There’s really no substitute for reading Robert Caro’s LBJ books (though you can skip the mostly useless second one) as well as The Power Broker. One of the most important things you learn doing that is to understand how LBJ actually operated vs. the LBJ myth. Johnson’s power didn’t derive from bullying people into submission. It came from knowledge. Johnson knew the politics of key members’ states as well as (if not better than) the members themselves, which meant he had leverage when he needed to push someone to vote for something they were reluctant to vote for. The climax of the third LBJ book is the 1957 Civil Rights Act, which Johnson passed in large part because he tied it to an electrified dam issue in the Pacific Northwest. Why? Because the votes for that were the same votes he needed for the other bill. That’s some virtuosic play there. But it was all because he knew politics so well. Not because he was yelling at senators from the region that they had no choice but to vote for the bill.

Trump strikes me as a pretty good case study in how the LBJ myth would work out in practice. To paraphrase Joe Pesci from Casino, he doesn’t know too much, and doesn’t want to know too much. Because he has no real relationships with politicians, he can’t really cajole them into supporting something they don’t want to support. Because he doesn’t actually know anything about politics, he doesn’t know which pressure points to push on to get his way. There’s neither stick nor carrot, just bluster. Trump is in many ways a similar character to LBJ, they have a lot of the same weaknesses. But LBJ had strengths too, not the least of which was an impressive mind and voracious work ethic. The handling of the AHCA shows how bullying devoid of those things works out, but also this “threat” at Democrats shows just what a complete dimwit Trump is. Yes, Democrats might be willing to make some concessions to save Obamacare, but their political self-interest would be to just sit back and let him own the carnage. It’s not even clear what the ask is either. This isn’t an offer they can’t refuse, it’s an offer they can’t comprehend. And it reflects a null set of knowledge about how Democrats think. Trump is so roundly despised by Democrats that anyone who vowed to work with him would have a target on their back, Blue Dogs included. I suspect many would rather work with him than work with the grassroots resistance, but the resistance happens to align with political self-interest.

Sargent is useful here:

Getting Dems to deal with him is Trump’s own stated goal, but it’s unclear whether Trump has given a moment’s thought to what outcome such a deal would be designed to progress toward. The unnamed aide who said Trump’s threat will “force people to do something” inadvertently got this exactly right. Trump treats the word “deal” as some kind of magically irresistible end in itself. But under these circumstances, the only known endpoint — the supposed “deal” — is worse than the “threat.” Why should Dems feel any incentive to respond to such a threat?

Of course, it did garner Trump action-packed headlines. Which might be the only true goal here.

Perhaps the best way of getting the point across is that bullying was a tactic for LBJ but a strategy for Trump. And that tactic eventually backfired on Johnson.

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  1. Metavirus says:

    Very poignant: “bullying was a tactic for LBJ but a strategy for Trump“. It’s a good lens to look through.

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