Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Trump Reveals What He Really Cares About, and It Is Not American Greatness

by Neil H. Buchanan

Why, really, is Donald Trump still running for president?  Many commentators have opined that he surprised himself with his success, that he was originally following the same strategy as the other no-chance candidates who were angling for something other than the presidency -- a cabinet position, a slot on Fox News, more book sales and higher speaking fees, and so on.

In this telling, path dependence now finds Trump almost a victim of his own unexpected momentum.  He might well know, deep inside his addled brain, that he has no business being president.  In fact, he might not really want the job, but he is too proud now to walk away.  Besides, his ego will not allow him to give up on pursuing the greatest personal validation of all, becoming the leader of the most powerful nation on earth.

All of that might well be true, but if even if it is, the story is highly incomplete.  There is no good theory explaining why Trump says the outrageous things that he says, especially since so many of his statements are contradictory.  (Sometimes, even a single sentence will include opposing claims.)  Could he really be running for president while having no policy goals that he really cares about?

And if he has become besotted by the idea that he actually could win this thing, then it becomes even more difficult to explain why he would do the things he does that have caused his poll numbers to plummet, such as attacking a federal judge because of his ethnicity, or gloating about his purported ability to predict the Orlando murders.

The best explanation available, I suppose, is that Trump now refuses to change his approach to politics, because his instincts have taken him this far.  Why follow the advice of people who said that he would lose?  Again, there is something to that explanation, except that Trump has regularly backtracked on some of his more outrageous comments.  See, for example, his awkward repudiation of his assertion that women who get abortions should be criminally prosecuted, or his weird walk-back of his claim that the national debt can be renegotiated.

In short, almost everything that Trump has said and done seems to be contingent on little more than his mood, making the question about what he really wants to do as president all the more mystifying.  What does he really care about?

Trump's supporters appear to believe his claim that he will take the country back to its former greatness, no matter that he has never said how he would do that.  Trump's campaign has been a classic America-first sales pitch.

If American greatness were really his goal, however, he would view every issue through the lens of how it would affect the United States.  He would favor things that are good for us, whether or not they are good for anyone else.  And if something is good for us and bad for our rivals, then all the better.

This is why I was so surprised by Trump's positive comments about last week's vote in Britain to take the U.K. out of the European Union.  His comments -- which have already been widely mocked -- included the assertion that Brexit will "end up being a great thing."  The mocking of Trump, however, has mostly focused on his lack of awareness that he was speaking from a country -- Scotland -- that had voted strongly not to leave the E.U., that he was only there to promote one of his failing golf courses, and other eminently laughable aspects of his comments.

In my recent post lamenting the long-term political and economic dangers of the Brexit vote, I took only a few moments to mention Trump.  I noted: "If logic mattered at all, Trump should not care about that issue.  What, after all, does it have to do with making America great again?"  In the days since then, I have tried to put this question into a broader context, and the implications are even more worrisome than I initially described in that post.

Two of the countries that are have shown great interest in undermining the E.U. are Russia and China.  Although Trump has been rightly criticized for his positive comments about Russian President Vladimir Putin, that infatuation has seemed to be based on admiration of Putin's tough-guy style.  Trump before now has not actually said anything to indicate that he supports things that weaken the U.S. and strengthen Russia.  And Trump's list of supposedly anti-American threats always includes not just Mexico and Islam, but China.  China, after all, is the major country that Trump blames for stealing Americans' jobs, and whose goods Trump would tax heavily.

When Trump said that the Brexit vote will be "a great thing," he explained that "the people have taken the country back and there’s something very, very nice about that."  But again, what in Trump's avowed worldview should make that nice at all?  One group of non-Americans voted to harm themselves, based on unfounded fears about other groups of non-Americans who have moved into a country that is not the United States.  Even if it were not highly likely that this will end up harming the U.S. -- especially the struggling American working class that Trump is conning -- nothing about EU-UK relations should matter to Trump at all.

As I noted above, Trump has been notably inconsistent about his actual policy views throughout the campaign.  The only consistent aspect of Trump's candidacy to date has been unrelenting bigotry.  He has attacked immigrants, Muslims, and women.  When confronted, he raises the stakes rather than backing down.

And that thoroughgoing bigotry explains Trump's views on Brexit, too.  It is not just that some people somewhere have taken their country back from some unspecified outsiders.  No, it is older, angry, white people in England and Wales (who generally identify as Christians, although typically only in the nominal way that Trump himself claims to be a Christian) who acted on their fear and hatred of non-white, non-Christian people because their sense of superiority and power is threatened

If, by coincidence, it had appeared that the Brexit vote would somehow be good for the U.S., then we would not have been confronted with this moment of clarity.  But the closest allies of the U.S. will be harmed, and the countries that are the biggest threats to global stability have been strengthened by the chaos in Britain.  The U.S. will likely be harmed economically, but perhaps even more significantly, the foreign policy challenges facing the next president will now be immeasurably more difficult to navigate.

In short, if Trump really wanted to make America great again, he would have had every reason to repudiate the actions even of non-Americans who share his bigotry.  Why, from an America-first perspective, should people in this country suffer or sacrifice simply so that some non-American white people can have their way?

But Trump's candidacy is not, it turns out, devoted to the best interests of the United States.  When it came down to a choice between nationalism or bigotry, Trump's instincts told him to cheer for the bigots.  No one can say that he has been subtle about it.


egarber said...

I think when it's all said and done, the key similarity between Brexit and the rise of Trump is that both are populist movements *without actual leadership*. Modern political systems aren't pure democracies, so such populism runs into trouble when real policy problems have to be addressed. The call to arms can generate appeal during mob-style campaigns, but without qualified representative leaders, it's not ultimately suited to create anything but chaos.

This isn't to say populism per se is bad. It just has to work in conjunction with smart leaders; hollow caricatures of some vague aspiration won't cut it.

Neil H. Buchanan said...

Excellent point!! And as I will argue at length in a column and post very soon, the current leaders in the Republican Party are singularly incapable of providing the leadership that their nutcase base so obviously requires.