Understanding Donald Trump’s behavior has left most of the political class a bit befuddled. As journalists and pundits have documented, President Trump doesn’t adhere to previously agreed-upon norms of civility, doesn’t follow a clear policy path, and communicates in a style that he calls “modern-day presidential” but that most view as beneath the office he holds. When we expect Trump to zig, he zags. When we expect him to cower, he lashes out. When we expect him to join hands with members of his party, he attacks them.
One reason we find Trump’s actions so confusing is that those of us who study, follow and weigh in on politics have assumed that he is motivated by the usual goals. The traditional view of politicians holds that their primary goal is re-election. Applying this view, we would expect Trump to be disturbed by his record-high disapproval ratings. After all, it’s difficult to get re-elected if more than 55 percent of Americans do not approve of your behavior. This doesn’t appear to hold for Trump, however. Rather than stopping the actions that have resulted in a record-low approval, he’s instead continued (or even accelerated) them.
Another, more high-minded, view of politicians is that they pursue policy goals in service of an ideology. Take Paul Ryan, for example. Regardless of whether you approve or disapprove of the speaker of the house, it is clear that he pursues a consistent set of policy priorities. And these policy priorities are in service of a particular view of the proper role of government. Once again, however, this doesn’t seem to apply to President Trump. Instead, Trump pursues different policy goals, depending on the day (and often, depending on the time of day). When one policy seems intractable, he merely pursues another one.
Some have offered a more sinister view of Trump’s motivations—arguing that his primary motivation as president is to make more money. While this might make good fodder for left-leaning conspiracy theorists, I don’t believe this explains his actions. After all, if making money was his primary goal, he would have been foolish to run for office. Yes, he may be making money by having foreign diplomats stay in his hotels, but even that profit pales in comparison to what he would make were he still officially at the helm of the Trump organization and spending all of his time running that empire.
So, if it’s not re-election, good public policy or wealth, what is Trump’s primary goal? After six months of observing his presidency, I offer that his primary goal is to take the scarcest non-renewable resource in American public life—attention. From appointing his family to high-level positions, to the bottomless trough of outlandish tweets, to his seemingly ill-timed golf outings, the vast majority of Trump’s behavior seems to be aimed at simply drawing our collective attention to him and his actions.
If attention is his goal, Trump has had a successful presidency. As just one simple example, on July 26, Trump’s name appeared 26 times on the first page of Washigntonpost.com and 24 times on the front page of New York Times.com. The only other person mentioned more than once was John McCain, who, despite returning to the Senate after a diagnosis of brain cancer, was mentioned just four times.
Understanding Trump’s motivation helps make sense of a presidency that often seems aimless and distracted. It also helps us predict (and therefore understand) when he is likely to make seemly unpredictable speeches or responses. Most importantly, it can remind even his most vehement detractors that Donald Trump is not a man without purpose. He is not a man who is acting out of ignorance. And he is not exhibiting irrational behavior. He is simply a man who has an unusual goal that he is reaching with remarkable success.
Christopher Cooper is professor and head of the Department of Political Science and Public Affairs at Western Carolina University.