Wednesday, April 05, 2017
In the Time of Trump: The Revolt, the Revolting, and the Revolution
Last week I spoke at a luncheon for The American Club in Paris at the elegant Cercle de l’Union Interalliée a couple of doors down from the U.S. ambassador’s residence and the French president’s Élysée Palace.
Drawing on articles I have written over the last six months, I tried to bring into focus developments in the United States and Europe. What follow are my notes. The talk itself was a little more amusing thanks to some off the cuff remarks and a very lively audience.
Happy to see an enemy of the people like myself can still find a forum like this. …
Klaus Schwab, the man who gave us Davos, that literal summit of globalization, could see 25 years after it started—and now more than 20 years ago—that something had gone badly wrong.
Indeed, Schwab was the ultimate Cassandra, warning of doom only to discover nobody would act on his prophecies when he predicted way back in 1996 in a piece he co-authored for the erstwhile International Herald Tribune that ran under the headline “Start Taking the Backlash Against Globalization Seriously.”
Twenty-one years later, it reads as if it were written yesterday.
Schwab warned that in many industrial democracies the mood was “one of helplessness and anxiety, which helps explain the rise of a new brand of populist politicians.”
(Kind of gives you a chill when you hear that, no?)
The “lightning speed” at which capital moved across borders, the acceleration of technological changes, the rapid evolution of global marketing and management requirements—all strained the existing system “to a breaking point,” said Schwab.
“This is multiplying the human and social costs of the globalization process to a level that tests the social fabric of the democracies in an unprecedented way.”
(And this was before the rise of terrorism and the endless wars of this new century had begun to strain that fabric as well.)
“Until now,” Schwab wrote in 1996—let me repeat, more than 20 years ago— “it was conventional wisdom that technological change and increases in productivity would translate into more jobs, higher wages. But in the last few years technological changes have eliminated more jobs than they have created.”
(This was just as NAFTA was getting into gear; just as Europe was about to launch its single currency.)
“It becomes apparent that the head-on mega-competition that is part and parcel of globalization leads to winner-take-all situations,” wrote Schwab. “Those who come out on top win big, and the losers lose even bigger. The gap between those able to ride the wave of globalization … and those left behind is getting wider at the national, corporate, and individual levels….
“The way transnational corporations have to operate to compete in the global economy means that it is now routine to have corporations announce new profit increases along with a new wave of layoffs,” as Schwab noted.
“Some estimates put at 3 million the number of layoffs since the end of the 1980s in the United States, and more are expected,” said Schwab before penning a line to be remembered:
“It is no consolation for a laid-off employee to hear analysts explain how the re-engineering of which he is a victim will help his former employer prosper.”
“Public opinion in the industrial democracies will no longer be satisfied with articles of faith about the virtues and future benefits of the global economy,” he wrote. “It is pressing for action.”
Schwab’s recommendation was to set national priorities: training and education, overhauling communications and infrastructure, developing policies that gave more incentives to entrepreneurs, and adapting social policies to protect those who lose out. Corporations, too, would have to make sure the “free market on a rampage” did not become “a brakeless train wreaking havoc,” he wrote.
Some of that happened. But not much. Not nearly enough. The doom of Davos Man that Klaus Schwab warned of finally arrived 20 years later, and with names attached to it: like Brexit and, of course, Donald Trump.
Not so long ago—a little over a year ago—conventional wisdom among the caviar and Champagne crowd slip-sliding around Davos streets was that Trump’s fledgling candidacy was a hiccup, or maybe a belch, in an otherwise healthy American democracy. The Clintons were familiar faces at Davos; Hillary’s victory seemed assured, and she could be counted on for a steady hand at the global helm. By the beginning of this year, they discovered the hand that will be there spends long nights typing truculent 140-character capital-letter missives onto a cell phone.
The net result is that global leaders are looking elsewhere for a stable anchor in a stormy world, and the countries that are stepping forward are China—Xi Jinping gave the keynote at Davos this year—and Russia, which is at once doing everything it can to undermine stability in the West, while also offering itself as a model.
THE REVOLTING, which is to say the present president and the people around him:
In the dark early hours before dawn on November 9, President-elect Donald Trump sounded like he wanted to put back in their grimy boxes the scabrous demons that candidate Trump set free on the American landscape. (Hmmm, that’s pretty purple prose…)
Speaking to his ecstatic supporters, he praised his crushed opponent’s service to her country and said it was time to “bind the wounds of division.” And one hoped for a moment that maybe, just maybe, he could do that.
Inside the United States, he had a mandate. He had the House and Senate. He had no discernible ideology to constrain him. He had considerable room to maneuver—and to moderate his positions. He had no obligation to meet the ugliest expectations of some of those, like the Ku Klux Klan, which supported him.
We have seen already how disappointing his leadership has been domestically. The health care debacle is just the beginning. His signature promises to the American people—huge infrastructure projects among them—will be, it is now clear, virtually impossible for him to deliver.
And we are just beginning to get a hint of what’s in store for the great wide world, a much more complicated, more unforgiving, and ultimately much more dangerous place than he seems to realize—dangerous like nuclear war is dangerous; dangerous like terrorism and guerrilla quagmires are dangerous; dangerous like a global recession or even a depression is dangerous.
