Trump: Dangerous or Just Plain Pathetic?

I seldom look for solace in someone’s incompetence, but in the case of President Trump his many deficiencies—that span from prehistoric executive skills to fundamental character flaws to psychological and emotional instabilities—may prevent him from achieving his fascist aims.  He is no Putin and the United States is no Russia.  Further, his detachment from facts and truth has severely compromised his credibility both at home and—especially—abroad. He appears to have the focus and navigational skills of a gnat in a windstorm, but I acknowledge this may be unfair to gnats (that always seem to survive such storms).

The chaos that is the White House today coupled with the cowardly political rapacity that plagues Congress, a Supreme Court stuck in a 4-to-4 standoff, and a Federal bureaucracy frozen between the twin pulls of passive aggression and career security, virtually assures that little will be accomplished, at least for now.  In the end, this may be the story historians tell of the Trump presidency: much smoke and little fire.  Noise without leadership is still just noise.  What is emerging now is less danger than a leadership vacuum; both are bad, but they also open opportunities for others to lead.  So, who will lead?  It won’t be the Supreme Court or the Federal bureaucrats; the first is not supposed to lead and the second is incapable (by design).  Congress may try, but my bet is it will devolve into a battle between dumb and dumber.  Leadership then, will come from beyond the Beltway in Washington, at the state, county and municipal levels.

We may end up owing Mr. Trump a debt of gratitude, if we use the peril he proffers as a call to organize and engage in a democracy we haven’t, as citizens, paid much attention to for the last forty-five years.  Since Nixon was shown the door and our draft cards became coasters, it has been easy to ignore Washington D.C.  The collapse of the Soviet Union and the dawn of the digital age contributed mightily to our collective withdrawal from national politics.  Apathy and complacency became natural and comfortable.  After all, who wants to spend time engaged with those who aspire to be politicians when we can turn the lens toward ourselves on the end of a selfie-stick?  Yes, Trump happened because of us, not in spite of us.

We have a choice: continue to wring our hands over the horrors of Trumpisms, or take advantage of the leadership vacuum and forge our own future.  We can wait and see, which gives Trump and Congress a chance to fill the void, or we can seize the moment.  The best and brightest are not found in our nation’s capitol, they are in our universities, small businesses, non-profits, and coffee shops.  They are old, young, born here and not.  They are the quiet ones who do not seek the spotlight.  Yet, they, you, are our future.  Are we Americans, or are we Trump?

By |2017-06-05T22:16:28+00:00February 21st, 2017|Donald Trump|0 Comments

Global Stewards or America First?

Although the word “unprecedented” was used constantly in 2016, and though there were many behaviors and statements made that were indeed unprecedented, what was going on—fundamentally—was not.  We do this to ourselves about every eighty years.  We renegotiate and redefine our answer to the question: What does it mean to be an American?

Toward the end of each American crisis (and we are nearing the end of the fourth American crisis) we define a new identity.  After the American Revolution that gave birth to our country, we identified as Land of the Free.  After the Civil War and Reconstruction, we became the Land of Opportunity.  After the Great Depression and World War II, we became Superpower.  Today, as we conclude this crisis—the War on Terror and Great Recession—we have a choice of new identities: Global Stewards or America First.

Global Stewards is the direction President Obama was taking us, and likely would have continued under Hillary Clinton had she been elected.  President Trump has proposed a nearly opposite identity in his inaugural address, America First.  Trump’s advocated new American identity has visceral appeal to many Americans.  It makes folks who feel left behind, or feeling suddenly dispossessed of their position in American social, economic, and political order, empowered, or at least comforted in the moment.  It taps resentment of government as its clarion call.  It is, however, a diabolical ruse intended to concentrate power in the presidency of Trump without regard to established American values or the rule of law.  It is profoundly dangerous.

America First is a fearful, zero-sum, win/lose, and isolationist future for America.  It puts America’s position in world order in peril by allowing other powers like China and Russia to move aggressively—both politically and economically—into Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.  It relies on deceit and divisiveness to exercise power over Americans for the benefit of the very few, represented most obviously in Trump’s selections for his cabinet.

Trump won the presidency not, however, by fear and anger, or even by Mr. Comey or Mr. Putin.  He won because too many Americans were complacent or apathetic.  Voter turnout and civic engagement operate at pathetic levels in America, but in a democracy you get the government you deserve.  Moving forward, many more Americans must take responsibility for themselves, their community, and their country if we are to transcend and defeat the mockery of American values President Trump represents.  We must unite and engage with a calm sense of profound resilience if we wish to protect the future of this great nation.

