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Opinion: Trump, Yul Brynner and a Results-Free Presidency

Like the King of Siam, Trump is lionized by his fans as ‘a man who tries’

President Donald Trump will return to the Capitol on Tuesday to sell the GOP health plan to Republicans. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
President Donald Trump will return to the Capitol on Tuesday to sell the GOP health plan to Republicans. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

At the core of Donald Trump’s Friday press conference with Angela Merkel was a theme that he has been harping on since he became a candidate — America is being played for a patsy on the global stage.

Sure, now that he is president, Trump feels compelled to ritualistically affirm his “strong support for NATO.” But at the press conference, a German reporter challenged Trump over his “isolationist policy.” The president pointedly responded, “The United States has been treated very, very unfairly by many countries over the years. And that’s going to stop. But I’m not an isolationist.”

Trump’s answer was partly a familiar reference to what he regards as lopsided trade deals ineptly negotiated by his predecessors. But in his opening statement, Trump also stressed “the need for NATO allies to pay their fair share of the cost of defense.”

On this point, uncharacteristically, Trump has truth on his side. Even though Merkel noted that last year her country had increased its military budget by 8 percent, Germany allocates only 1.2 percent of its GDP to defense. Proportionately, that is less than France or Britain — and roughly one-third as much as the United States spends.

Any Trump supporter who saw the press conference would probably have carried away the impression that the new president was making sure that the U.S. wouldn’t play Uncle Sucker on his watch. That feeling is apt to endure no matter what our NATO allies spend on defense or whether the economic glories of the 20th century industrial age ever return to the Midwest.

In Trump’s world, talking a good game matters more than tangible accomplishments. It is a theory of presidential leadership unlike that followed by any recent predecessor. Sure, Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton reveled in spin. But, ultimately, the final political reckoning for them depended on real-world results or the lack of them.

If you grew up in the 1950s, as Donald Trump did, your image of a strong leader was probably partly shaped by Yul Brynner playing the King of Siam with a shaved head. Not only did Brynner star in the Broadway production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I,” but he also won the 1957 Academy Award for his performance in the movie version.

The song “Something Wonderful,” sung by one of the King’s wives, memorably describes this unbending ruler: “This is a man who thinks with his heart, his heart is not always wise. This is a man who stumbles and falls, but this is a man who tries.”

A Tony Award-winning 2015 revival of “The King and I” is slated to play at the Kennedy Center in Washington this summer. While the musical has been hailed for championing tolerance and understanding across cultural divides, it is equally useful for understanding the inner psychology of the Trump presidency.

Maybe Trump himself refuses to believe that he ever “stumbles and falls.” Except, of course, where he is unfairly pushed by so-called judges, failing newspapers, the Watergate-style tactics by Obama, and Democrats still loyal to Crooked Hillary.

But for Trump supporters — and maybe even the president himself — what matters is that “this is a man who tries.”

By conventional standards, the first eight weeks of the Trump presidency have been all sound and fury accomplishing nothing. Two versions of Trump’s de facto Muslim ban from six countries have been blocked by the courts. Mexico has not been bludgeoned into paying for a border wall. The drive to repeal and replace Obamacare highlights the divisions among congressional Republicans. And the Trump budget is so moribund that it gives Dead on Arrival a bad name.

Part of Trump’s appeal was the sense that Washington was so mired in stalemate that there was little risk in entrusting the Oval Office to a former reality-show host. As an Ohio Trump voter in his thirties, who works in information technology, told me last year, “The insiders haven’t gotten anything done. It’s time to give an outsider a chance.”

[Opinion: The Three Voters Who Helped Me Understand Trump]

By that standard, what may count for Trump’s political future is an “A” for perceived effort.

If the health care bill fails, Trump will try to place the blame on a Republican Congress far more unpopular than he is. If Trump’s budget produces little more than endless continuing resolutions to fund the government at current levels, the White House’s message will be that the president tried to increase military spending but congressional self-interest thwarted him.

Political scientist David Mayhew in his 1974 classic, “Congress: The Electoral Connection,” argued that modern legislators get more election-year benefits from taking positions than from passing major legislation. In contrast to the random senator, presidents are judged by how well the nation is doing at the end of a four-year term.

But Trump hears different music. For him, the joy of the presidency lies in making statements — often unmoored from the truth — rather than ever grappling with the details of policy.

As the lyrics from “The King and I” put it, “He has a thousand dreams that won’t come true. You know that he believes in them and that’s good enough for you.”

Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. His book on his con-man great-uncle was just published: “Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer.” Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.