The mystery of Trump's success

After nearly four years of the Trump presidency, there’s a mystery that’s yet to be solved. From the moment of President Trump’s election, the media and Democrats have declared him unfit to be president. Even before he was sworn in, there was talk of impeachment. In Washington, women held a mass rally and vowed to resist anything Trump might propose in his four-year term. And more threatening, Obama administration officials falsely linked Trump to a Russian plot to help him win the presidency in the first place.

What’s the mystery? It’s how a supposed incompetent could have so much success, starting with a sweeping tax cut in 2017 that boosted the economy, caused a record drop in unemployment and the poverty rate, and has been the underpinning of a surging stock market.

More recently, Trump’s prediction that Operation Warp Speed would put a coronavirus vaccine into public distribution by the end of 2020 has come true, media skepticism notwithstanding. The White House announced that “vaccinations rolled out across the country” on Dec. 8.

In the years between these two programs, there were multiple dramatic successes. Trump steered the federal judiciary to the right, with 53 new appeals court judges and three new Supreme Court justices. He imposed a vast reform of federal regulations. He created a new Space Force and built up America’s lagging military. He increased aid to historically black colleges and universities.

So again, what’s mysterious about all this? How did Trump do it? The media doesn’t care to tell us. With the exception of the vaccine breakthrough and the three justices, it’s as if the Trump successes never happened. Instead, coverage of the Trump years has focused on Trump’s blabbering, his unpleasant personality, his moral shortcomings, his vanity, and his crude treatment of nearly everyone on his side politically or against him.

It’s understandable the press would be infatuated with Trump’s rough conduct. But to the extent this has happened, coverage of his policies and decisions has suffered. Left unanswered has been this question: If Trump is such a bad human being, a reckless leader, and a klutz, how has he managed to succeed on so many fronts? This question has either been dealt with superficially or ignored entirely.

From all appearances, the media simply prefers to play up what Trump says rather than what he does. In politics, there’s an excuse for this. What is said matters, which is why journalists loved to keep Trump talking. Had Trump shut up, he probably wouldn’t have lost in 2020.

I haven’t touched on what Trump and his administration have done in foreign affairs. That’s the home of the fear he might cause World War III. I think not. It’s where several of Trump’s traits explain his decisions.

First of all, Trump likes to be bold. He’s happy to break a little china. Most presidents aren’t. Earlier ones claimed a desire to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem but were afraid of a violent backlash. Trump scoffed, moved the embassy in 2018, and riots across the Middle East never materialized.

Bolder, still, was his decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran. It was unpopular and tilted in favor of the Iranians. By withdrawing, Trump was free to impose sanctions that crushed Iran’s economy. Iran is weaker today and less of a threat. President-elect Joe Biden says he wants to revive the Iran deal. We’ll see.

For Trump, getting out of the Paris treaty was a two-over. It was bold because Trump upset European members such as Angela Merkel, whom he doesn’t like anyway. It was justified because China got a special arrangement to accept environmental limits, but only if it feels like it, after 2030.

When the president announced the vaccine was ready, he took three questions from the media. They were typical. They didn’t echo Trump’s view the vaccine is a “monumental national achievement.” But they gave him room to cause trouble for himself. He didn’t take the bait.

Q1: “I’m wondering what your message is to the American people, given all the increasing cases right now … and the hardship that they’re all facing as this virus does get worse.”

Q2: “Scientific officials … have encouraged Americans not to travel this holiday season, not to go to large gatherings … You’ve been holding parties with hundreds of people, many not wearing masks. Why are you modeling a different behavior … than your scientists?”

Q3: “The next administration … will oversee much of the future of the way Operation Warp Speed goes forward. Why not include members of the Biden transition team as part of this summit you’re hosting today?”

Two of the questions involved Trump’s personal behavior. He wisely didn’t take the bait.

Fred Barnes is a Washington Examiner senior columnist.