Blog Donald Trump’s Socratic Method

Donald Trump’s Socratic Method
It was a little hard to tell whether Reince Priebus, former White House Chief of Staff and Chairman of the Republican National Committee, had his tongue in his cheek when he said Donald Trump’s decision-making process “follows a Socratic method”, as he put it when discussing the inner workings of the White House in his Keynote Speech on Day 3 of the 2018 Credit Suisse Asian Investment Conference (AIC). 

Priebus painted a very positive view of Trump and his Administration, joking that he hoped people could stay awake since, as everybody knew, “there’s hardly anything interesting or entertaining about the Trump administration.” But by the time he got to revealing how the President makes policy, raised eyebrows were as common as grins on the faces of the audience.

The mixed reaction could be part of the issue of seeing the Trump administration exclusively through the camera obscura of the news media. Much of what Trump does best, Priebus suggested, goes unreported. During the campaign, after the storm broke about the Access Hollywood tape, Priebus related how for the next three weeks Trump went on a disciplined campaign of five speeches a day, talking directly to the American people and staying on message, focusing only on the issues, and landing to cheering crowds at every stop.

While the news narrative was that Trump had no hope, “Day in, day out, after five speeches a day without talking to the media, our data began to tell a different story,” Priebus said. “On the Friday before election day it was a jump ball.”

I was always telling him, ‘you can’t tweet this, you can’t do that, this is the way to do it.’ Normally I’m right but in this particular political environment I was wrong.

Method in the Madness

Likewise, while in office, Trump’s apparently impetuous decisions have gained all the scrutiny while the process of arriving at them has been less examined. Which brings us back to Trump’s Socratic method: “a collaborative, argumentative dialogue and discussion between individuals to draw out their ideas and drill down to the best possible solution,” Priebus explained.

“The White House is constructed of people with varying views on policy. The media in and around DC see this as chaos; they focus only on who’s up, who’s down and competing power centers. Granted, it’s not the Washington way of decision making but that’s not what the American people voted for.”

This gets to the crux of the issue: what Trump has proved works in politics today goes against just about every established convention of US politics. Priebus admitted that he, a career politician, got this wrong too.

“The President is a person who wears his opinions on his sleeve. He wants to respond unfiltered to the American people and for him it’s worked. I was always telling him, ‘you can’t tweet this, you can’t do that, this is the way to do it.’ Normally I’m right but in this particular political environment I was wrong.”

Priebus also opened up on the President’s negotiating style, something that has wrong-footed politicians and diplomats across the world who are accustomed to doing things the old way. Take the threat of imposing steel and aluminium tariffs that Trump announced, before cutting bilateral deals with Mexico, Canada and Australia.

AIC 2018: Reince Priebus on What to Expect from Trump Next

At the 21st Credit Suisse Asian Investment Conference in Hong Kong on March 21, 2018,  former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus discusses how President Trump is disrupting the political landscape at home and abroad.

“[Trump] puts his chips on the table; he wants to put people back on their heels so negotiations can begin,” Priebus said. But Trump’s position that the US has been treated unfairly on trade is far from just a negotiating tactic – it’s something he has strong, long-held convictions about. “It’s not a shell game. This is real and I don’t see the President backing down on trade. I see him being reasonable, cutting bilateral deals, but his position on trade won't change. He's been talking about it since 1980.”

Priebus summed up his brief tenure as Chief of Staff (his departure was announced, in customary fashion, in one of his boss’s tweets) as follows: “Life in the West Wing is a roller coaster ride: exhilarating, nauseating but exciting all the while.”

Anyone following Donald Trump’s disruption of politics as usual would recognise the sentiment.