As two recent commentators have observed, Trump is a master of asymmetric warfare. Asymmetric warfare is a term used to describe tactics adopted by a weaker force against a stronger one, normally in a military setting. The typical example is of a guerrilla or terrorist group employing forms of harassment to frustrate a large army. Acts requiring a minimal amount of money or equipment, such as employing home-made roadside explosives or suicide bombers against random targets, can easily put the larger force on the defensive.
The larger force, of course, has the advantage of superior power, organization, and numbers. Armed with advanced technology, it can devastate its opponent whenever it can find it or lure it into the open. The smaller force using asymmetrical methods, on the other hand, takes advantage of the inertia and lumbering size of the larger force. By harassing it on the fringes, it aims to distract it, confuse it, and subvert its purposes.
Trump, according to Kathy Gilsinan and Uri Friedman, practiced a political form of asymmetric warfare in his campaign for the presidency. During both the primary and general election, Trump faced opponents who were much better funded, better advised, and more lavishly advertised than himself. Yet his own whimsical, rally-centered organization was able to overcome them by resorting to random attacks, tweets, branding, and false claims. He won by disobeying all the rules of the political professionals and by doing the untried and the unexpected. He proved wrong almost all the commentators and tea-leaf readers.
Since his inauguration, Trump has continued to keep his opponents off balance by being unpredictable, cavalier, and intentionally outrageous. But what worked so well during the campaign seems to be proving more of a problem for him as commander-in-chief. Responsibility and power bring a whole new set of challenges unlike those faced by struggling contenders. Just as ISIS, a skillful practitioner of asymmetric warfare, faced a whole new set of challenges when it found itself in charge of Mosul, so does Trump as a newly installed president.
What Trump seems innately unable to understand is that he cannot run a convincing war against the establishment now that he is the establishment. Bannon-inspired deconstruction of the administrative state makes no sense when one is running a government that must rely on a complex bureaucracy and deal with a multitude of invested players. While an asymmetric strategy served Trump well against a field of competitors because it shifted attention to their weaknesses and away from his own, the dynamic is now reversed. By creating distractions and uncertainty, the strategy is currently unnerving Trump’s own administration and providing fodder for an aroused opposition.
Trump’s inadequacies are now front row center. For all of his authoritarianism, Trump does not take on the aura of authority naturally. Through a deficit of character and discipline, he is unable to act presidential. His challenges are twofold. He lacks credibility, and he fails to demonstrate competence. Credibility is what establishes a leader’s trustworthiness in the eyes of voters, public figures, and foreign leaders. It is founded on factors like the seriousness with which one takes on one’s duties, the willingness to be held accountable, and one’s basic integrity. Competence is conveyed through a leader’s ability to bring results. It is based on a talent in working with others and an understanding of how the system works.
After two months of typical asymmetric, go-it-alone behavior, Trump has failed badly on both counts. On the credibility side, he has been undone by a slapdash approach to the dignity of his office, an inability to take responsibility for mistakes, and an epic unseriousness about fact and policy. Even on the issue of fulfilling promises, a point of importance to him, his claims of kept promises come across as either bogus or insubstantial.
On the competence side, Trump has shown himself sadly unfit. Rather than inspiring his government with a united purpose, he has divided it by targeting internal “enemies” in some areas while tolerating rivalry and conflict in others. He has lessened its effectiveness through either a lack of direction or intrusive micromanagement. In concrete terms, his bizarre handling of executive orders and failure to cajole a Republican Congress point to an administration with performance problems.
But while Trump is crippling his administration through erratic behavior, his foes in the opposition may be taking a leaf out of his own book of asymmetric war. They are beginning to size up the vulnerabilities of a hapless Goliath and to wing well-aimed rocks in his direction. Democratic attorneys-general in the states are using the courts to stymie, Democratic senators are using the rules to delay, unhappy bureaucrats are using leaks and the forces of inertia to frustrate, all with noticeable effect. It seems we are witnessing a classic example of karmic justice.