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Trillion reasons why Trump is playing long game

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Donald Trump. Photo: AP

Donald Trump. Photo: AP

AP

Donald Trump. Photo: AP

There's a great scene in one of my favourite movies, Ratatouille, where head chef Skinner suspects that Linguini, the young man who has suddenly become a surprising cooking sensation, is up to something sneaky.

Skinner tries to loosen Linguini with a lot of red wine. Once he's properly inebriated, Skinner barks: "What are you playing at, Linguini?"

Skinner doesn't get his answer then. And we may not get ours now either. But amidst the pounding beat of daily press headlines chronicling Donald Trump's pandemoniac presidency, many of us, feeling a little punch drunk, are similarly asking: "What is he playing at? What's the long game?"

Rohit Talwar has an answer.

"Exceeding Vladimir Putin's wealth has to be Trump's real target."

I met Rohit as we were both speaking at the Association of Consulting Engineers of Ireland conference earlier this month. He's a professional futurist whose most recently edited book, The Future of Business, is a comprehensive undertaking of 60 chapters written by 62 expert contributors from 21 countries on four continents.

"Trump craves attention, being liked and being powerful. He's got the top job in the world, but that's not enough," Rohit puts forth.

"There are still milestones to aim for, Putin is believed by many to be the world's richest man with an estimated fortune of some $200bn. Surpassing the fortunes of Warren Buffett [$61bn), Amancio Ortega [$67bn] and Bill Gates [$75bn] would all be progress milestones for the president - but exceeding Putin's wealth has to be Trump's real target.

"Once that happens, then the only meaningful goal left open to him would be becoming the world's first trillionaire. Securing the presidency for two terms is the ideal vehicle for opening the doors to achieving such ambitions.

"In terms of the more mundane task of running the country, I don't think any of us can be sure as to how much of what he is doing is the actual long-term strategy and how much of it is testing how the system around him will respond so that he and his team can then tailor his real strategy.

"He's been able to find out very quickly where he sits with Republicans in the Senate and Congress; what tactics the Democrats will adopt to oppose him; how the media view him; what the intelligence agencies will and won't do; which administrators across Washington government departments will support him; and how the judiciary will respond.

"Some of this feels carefully engineered, some of it is happening by accident - but he's learning who he can trust very quickly.

"Ultimately, he's got to keep his base and grow it if he wants to win in 2020 - and that means delivering on his promises around immigration, job creation, infrastructure and wealth creation.

"To do that, he's got to borrow a lot of money, generate sufficient growth to make up for the massive corporate and personal tax cuts he's driving through and counter the range of potential trade and tariff wars he could be initiating.

"There's a big gamble here, and he'd actually benefit if the US economy went into a nosedive shortly after he borrowed the up to $1 trillion of federal money he's committed to infrastructure spending. A collapse in the dollar would make US exports very competitive, discourage imports, drive up domestic demand and devalue US debt.

"He has to hope that this 'decline and rebound' scenario happens in time for him to claim a victory prior to the next presidential election."

But what, I ask Rohit, does Trump possibly achieve through his shotgun style of early morning tweeting? Obama wire tapping? Arnold Schwarzenegger ratings? Rohit is undaunted.

"Again, this serves multiple purposes. He gets attention, dominates the news cycle, diverts attention from uncomfortable issues such as his relationship with Russia, and drives ratings for a TV series in which he is a shareholder."

What then, should the press and other observers be focusing on? Rohit glances back to look forward. "History suggests that leaders who rule by sheer force of will offering the promise of challenging the establishment and giving the nation back to the people do well for a while, but that internal and external forces eventually rise up to overthrow them because people are not willing to trade all their freedoms and individualism in return for the level of certainty and order that such leaders promise.

"Economically as well, there are few examples of such leadership models actually delivering the promised benefits across society.

"I think with President Trump, people will very quickly start to analyse his every action through the lens of what the benefits might be for him, his family, his companies, his business partners and associates, those who helped him get to power, and those who are keeping him there."

Thanks, Rohit. As for me, right now, I think I'll help myself to a glass of Skinner's red wine.

Sunday Independent