 

By |2017-06-05T22:11:05+00:00January 23rd, 2017|American Identity, Donald Trump|0 Comments

Power of the People

Ask any former living president, or read the dead one’s memoirs or presidential documents in the national archives, and you will find at least one thing they have in common: they came to understand their power was largely a function of the will of the people.  Yes, presidents do have specific constitutional powers, but without significant approval ratings they lose institutional support from federal bureaucracies and members of congress.  I expect our new president will become an historical touchstone for this reality. He enters office with the lowest approval ratings of any newly inaugurated president and those may prove to be the highest of his presidency. (See http://time.com/4636142/donald-trump-inauguration-polls-approval-ratings/.)  In the vernacular of Wall Street, he is a slam-dunk “short.”

That is not to say presidents don’t learn this and recover.  President Reagan, known to many as “the great communicator,” was keenly aware of keeping what he called “the common man” by his side throughout his presidency.[1]  He had polling, although it was fairly rudimentary by today’s standards, and he would even note in his diary how many people gathered on the sidewalks as his motorcade passed.  When the number of people who waved enthusiastically declined, he would take to television and give a national address, which were covered by the three big networks.  It worked.  Not only would the gears of government work for him, Speaker Tip O’Neill, his partisan nemesis in the House, had to make deals.

President Trump has neither the skills nor the temperament to manage this phenomenon.  140-character insults via Twitter will not endear him to the will of the people, nor has he surrounded himself (as other presidents have, including Reagan) with top-flight advisors and cabinet members.  Most, if not all of his cabinet picks are, at best, benchwarmers in the game of governing.  As attractive as ‘outsider’ status is during a campaign, it is crippling when the task of governing begins.  Just ask President Carter.

As I have written before, your future and the future of this country are in your hands.  And, although the challenge seems daunting at times, you and your family, neighbors and friends have the power.  (See https://www.indivisibleguide.com/web.)

Rejecting Trump at every turn will quickly degrade his power.  He will lose what I call referential power, critical to the support of those who actually make things happen.  I expect once Senator McConnell and Speaker Ryan get what they want from Trump, Mike Pence will be sworn in.  Pence may not be what many of you want, but probably no worse (and perhaps even better) than Trump.  And, 2020 will arrive before you know it.

[1] William Steding, Presidential Faith and Foreign Policy: Jimmy Carter the Disciple and Ronald Reagan the Alchemist, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), Ch. 6.
By |2017-06-05T21:49:07+00:00January 18th, 2017|Donald Trump, General|0 Comments

Trump’s Value-free Presidency

Good news (sort of)!  There will be something for everyone to like in the Trump presidency, decisions that comport with your own particular political disposition or interests.  Bad news: there will also be many things to dislike, and many more things—perhaps greatest in number—that will be just plain mystifying.  President Trump promises to be a one man wrecking ball who will dramatically expand the effects contemplated in Edward Lorenz’ chaos theory. (Butterflies beware!)  How can this be?  Why?  The answer resides in Trump’s cognetic profile[1] that is, by my assessment, completely devoid of a value system that assures coherent decision-making.

From weird, to weirder, to weirdest, off we go!  As columnist Gerald Seib suggested in his recent Wall Street Journal column,

It’s nearly impossible to identify a clear ideological bent in the incoming president’s early moves … the definitions of left and right, liberal and conservative, are being scrambled right before our eyes.[2]

Similarly, Christopher Buckley was asked to explain whether or not his father, the late William F. Buckley, would have considered Trump a conservative.  The son demurred, observing that

it’s difficult to discern any identifiable ideology, philosophy, or politics behind his curtain; instead, only an insistent, clamant narcissism that one hopes will come to an inflection point and re-purpose itself in the service of those who have installed him at the center of our democracy.[3]

Yes, “one hopes,” but my expectations follow a different maxim: take him at his word and plan accordingly.

