If you were going to make a movie about a strongman who has a vision for making America “great” again, the Mussolini-esque pout and menacing speech that Donald Trump provided us yesterday would be spot on. But we are not in a movie. This is becoming all too real. And lost this last week in the John Lewis controversy, the Inauguration, and the great demonstrations that were held today were disturbing new indications of the danger posed by Donald Trump. These indications were to be found both in his Inauguration speech and the shocking joint interview he provided last weekend to the London Times and Bild Zeitung. Together they present a very weak man lost in his performance of the role of a very strong man, a person consumed by the mission of “making America great again” by making “America First.” It is an empty, destructive, and nihilistic vision for the country and the Western world.
Trump’s antics and scandals consume our attention. They are deeply offensive but it is not clear that they will have larger, long term consequences. This will not be the case for the American role on the world stage Trump sketched for us this week.
Let’s start with the thesis that, whatever else you can say about him, Trump is strong. This is his brand, and his ability to project strength is what has allowed him to weather the widespread recognition that he is not only odious but even ridiculous. For his core supporters, he is Donald-the-Terrible, the tycoon who took no prisoners amassing his billions and who will now intimidate and bamboozle the country’s elites and the world’s leaders. No less in awe of his strength are his many opponents, who cower and shudder and ascribe a coherence and purpose to his proclamations that may not be there. And none of us can take our eyes off of him. We have already fallen into a permanent reaction mode. We are a nation of co-dependents.
But he is not strong. Anyone who has lived in a family with a larger-than-life figure sucking up all of the air will recognize this. Trump is weak and he is drawing us into a drama defined by his weakness. He is a prisoner of his own performance. The themes that have dominated his campaign and now his Inaugural address are mere vehicles for that performance. There is no ideology, no insight, no greater purpose than keeping his confidence game going with his followers and providing a come-uppance to all who have mocked him.
His mom-and-pop administration currently consists of a tiny White House operation of co-wackos and baby-sitters
If his daddy hadn’t been worth several hundred million dollars, Trump would be a burned-out con man, a motor mouth oddity entertaining his bemused fellow inmates at some Club Fed. Easily flattered and manipulated, forever lost in the litigation of petty grievances, he has a limited attention span and a narrow range of talents. He is not only woefully ignorant, he is oblivious to his ignorance. As a candidate, he derided as “disasters” treaties and initiatives about which he had at best a few sentences worth of knowledge. He offered suggestions for military operations — a “sneak attack” on Mosul (a city of 800,000 people), confiscating all of the Iraqi oil supply — that made him sound like an eleven-year old playing a videogame or a crazy uncle into his cups.
Finding himself yesterday being sworn in as President of the United States, he still seems incapable of taking the measure of what he is dealing with. His mom-and-pop administration currently consists of a tiny White House operation of co-wackos and baby-sitters, and a collection of cabinet officers deprived of deputies and policy coherence. They are all seemingly at odds with him and/or each other on major issues. Behind the bold assurance he tried to project in his speech, his policy initiatives remain ridden with internal contradictions, and he seems to have no strategic sense of how he is going to govern. For all the sounds and fury, there is a power vacuum. It is anybody’s guess who is or will be in charge. I remain convinced, as I said in an earlier post, that power over most issues, from healthcare to environmental issues, to taxes and the budget, will largely devolve to warlord cabinet members working with Congress. Trump will here-and-there take credit for what is happening but the details, wherein lurks the devil, will escape his attention and his imprint.
I believe his presence will be felt on just a few key issues but on those issues I now suspect there will be no stopping him. And they may prove to be of the greatest historical consequence. I am speaking of the international trading system and our relations with our allies and geopolitical adversaries. These are the issues over which he has ownership, where he thinks he has “insights,” and where he can act unilaterally and have an immediate impact. These are the matters that he thinks are susceptible to the exercise of his peculiar “strength,” and where he thinks he will realize his world historical destiny.
The Nihilistic Vision
But what in fact is the vision he will apply to these issues, besides being “strong” and cutting “great deals?” In spite of frequent mention of a “movement” he purports to be spearheading, there is no strategic agenda. His policies are mere artifacts of his performance, like the bowler hat of Chaplin’s tramp. Trump’s vision of “winning” through piecemeal business interventions and trade wars is just his shtick writ large, his kick-ass persona bestriding the world’s stage. It has nothing to do with mediating the relationships between multi-trillion dollar economies.
Most dangerously, his Trumpistan vision of an America that he will make “first” again misses and threatens the essence of what in fact makes America exceptional. I’m not speaking about gauzy notions of American ideals that will be replaced by his muscular nationalism. I am talking about what actually makes America geopolitically and economically powerful. We are now and since World War II have been a country of overwhelming military and economic might. We have by far the most dynamic economy in the developed world. Our allies run the length and breadth of that world. We are a nation of immigrants to which the world’s masses aspire. We can pivot to any part of the world and dominate the action. Our culture permeates the globe. All major social and economic trends in the world for the last century have begun with and are still led by us. We have the world’s reserve currency. When we get a cold, the rest of the world gets pneumonia. Our government is the patriarch of the world order, our President its secular pope.
We are fundamentally different from the Russia of Vladimir Putin, an England as envisioned by Nigel Farage, or a France as envisioned by a Marine Le Pen — each of whom has been antithetical to our dominance and each of whom Trump strangely admires. Holding parades displaying military hardware, as Trump apparently wanted to do at the Inaugural, is for the Russians and North Koreans. Our strength depends on the reciprocity-based world order that we have shaped and that we are uniquely positioned to dominate. If we blow off our allies, needlessly provoke our rivals, trash the world trading system, forsake environmental leadership, cease to be an avatar of racial inclusion, and abandon the restraint that is the mark of true authority, we have only one place to go. Down.
And not just in terms of our geo-political leadership. The Trump presidency threatens to represent a retreat from the focal point of the world economy — East Asia — with potentially devastating long-term economic consequences. He seems to be encouraging the break-up of the Euro and the EU which, if allowed to occur, could contribute to a devastating meltdown of our geo-political “spouse,” our “better half.” It is spousal abuse. De-coupled from a strong Europe, America’s own power will be radically diminished. Far from being the macho move Trump imagines, it will be a unilateral surrender of American influence and an epic undermining of the Western world.
Trump’s mere candidacy called into question America’s continued global leadership. Now one could ask whether Barack Obama will be seen by history as having been the last “leader of the free world.”
And for what? So that Trump can display his chops on the world stage? To promote some sophomoric notions of gravity-defying growth for what is already the most dynamic developed economy in the world? As shown by the tone and content of Trump’s remarks at the Inauguration, what he is really offering is a form of twenty-first century, social media-driven nihilism. It’s an attack on “elites” which is in fact an attack on facts, competence, constructive endeavor, and global solidarity. All in the service of nothing more or less than his own confusion and desire for personal vindication.