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Trump Is Not Actually That Susceptible to Flattery

Slate logo Slate 9/18/2018 Joshua Keating
Donald Trump et al. standing next to a person in a suit and tie © Provided by The Slate Group LLC

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At a joint news conference on Tuesday, Polish President Andrzej Duda urged President Trump to deploy more U.S. troops and military equipment to Poland, suggesting that a permanent U.S. base be built that could be called “Fort Trump.” Trump’s skepticism about U.S. troop deployments in Europe is well-known, and any increase in the U.S. presence in Poland is likely to upset Russia. Duda appears to be banking on what’s become conventional wisdom: that Trump can be easily swayed through flattery.

Numerous observers have looked at Trump’s interactions with foreign leaders and concluded that praise, grand gestures, and sucking up are the best way to influence him. I’ve written things along these lines myself.  But there’s not much evidence for it.

The track record for leaders who’ve tried to flatter and cajole their way into Trump’s affections is mixed. Through frequent phone calls and golf games, Shinzo Abe had supposedly wheedled his way into one of the closest relationships with Trump of any world leader. And still, Japan has found itself marginalized in North Korea talks, on the receiving end of Trump’s trade attacks, and subject to insulting tirades. “I remember Pearl Harbor,” Trump reportedly, and nonsensically, told Abe during a meeting this summer. South Korea’s Moon Jae-in has gone out of his way to give Trump credit for the diplomatic opening with the North, even suggesting he could win a Nobel Peace Prize. And yet, the U.S. has continually wrong-footed the South Koreans, and Trump has continued to denigrate them as freeloaders on U.S. trade deals and defense guarantees. Emmanuel Macron, who impressed Trump with a Bastille Day parade in 2017, was supposedly a “Trump-whisperer” engaged in a “Bromance” with the U.S. president. It didn’t stop Trump from pulling out of the Iran deal or the Paris Climate Accord. China pulled out all the stops for Trump’s lavish state visit last fall, and while Trump seems to have been genuinely impressed by the display, and frequently refers to his good relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping, that dynamic hasn’t prevented Trump from escalating a trade war.

The case for Trump as particularly flattery-prone is based largely on his relationships with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. It’s true that Trump has repeatedly invoked Kim’s “nice” notes and compliments to him as evidence of diplomatic progress. But the bigger factor here is probably Trump’s desire to accomplish something—the denuclearization of North Korea—that eluded his three predecessors and his reluctance to admit that the summit in Singapore wasn’t the historic victory he’s been touting it as.

As for Putin, it’s true that Trump proudly claimed, inaccurately, during his campaign that Putin called him a “genius” or “brilliant” and since coming into office has bragged that Putin “said very nice things about what I’ve done for this country in terms of the economy.”

Trump’s motivations when it comes to Russia are probably best left for the special counsel to explain, but it seems unlikely that some stray compliments are at the root of it. For one thing, Putin doesn’t actually seem to be pursuing a strategy of flattery with Trump. At the infamous press conference in Helsinki in July, Putin began his remarks—while standing next to Trump—by criticizing the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, something he no doubt realized that Trump considers one of his proudest accomplishments.

Trump seems to genuinely prefer “tough” strongmen and dictators who view the world in terms of zero-sum competition over the elected leaders who like to lecture him about human rights, free trade, the environment, and the rules-based international order. Flattery is the least of it.

This is not to say that Trump doesn’t like receiving compliments and being feted and fussed over. He clearly loves it! But flattery doesn’t seem to be an effective method of persuading him. For all the talk of his erratic and unpredictable foreign policy, Trump’s skepticism about trade deals, multilateral organizations, democracy promotion, and security guarantees is pretty unshakeable. Which is to say that Trump may like Duda—and may have some ideological affinities with the current Polish government—but he’s probably not going to think sending U.S. troops to Poland is a good idea, no matter what the base is called. Trump generally does what he wants, no matter how nice people are to him.

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