So what are values and why are they important?  Values are the principles we embrace that are essentially our interpretations of concepts, norms, and ideas that allow us to simplify the world and make decisions.  In my development of cognetics, they act like a box of filters and impellers that sort out the myriad of variables we must consider to make decisions; some information is blocked while other information is sent forward for further consideration.  I further argue that without this set of values that allow us to reconcile dissonance in our world—too simplify it and make decisions—we would go insane.  It is unlikely Trump is insane (at least not in the clinical sense), but his many inconsistent incoherent statements and behaviors are precursors of insanity.  He is definitely on the spectrum, somewhere right of delusion and left of insanity.  The inherent pressure of the presidency—the volume and velocity of decision-making—will most certainly exacerbate this condition, pushing him further toward insanity and potentially even physical, emotional, and psychological collapse.

To be fair, many, including Trump himself, have suggested that he has clear values.  Suggestions include values like winning, money, his children, and especially himself.  However, these are not values.  Winning is an outcome, money is a means, and the others are, well, people.  They are not values; they are not durable interpretations that provide fundamental beliefs and convictions that predict future behaviors and decisions, which is why Trump can be confounding and appear reckless.  None of which is particularly concerning in his role as real estate developer and reality TV star, but when combined with the power of the presidency disaster is a near certainty.

Presently, Trump is best described as a conundrum.  Many have already recognized his recent decisions are a product of whom he spoke with last.  This presents problems in domestic affairs, but the most dangerous effects are in foreign affairs since other world leaders must (nearly always) consider what the United States, the world’s lone superpower, will do on an array of issues.  Trump’s value-free presidency increases risk in foreign affairs exponentially.  He has already declared his foreign policy will be “unpredictable starting now.”[4]  Misinterpreting what one state or another may do in an anarchic international system is profoundly dangerous, as we saw in the outbreak of violence that escalated into World War I.

Recently, Trump decided it was best to blow up our forty year-old “One China” policy by engaging directly with Taiwan.  Although as an isolated issue this may not appear to be dangerous (his supporters view it as enlightened and powerful), policies like One China comprise the foundation of stability in a unipolar, one-superpower, world.  Trump may never launch a weapon first, and his bluster may be confined by other realities, but other world leaders may act first, and violently, in anticipation of what he promises to be “unpredictable” behavior.

Sugar-free and gluten-free may be good for you, but buckle up, value-free is going to be one hell of a ride.

[1] See my explanation of cognetics in William Steding, Presidential Faith and Foreign Policy:  Jimmy Carter the Disciple and Ronald Reagan the Alchemist (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), p.3.
[2] Gerald F. Seib, “Trump Shuffles the Ideological Deck” in “Capital Journal” section, wallstreetjournal.com, 5 December 2016.
[3] Christopher Buckley, “What Would William F. Buckley Have Made of Donald Trump?,” Vanity Fair, 5 December 2016.
[4] See, Nick Wadhams, “Trump’s ‘Unpredictable Starting Now’ Foreign Policy,” Bloomberg, 5 December 2016.

 

By |2017-06-05T21:51:01+00:00December 6th, 2016|Donald Trump, General|0 Comments

From Hope and Change to Fear and Change: a Letter to My Children

There are certainly more questions than answers this morning after Trump’s stunning ascension to the presidency of the United States. I cannot recall a more troubling political outcome during my lifetime. As you know, I view Trump as an utter incompetent and vainglorious ogre. Trump has destroyed the Republican Party and has defeated the Democratic Party creating unprecedented political uncertainty in America and the world. The fundamentals of his support are, however, not surprising. The same yearning for change that swept Obama into the White House in 2008 gave us Trump today. The difference is Obama’s appeal was denominated in hope, while Trump’s is based in fear. When the voting data is analyzed I expect to see many Americans—especially white suburbanites and exurbanites—to have voted for Obama in 2008 and Trump in 2016. It seems weird, but it underscores just how fed up we all are with our political leaders and institutions.

In the short run, expect the uncertainty that swirls around a Trump presidency to produce a significant amount of economic, political and social stress. Trade, foreign policy, healthcare, the Supreme Court; there are many places to expect him to exercise his power in nefarious ways. But remember this, a president is deeply constrained by the institutions and markets that surround him and, in the case of Trump, by members of both parties who abhor him. And, America remains the most powerful and resilient nation in the world. We’ve had bad presidents before, but the creativity and perseverance of Americans has always survived.

In the long run, this may just accelerate the pathway I described earlier this year in my lecture, Is it Always this Weird? Trump’s missteps, which promise to be numerous, may actually cause Millennials (you) to get active and get organized, turning Trump’s “take our country back” slogan around to expel him in 2020. I still believe the cyclical trends I outlined in my lecture will hold; that we will evolve as a country from a “superpower” identity to one best described as “global stewards.” President Trump is a messy way to get there, but historical rhythms have a stubborn way of prevailing.

