In 1973, Robert Ringer wrote his best-selling book, Winning Through Intimidation. I doubt that Donald Trump read the book – he does not read much – but he is the poster boy for the book’s title, if not its contents. Intimidation was his modus operandi throughout his business career and is the hallmark of his disastrous presidency.
Trump’s hotels, resorts, golf courses and casinos are all rife with documented tales of strong arm tactics to get what he wanted and nasty threats whenever he was challenged. He stiffed contractors and workers on his construction projects then dared them to take him to court. No one who knew his history or were aware of his serial bankruptcies wanted to deal with him. His extra-curricular sexual affairs featured lavish parties and secret trysts, followed by angry denials, hush money pay-offs, and bizarre cover-ups. In business he was a pariah and in his social life, a lout.
In the Republican nominating scramble he ridiculed, belittled and bullied his way past his stunned opponents and won the hearts of thousands by his brash behavior and outrageous promises. ”When I am president we will win so much you will get tired of winning.” He assumed he would always win in any dispute or negotiation. After all, he would control the largest military, the most robust economy in the world, and the Justice Department, so how could he not win?
Kim Jung Un presented something of a problem and Trump led with his go-to tactic, threats and insults: “Little Rocket Man.” It didn’t work. Then he tried flattery, compliments and vague promises, even what seemed to him like irresistible inducements. Hey, lots of beautiful beach front properties there that would be perfect for golf resorts. That didn’t work either. So, he lied: “He sent me such a beautiful letter.” Kim just nodded and kept testing his rockets and working on his nuclear weapons.
Surely, he could intimidate the new, inexperienced president of Ukraine. Zelensky needed weapons and support. The Russians had taken Crimea in violation of every international law and were occupying eastern Ukraine. We had promised the weapons and could give him support, “but we need a favor, though.” It was a perfect phone call. We should all just get over it; that’s the way it’s done. We had the power and Ukraine had the need. How could we not win? All Zelensky had to do was just say he was opening an investigation. Perfect call.
Trump did not get what he wanted, but he did get away with it by suppression of evidence and obstruction of witnesses, all with the help of his own private Attorney General, and with a little help from his friends in the Senate.
The COVID-19 virus was something Trump could not intimidate. He could lie about it and deny its effects, which he did repeatedly. That’s not even a strategy, just an ingrained, natural reflex. He could not bully Dr. Anthony Fauci, diminutive in stature though he is, and that seemed to frustrate the president even more. He tried to shut him down by stopping the daily briefings. But Americans could not get enough of Fauci’s facts and information in the midst of the pandemic, and he kept being featured on TV. A frustrated Trump could not even call that fake news.
Then a Minneapolis policeman held his knee on the neck of a hand-cuffed and prone George Floyd for eight minutes plus, and all hell broke loose. The president unleashed a deluge of angry tweets: “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” He wanted to “dominate the battle space” by calling in all manner of police and military. He threatened protesters with “the most vicious dogs” and heavily armed military. Our strong-man president apparently knows no other response than intimidation.
Tragically, governing and leading through intimidation is antithetical to every word of the Constitution and to the “liberty and justice for all” that is the heart of the American dream.