Was Trump “Right” to Think He Can Get Away With It?

When the story broke about classified documents turning up at Mar-a-Lago, a reporter friend called me and said with exasperation, “Why would he take that stuff?!” My response was, “Why wouldn’t he?”

It wasn’t my first quip like this. A week before the 2016 election I ran into an acquaintance who was working on Hillary Clinton’s campaign. He asked for my prediction, and I told him I thought Trump would win. He asked if I was serious given that the polls were giving Clinton an inevitable win. I said I was, my reason being that the laws of physics were different for Trump and had always been.

My logic came from four decades in the crisis management business. One of the most unpleasant things I’ve had to learn is that consequences are not a universal phenomenon the way we are taught in Aesop’s Fables or Sunday school. The cliché about the mighty has always been, “They think they can get away with it.” The reality is that some of them usually do.

Most of us would be well-advised to anticipate consequences, but the question I now ask myself is not “Will there be consequences?” but “Is this the kind of person or organization that tends to suffer them?”

In other words, Donald Trump has been “right” all along to do the things he does because he is unique. He is wrong in the legal and moral sense, but correct in his instincts insofar as his life experience has taught him — and, in the end, isn’t individual experience the only thing that human beings truly depend on?

Trump’s emergence has led to a surge of powerful people and institutions — those used to getting their way — querying communications consultants about whether they could try the tactics Trump uses to sway public opinion. I’ve told them no, that Trump is unique. They cannot antagonize prosecutors, ridicule judges, insult their allies and still maintain them, steadfastly refuse to apologize, and brag about being superior to others with impunity.

“Why can’t we use Twitter the way Trump does?” an energy company boss once asked me. I answered, “Because Trump’s rules apply only to Trump. You cannot replicate them.”

This Dutch Uncle advice doesn’t go over well because the uber-fortunate believe they are bespoke — and they may be, just not to the degree Trump has been. After all, Trump’s career has been a perpetual tumble of failure followed by… perpetual advancement. He maintains his steady diet of cheeseburgers and French fries and hammers Coca-Colas yet he’s bearing down obesely on 80.

Trump has taught us that what goes around doesn’t come around; A penny saved is not a penny earned because you won’t run out — and working class people will pay your legal fees; Never look before you leap because there will always be a pit filled with feathers; You can catch more flies with a flamethrower than honey; If you lie down with dogs you’ll wake up with adorable puppies and new allies; and Count all your chickens immediately because they will never fail to hatch.

Trump has often addressed criticism by saying, “That shows I’m smart.” Could he be right?  Trump doesn’t need to be Dr. Stephen Hawking to do what he does, he just needs to be the proverbial hedgehog, as in Archilochus’ famous construct, “The fox knows many things; the hedgehog knows one very big thing.”

What is it that Trump knows? He knows that it is the scarce American who, at a lizard level, isn’t impressed with money or the perception of it. He knows the few rage points lodged in the American heart and rings those bells over and over. He knows to humiliate his detractors because they cannot defend against a tweetable hashtag. He knows that shame is a worthless construct. He knows that his enemies, in their frothing zeal, will overreach.

Most of all, Trump knows that he has what few other controversial figures have ever had: a constituency where roughly 40 percent of Americans will interpret the slightest criticism of him as an attack on them and their way of life. There is only one thing Trump has ever said that I have agreed with: He could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and not lose a single supporter. He didn’t go far enough; he’d win new ones.

Trump isn’t the only public figure to leverage his inner hedgehog. During the Monica Lewinsky drama, I was astounded by discussions I had with feminist friends who rallied behind Bill Clinton. They felt I was being “judgmental” for believing Clinton was out of line for his relationship with the intern. In 1998, the progressive watchwords were “It’s just sex.” In the quarter century since Lewinsky and the advent of the #MeToo movement, most of these friends have crawfished away from having defended Clinton and have spun it as having only been about abortion rights. Had there been a transcript of these arguments without identifying the participants, I would have come across as the feminist and they would have sounded like frat bros.

Similarly, I once reviewed old news footage following the 1969 Chappaquiddick tragedy and was struck by how many women defended Ted Kennedy (with a touch of swoon) who was driving the car in which a young woman was killed. How could Bill Clinton and Ted Kennedy’s direct experience not have greatly broadened their internal gyroscopes governing what they could and couldn’t get away with? They suffered some consequences, but not anything resembling what the rest of us would have endured. Sexual charisma has the tendency to overwhelm other agendas.

The Wire’s drug kingpin, the baby-faced Marlo Stanfield told a hapless security guard, “You wanted it to be one way… But it’s the other way.” What outrages so many about Trump is the violence with which his career goes against what Mother Goose and her cohorts taught us. It is the issue of unfairness that vexes. Nevertheless, I have long harbored a dark theory that Americans are fascinated by royalty because we want there to be an exceptional class of people who are outrageously blessed and immune. Perhaps this is because we secretly hope to join them in the same manner that we hope we’ll win the lottery. Or maybe we believe if we’re nice to the Chosen they’ll somehow protect us from the things we fear.

HBO Series The Wire’s Marlo Stanfield

Still, we are desperate to extract lessons from the trajectories of unique personalities. Steve Jobs’ comeback at Apple has bred an avalanche of tedious essays about the value of failure. These ignore that most people who fail never recover, and Jobs was an oddity that comes along once every few centuries. Trump is no Jobs, but he has led other Chosen types to wrongly believe they can appropriate his devices.

Trump faces a daunting year with multiple indictments. “They got him now!” a friend told me this morning. I responded, “You’ve been saying that since 2015.” To be sure, Jack Smith & Company may well get him, but even if they do it will have been an eight-decade rampage of defying gravity. We may be horrified by Trump and the floodgates he has opened in the country we love, but we may wish to entertain the possibility that when he praises his exceptionalism, he may be onto something.