Donald J. Trump, having unexpectedly fallen into the U.S. presidency with a push from Russia’s Vladimir Putin, has turned to the only thing he knows: operating a franchise.
The White House is a new brand, but the Trump game is the same. The only thing that has worked for the President-elect is operating a franchise, not actually running things. Running things will be the job of his vice president, cabinet officers and a platoon of special assistants.
For House Speaker Paul Ryan, it is the perfect setup: A hands-off president who’s only too happy to leave the heavy lifting to others, who’s pliant when it comes to legislation and who’s completely unfamiliar with the federal government or its funding. It fits Ryan and the anti-government GOP, whose hearts’ desire is to repeal federal influence to the pre-FDR levels of Herbert Hoover.
The political media, expecting a President-elect to roughly follow familiar patterns, is missing that Trump not only disrupted an election campaign but will disrupt how government is run, how it will be held accountable for its actions and how the public can be engaged with actual decision-makers. Franchise operations are outside the world of political reporters.
Trump’s is the presidency as a franchise. Trump is free to spend three or so nights a week at his New York penthouse, giving way to his impulsive tweets that would only matter if Trump were to put his hand to the wheel of government. Forgoing press conferences allows him to avoid questions that can’t be shouted while he stands in a doorway.
Trump has simply upsized his business model. Never successful at operating things, Trump’s record is one of repeated bankruptcies and stiffing contractors on the bills he owed. Trump’s one asset was his celebrity status, a brand name. His name and title are for sale or rent to those who would assure him of a return. It is not ego alone that accounts for Trump’s trash talk of the media, opposing officeholders or even his successor on “The Apprentice.” It is certain knowledge that his fortune depends entirely on his reputation.
But something has changed — even while Trump has not. Trump’s need for a franchise partner now extends to Russia and world affairs, despite the risk to our national interest and stature. Eager to find a willing partner, Trump refuses to hear the alarm siren set off by Russia’s hacking during our election.
If Putin wants Trump as a partner, which he clearly does, Trump is only too happy to be seen as being courted. There will be no cold eye at Putin’s bold interference, but only hints that a romance is possible. Putin’s interest in expanding Russia’s sphere of influence beyond Crimea, whether it is the troublesome Middle East or the low-market value of the Baltic nations, is not a major concern.
Our allies and those who depend on an American commitment to democracy and free elections understandably are apprehensive of the Trump presidency. They are all too familiar with the thin line between being a “franchise” and a “satellite” of a greater power.
The whole world is watching. Whether we in our nation can see what is in front of our eyes is unknown.
Larry Bush is a founder of Friends of Ethics, a volunteer group working with the Ethics Commission.