8 August 2017

Trump has been consistent – and wrong – for decades


Trumpism remains grotesquely fascinating. And as the Trump “administration” cavorts and capers its way to what increasingly looks like an early termination, there is still a small window of time in which to reflect on what Trump is, and how this extraordinarily compelling and talentless individual has captured and destroyed the 45th American presidency.

Into this field of debate comes a new book entitled Donald Trump: The Making of a World View. The authors, Brendan Simms and Charlie Laderman, are both historians, at Cambridge and King’s College London, respectively.

They have clipped speeches and trawled transcriptions of interviews going back to 1980, when Donald Trump started to make known his views on world affairs.

Their conclusion is this: at least ideologically, Trump is not as erratic as he seems. On the contrary, he is drearily consistent.

But consistency and depth of understanding are not the same thing. When it comes to his “world view”, it is clear from this book that Donald Trump hasn’t looked  far beyond America’s borders. He has scant awareness of other countries, their history, and how and why they act they way they do on a crowded world stage.

His attitude to the nuclear deterrent is symptomatic of his disregard for knowledge. “It would take about an hour and a half to learn everything there is to learn about missiles,” explained Trump in a 1984 interview with the Washington Post. “I think I know most of it anyway. You’re talking about just getting updated on a situation.”

Knowledge is overrated. In its place Trump has substituted something very different.

That something is not so much a philosophy or a set of beliefs as a buzzing hive of fixations and impulses. And while any statement of Trump’s is liable and even likely to be contradicted by another statement, the fixations remain. This is the argument of the book: his unpredictable proclamations on twitter are white noise behind which remains a consistent set of fixations, which he has  returned to again and again for the last 40 years.

And, for all the many ways in which Trump’s rise is inexplicable, these fixations must resonate with something deep in the mind of America.

In a 1987 interview with Larry King on CNN (this was before CNN had become “fake news”), Trump said America’s allies and especially Nato were “ripping off the United States.” As a result these so-called allies “laugh at us because of our own stupidity and [that of our] leaders.”

Here is Trump a few days ago, in a tweet about North Korea: “I am very disappointed in China. Our foolish past leaders have allowed them to make hundreds of billions of dollars a year in trade, yet…” and so on.

Thirty years separate these two utterances. Yet they follow precisely the same mental trajectory. America is very wealthy, but the wealth is being spirited away by foreigners. The only explanation for this is that the leaders of the United States are fools, or dupes, or shills. And the solution is to present the world with a bill, and get back the money and the respect America is owed. Nothing more is necessary. All you need is someone who understands the art of the shakedown.

On the day of that 1987 interview with CNN, Trump paid just under $100,000 to spread his opinion that America was getting a bad deal on the world stage with a full-page advertisement in the Washington Post, New York Times and Boston Globe. Titled “There’s nothing wrong with America’s Foreign Defense Policy that a little backbone can’t cure”, it argued that the US should “make Japan, Saudi Arabia and others pay for the protection we extend as allies. Let’s help our farmers, our sick, our homeless by taking from some of the greatest profit machines ever created – machines created and nurtured by us. ‘Tax’ those wealthy nations, not America… Let’s not let our great country be laughed at anymore.”

We can pass over the chaotic grammar and the mafioso feel of Trump’s “Letter To The American People”. What counts is the deep fixation: America is a rich man in the hands of tricksters.

And what of these tricksters? Repeatedly, Trump says he respects them. “Here is Japan making billions and billions of dollars in profits and surplus,” he told Japanese TV. “Japan has very brilliantly, and I say brilliantly with great respect, very brilliantly made the United States look very foolish.” Japan would eventually be replaced by China in the Trump world view, but the story is the same. Trump sees other world leaders much as one predatory CEO views another: a rival in a zero-sum game in which every winner generates a loser.

As the authors of  Donald Trump: The Making of a World View point out, this view is not unique to Trump. They draw on the British historian D.W. Brogan, who during the campaign for the 1952 presidential election “observed widespread disbelief that there were areas of the world where America’s power did not extend… many Americans held to ‘the illusion that any situation which distresses or endangers the United States only exists because some Americans have been fools or knaves’.”

Donald Trump cleaves to this view. His concept of the American polity is a kind of creationist economics blended with New World idealism. It is a given that America is infinite in possibility and wealth: anything that derogates from that wealth must be the work of envious others. For Trump and the Trumpists, the old question is reframed: “how come if we are so rich, we are not rich?”

This helps explain not only the roots of Trumpism, but also its future. The  Republicans in Congress and US investors are hanging on to the hope that somehow Trump will deliver reforms to the US economy, will begin to rebuild America’s infrastructure, and will set business free. They can hang on as long as they like. Trump appears to have very little interest in such things. He is not driven by building a better future. He is motivated by correcting what he sees to be past injustices – with all accounts settled, and rightful owners reimbursed.

It is not difficult to see where things with Trump are heading. Republicans, even crackpot Republicans, tend to work on the conventional basis that investment leads to growth, which leads to greater wealth. The pact they have made – tolerate The Donald’s antics in return for higher profitability – is unravelling.

The cost of Trump is already high. The previous two presidents managed to pass very considerable legislation in the first six months of their first terms – Bush carried an enormous tax cut programme through Congress, while Obama introduced an economic stimulus of almost a trillion dollars. Trump has not passed any legislation whatsoever.

Two questions remain. The pragmatic one: when do the Republicans decide to cut their losses? And a more chilling one: what will Trump do in the meantime?

Richard Walker is a journalist and communications advisor to financial companies