So, what to do? First, focus on your own physical, psychological, economic, and intellectual strength. Protect and strengthen those four cornerposts. Second, focus on the well being of your family and friends. Their welfare is your direct responsibility. Finally, get politically active and organized. Your generation has more voters today than mine. The reality, however, is that we vote and too many of your peers ignore this solemn duty. Do not allow my generation to continue to damage America. You have the power. Do not squander it through apathy or neglect. In the end, we all—individually and collectively—are responsible for Trump and what happens next.

By |2017-05-22T20:37:34+00:00November 9th, 2016|Donald Trump|0 Comments

The Reagan Echo: Donald Trump

In my forthcoming study of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, tentatively titled “The Disciple and The Alchemist,” I wrote about Reagan that,

He was a transcendent optimist—a spokesman-as-leader—who employed alchemy and soaring rhetoric to obviate contradictions.  He stood, as appropriate at any given time, near either Democratic or Republican mirrors to reflect and project his appeal through a libertarian prism, matching the prevailing mood of the electorate.  From the threat of communism, to fatigue of government intervention, to the embrace of an evil enemy, he knew how to change the angle of the camera and strike an appealing pose for his audience.

As I observe the improbable candidacy of Donald Trump for president today, I cannot help but hear echoes of Reagan’s appeal and alchemic modality.  And, the electorate seems to be just as depressed (or angry) today as it was in the latter stages of the Carter presidency.

The comparisons are eerie.  While Reagan espoused the “Gospel of Prosperity,” Trump promotes what David Brooks of The New York Times has labeled a “Gospel of Success.”  Meanwhile, Obama speaks of self-restraint and sacrifice the same way Carter spewed jeremiads of sacrifice-based redemption.  Like Reagan, Trump also believes in American exceptionalism based on overt power, projected for the benefit of Americans first.  Notwithstanding missteps, like Vietnam before Reagan, and Iraq/Afghanistan before Trump, for Trump Americans remain the chosen people in a chosen land, the new Israel.  Meanwhile, Obama, like Carter, tries to re-identify America as a force for moral good, waging humanitarian wars (Libya) and preferring cooperation to competition.  I can’t remember ever hearing Trump (or Reagan) utter the word ‘cooperation’.  Reagan’s Hollywood-styled past and Trump’s New York/Atlantic City slick-shtick (and multiple marriages) also place them in stark contrast to the Obama/Carter image of up-from-nothing populist purity.  Furthermore, I can easily see Trump reeling in the Religious Right the same way Reagan did with his “I know you can’t endorse me … but I can endorse you”; especially with either Palin or Huckabee at the bottom half of the ticket.

Trump has also taken a page out of Reagan’s early campaign playbook in his attempt to de-legitimize the President.  Reagan questioned Carter’s strength, patriotism, and decisiveness, while Trump has pounded the birther issue with the conviction of a Klansman.  Trump will easily get the angry white vote, and if he can co-opt the Religious Right (now Christian nationalists) with whitebread exceptionalism, he’s halfway there.  Trump’s next target will be to add the other half—fiscal conservatives—to his electoral coalition.  He’ll question Obama’s fiscal toughness in the face of huge deficits and the recent S&P outlook downgrade on US securities.  Trumps own fiscal follies will no doubt be recast as the scars of experience in a Hobbesian world.  He will ask the Reagan question: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” and will couple it with “Who would you rather have at the negotiating table, a nice guy, or a winner?”  He might even say to Obama: “You’re fired!”

Reagan’s appeal resided in its simplicity; he pulled on American’s sense of patriotism and desire to “stand tall” again.  He re-imagined America’s special destiny as a “shining city on a hill.”  In a complex world full of nuance and strange alliances—one that calls for an Obamaesque mind and demeanor—Americans may decide they’d just like to feel good again.  They may prefer illusion to reality.  If they do, Trump’s orangish hair (like Reagan’s) won’t matter.  Some say Trump’s anger will do him in; this may prove to be wishful thinking by Obama supporters.  After all, aren’t we all angry?  Trump should summon his inner Reagan, and Obama better not make the same mistake Carter’s advisors did when they hoped they would face Reagan on election day.

By |2017-05-23T20:12:33+00:00April 19th, 2011|Donald Trump|0 Comments