts, in public and in legislatures everywhere.
That will take gigajoules of energy. Don't waste any on the wrong things.
Note to readers This editorial has been modified to reflect the following correction: Donald Trump descended an escalator, not an elevator, at Trump Tower in New York when he announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination.