Monday, April 17, 2017

The Trump Doctrine: Ask Not What You Can Do for Your Country. Ask What Your Country Can Do for The Trump Brand.

A number of recent articles have attempted to articulate a "Trump Doctrine." Steve does not think it is all that complicated...

You have to hand it to the writers of The White House Apprentice. They have jammed more plot twists into their first ten weeks than Lost had in six full seasons. Indeed, it's too bad that someone already used the title “Lost.”

In this week’s episode, Donald Trump fully reversed himself on just about every single thing that he appeared to believe way back in, uh, last week. Historians will no doubt come to refer to the first ten weeks of his Presidency as the B.S. era (that is, Before Syria), and he now appears to be in a transition period that future Schlesingers will no doubt refer to as his embrace of weapons of mass confusion.

Last week Putin was his friend, China was an insidious, inscrutable currency manipulator that should be able to easily handle its petulant kid brother North Korea, Syria was some country in the Middle East that he wanted no part of, Steve Bannon was Trump’s dark lord and master, NATO was obsolete, the Export-Import Bank was about to be deported, and Janet Yellen had her resume on the street.

In seven days, each of these positions has been lifted, spun, and landed precisely 180 degrees opposite of where they had been. Dorothy Hamill, Nancy Kerrigan, and Michelle Kwan combined would have had a tough time pulling off more triple axels in a single week.

The White House Haul of Mirrors began with Trump’s stunning about-face on intervention in Syria. Only days before Secretary of Oil and once-believed extinct tyrant-assurer Rex Tillerson had announced that removing Assad was “up to the Syrian people,” which is sort of like saying that revitalizing the coal industry is “up to the coal miners.” It would be hard to send a more unambiguous statement of purposeful neglect, weary disdain, and contemptuous disinterest.

Then, of course, Donald Trump turned on his television, and finally saw what pretty much everyone else in the world already knew: Assad hideously murders his own people at a prodigious rate, occasionally varying his methods to include chemical weapons.  

59 Tomahawk missiles later, Trump enjoyed a brief refractory period during which politicians and journalists praised his Syrian airstrike as if he had actually accomplished something beyond a nifty PR coup at the expense of US taxpayers. 

As fate would have it, Trump was entertaining Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago when he ordered the missile launch.  Trump would later relish telling Fox Business News’s Money Honey Maria Bartiromo that he and Xi Jinping were enjoying “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake” when the bombs started flying.Unfortunately, as Donald retold the tale of the cake to Bartiromo, he said that those missiles were “heading to Iraq.” Yes, Trump really did forget which country he had launched a missile attack on. 

In what is becoming a familiar pattern, Trump had a perfectly pleasant meeting a major world figure and suddenly everything changed. Everything. China – the country that Trump once said was “raping” the United States through currency manipulation – was no longer a currency manipulator. Xi Jinping would  spend a mere ten minutes – literally ten minutes, by Trump’s own measure -- explaining the history of relations between China and Korea to Trump, and Trump suddenly changed his tune and began talking about how challenging and difficult it will be for China to help us contain Kim Jong-Un.

Trump’s new found bromance with Xi Jinping came at a particularly convenient moment, as his long-distance love affair with Vladimir Putin had just scored a double-frown emoticon.

Putin pointed out that the United States does not exactly have an unblemished track record of proving that nations in the Middle East actually possess and use Weapons of Mass Destruction before showering them with shock and awe. When Trump’s team countered with claims that they possessed intelligence that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Assad was directly responsible for the last week’s chemical weapons attack, the Russians dismissed the evidence as if it were a tweet alleging that Barack Obama had wired tapped Trump Tower. Give Putin and Assad credit for learning from the master. It appears that the fastest growing U.S. export under the Trump administration is fake news.

In a week with flip-flops large and small, the final doozy was seeing Steve Bannon in uncontained free-fall, much like the scene at the end of Star Wars when Darth Vadar’s space craft whirls wildly off into space, damaged but not destroyed, ominously leaving the door open for the inevitable sequel.  Bannon’s banishment appeared to represent closure on the internecine holy war between the “White House Democrats,” led by Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, and Bannon’s one-man brand of radical anti-government vigilantism. 

The victory of Kushner over Bannon has been explained a number of ways, but all are deficient. 

Some view it to be the triumph of a more centrist realpolitik over hard-right politics of small government, minimal regulation, isolationism, and radically reduced government. Yet Trump’s positions on the Muslim ban, illegal immigration, and most pointedly climate change are still on the far edge of Bannonism. 

Some argue that Kushner’s ascendance and Bannon’s fall is simply a tale of an increasingly sagacious Trump learning that the running for office is different than running the government. This, however, would imply that the guy who wakes up at 5:00 a.m. on Sunday morning with an urgent need to spout utter bullshit on Twitter is capable of nuanced insight into the difference between campaigning, governing, or, for that matter, masturbation. Don’t buy it.

When in doubt, it is always wise to opt for the simplest possible explanation, and in the case of Donald Trump, only the simplest possible explanation is even worth considering

The simplest explanation is this: Kushner is in and Bannon is out because Kushner’s advice is making Trump look good, and Bannon is out because Bannon’s advice is making Trump look bad. We have elected a President who truly cares only about one thing: how he is personally perceived. If you make him look good, you have a job. If you don’t, you are history.

Steve Bannon has been behind some of the most egregious failures of Trump’s shockingly inept first three months as President. 

  • It was Bannon who urged a rapid vote on healthcare in order to force House Republicans to go on the record about whether or not they supported the Republican healthcare initiative. Bannon intended to use the vote to develop an “enemies list” of House Representatives to “primary” in the mid-terms. The Freedom Caucus humiliated Trump by calling his bluff. 
  • Bannon urged that nothing be done about Assad's use of chemical weapons, based on his uncompromising interpretation of "America First."
  • It was Bannon’s people who attempted to manufacture evidence to support Trump’s allegation that Obama had wire-tapped the Trump campaign. The ensuing farce – in which the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee was revealed to have been played like a lapdog – shattered the reputation of Congressman Nunes, requiring him to recuse himself from the very investigation he was charged to lead.
Bannon proved himself inept, and demonstrated that he cared more about his extremist  right wing principle than Donald Trump’s personal brand. Big mistakes. 

Three strikes and you’re out. What did Trump do? You guessed it. He went to Jared!

Jared Kushner, on the other hand, has been around his father-in-law long enough to understand that the only thing that matters in Trump’s decision-making is what will make Trump personally look good. 

Kushner’s standing surged with the apparently successful Mar-a-Lago meet-and-greet with Xi Jinping.

Kushner, interestingly, was AWOL on a skiing vacation during the healthcare fiasco. Perhaps Kushner was just savvy enough to see a train wreck coming with no survivors.

But Kushner’s real coup, however, was to be on the side of those advocating a military response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. Don’t kid yourself that Kushner or anyone else in the White House argued for that military strike based on a position of a moral high ground.  Or, for that matter, that anyone believed that the national security of the United States of America was at risk. 

No, the military strike was a PR bonanza for the Trump brand. End of story.

In a single stroke, he could be seen as a macho Commander-in-Chief restoring America’s reputation for tough, fast action. He had a clear shot to spank one of the world’s most evil dictators for an action of unspeakable cruelty.  Most important of all, as his Presidency remains enshrouded in a cloud of suspicion that he colluded with Russia to influence the U.S. election, the military strike allowed him to be seen taking a hard line with Vladimir Putin. At a time when the very legitimacy of Trump’s Presidency rests in a cozy web of connections to Putin’s government, being seen as being highly adversarial with Putin was just what Brand Trump needed. 

There has been plenty of specious talk about a “Trump Doctrine” lying somewhere beneath his flip-flops, ill-conceived initiatives, and poorly-implemented orders. There are commentators who try to make a virtue of his alleged "flexibility," or argue that his lack of a guiding philosophy should be viewed positively... that he does not allow dogma to dictate rigid positions. Puh-lease.

If there is an underlying principle here, it is that Trump values lying over principle. The real Trump Doctrine is transparent: Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what your country can do to help the Donald Trump brand. 

It has been all-too-painfully clear that history – either in the form of centuries of human knowledge, or simply in terms of what the White House believed last week – is of absolutely no relevance to this President as he makes decisions of profound global consequence based on whether they will score a bump in his ratings. It is merely a question of "what feels right" for the Trump brand in the immediate moment.

It appears equally true that decisions are made with little or no forethought about their consequences... what they might mean five minutes, five days, five months, or five years from now. After the missile attack, Vladimir Putin warned Trump not to strike Syria again. Did his people fail to anticipate that reaction? What does that mean if  Assad decides to gas more innocent people? That we will get more deeply involved in Syria, and risk a direct confrontation with Russia? Or that next time, we will simply turn away? Did anyone at the White House think that one through before activating the launch codes? 

Now, all eyes turn east to the building crisis in the Korean Peninsula. 

We have a woefully under-educated, impulsive, and instinctively aggressive American President on one side of the 38th parallel, and an immature, explosive, and instinctively insecure child tyrant on the other.  Ten million people live in Seoul, 35 miles from the demilitarized zone, in easy striking distance of conventional weaponry. If ever there was a time when we need cool heads, deep knowledge, consideration of a full range of options, the collective input and support of global leaders, and extreme caution with military force, this is it.

Instead, we have a son-in-law whose expertise appears to be that of a senior brand manager, working for a President whose only criteria in decision making is whether something is good for Trump or bad for Trump.

Ask not whether this President is here to serve our country, ask only whether he thinks the country is here to serve him.  

The answer is already clear, and it's called the Trump Doctrine.


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