HONG KONG – Much effort has been expended to explain Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in the United States’ presidential election. But perhaps the simplest explanation is the most accurate: Trump’s opponents got played. From former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was by virtually all accounts the favorite to win, to the Republicans who opposed his candidacy, people vastly underestimated the US president-elect. World powers, particularly in Asia, should not make the same mistake.
During the campaign, Trump knew exactly who Clinton was: smart and experienced, but lacking his cunning and showmanship. So he played the fool, campaigning in states that many claimed were a waste of time, while Clinton followed a data-driven strategy. Her approach won her over 2.7 million more votes than Trump. His approach won him the presidency.
Now preparing to take power, Trump is using many of the same tactics he used during the campaign, prioritizing rallies over press conferences, weighing in on the US comedy show “Saturday Night Live” instead of focusing on, say, the escalating crisis in Syria. Meanwhile, he is upending US diplomacy, perhaps most notably by taking calls from Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. Rather than allowing Trump to shock the world yet again, we must learn to read him.
The bottom line for anyone dealing with Trump is that he is the ultimate Machiavellian prince, operating almost exclusively on ruthless self-interest. According to Machiavelli, “the first opinion which one forms of a prince, and of his understanding, is by observing the men he has around him.” So, to determine Trump’s plans, we should start with his appointments.