Trump is first, foremost and always a businessman, and he sees world affairs as simple transactional matters. “We will get along with all other nations willing to get along with us,” he told the crowd in his victory speech. “We will always put America’s interests first, but we will deal fairly with everyone. We will seek common ground, not hostility, partnership not conflict.”
So he will build his famous wall, and he will make his "partner" Mexico pay for it? Not likely. Mexicans, after the initial shock of Trump's election, now expect this construction project will get bogged down in bureaucracy and funding issues—which is likely. And there certainly is less enthusiasm for it in the fiscally conservative Republican Congress than there was at Trump's rallies.
Given the backdrop of Trump’s earlier campaign rhetoric, dictators around the world will know how to read that phrase about getting along with all other nations willing to get along with us: The new president of the United States, a pure pragmatist, does not care about human rights, or women’s rights, or seemingly intangible (to him) climate change. Not his business. Not our business. He just wants to make deals when those suit him and, oh, by the way, tear up past agreements—on Iran’s nuclear program, on free trade, on climate change—if they don’t. That’s the way he always did business, and that’s almost certainly the way he’ll try to continue to do statecraft.
The author of The Art of the Deal, after all, thinks he’s a genius at this stuff. (One might hope, and one surely will be disappointed.) He even thinks Russian President Vladimir Putin called him one. (He didn’t.)
But it’s clear already that Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and assorted ruling thugs around the world are rejoicing at the prospect of dealing with an American president who’ll make no moral demands, while they outmaneuver him at every turn. After all, nobody is easier to bamboozle than a fool who thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room.
While Trump talked about Americans’ dreams in his victory speech, his campaign did much to destroy what the rest of the planet thought of as the American Dream: a nation conceived in liberty and lighting the way to freedom for oppressed peoples around the world.
There may always have been a heavy measure of hypocrisy in that picture, but without it, as a purely transactional player on the world scene, America is just another nation among many. And for the traditional European establishment, that’s hard to fathom.
American troops fought to liberate their people from Nazism, helped them rebuild with the Marshall Plan, organized a bulwark against Soviet communism. And the Europeans themselves have fought for seven long decades to rise from the ashes of populist nationalism that tore the Continent apart in World Wars, slaughtering whole generations of its children. As a consequence, these traditional Europeans have reacted with special horror to the election results in the States.
That was evident in the headlines right after the election.
“President Trump Gives Hatred the Semblance of Legitimacy,” declared the headline on a major Dutch paper, Volkskrant. The website of Business News Radio called Trump “The Duterte of the U.S.,” alluding to the populist president of the Philippines who’s unleashed a gruesome wave of vigilante killings in his country.
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Germany’s Zeit headlined, “The Calamity”: “Donald Trump for a long time was just a bad joke. Now he will be president. The world should be afraid of what this unpredictable man will come up with next.”
What establishment Europeans feared and fear, without question, is that Trump would inspire and invigorate growing populist movements, from the Brexiteers to Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands—people who are bent on dividing and destroying the union of European nations as it exists.
France’s right-wing—I love this catalogue description—France’s right-wing anti-immigrant, anti-euro, anti-EU, pro-Russian, anti-American, pro-Trump Marine Le Pen tweeted congratulations to Trump on his victory even before he’d given his speech. UKIP’s Nigel Farage, Wilders, and others were not far behind.
President Putin, too, was quick to congratulate President-elect Trump, and in a statement “expressed confidence that the dialogue between Moscow and Washington, in keeping with each other’s views, [will meet] the interests of both Russia and the U.S.”
Ergo, under Trump’s transactional policies Russia expected the United States would ease or end sanctions imposed against Russia to punish it for annexing Crimea and fueling the civil war in Ukraine. (And maybe there will be cooperation in Syria—but we’ll come back to that.)
In Kiev, the mood can be described simply as “unmitigated disaster.” But in Moscow, as the American results came, in the mood grew euphoric. Political activists and aides to members of the Russian parliament, including members of the far-right Rodina party, gathered at a pub to watch the results on CNN. “America has elected Trump!” the screen announced. “Yes!!!” they shouted, then broke into the kind of cheer you hear at soccer matches: “Olé-olé-olé-olé—Russia forward!”
In China bureaucrats were confident the new American president is no match for them. Indeed, it was reported that one senior official could barely suppress his grin as he told Foreign Policy, “We can handle Trump.”
One of the agreements Trump has said repeatedly he wants to tear up is the one with Iran freezing its nuclear program and preventing it from developing atomic weapons for years to come. Although the arrangement reopened Iran’s economy and unfroze billions of dollars of its assets, Iranian hardliners have not been happy with the nuclear constraints, nor with the impression promoted by their reformist rivals that Iran can get along easily with Washington.
How might Trump scupper the accord? Some of the hawks around him may still think the best way to proceed is to threaten war, and then wage it if necessary. But Trump, so proud of saying he was against the Iraq invasion (whether he was or not) is not likely to go along with that scenario.
“Republicans in Congress will now be able to kill the deal by imposing conditions and penalties that would cause Iran to walk away and the rest of the parties to blame the U.S.,” my longtime friend Valerie Lincy at IranWatch told me.
Even to begin to try to get a new agreement, if that truly is the objective, Trump’s going to have to have strong international backing for new sanctions and pressure.
“If he’s rash,” I was told by an Iran expert here in Europe with extensive ties in both Tehran and the U.S., “he’ll just break the deal, thinking that’s enough to take the world with him. Wrong.”
Trump seems to forget that Russia and China are on the U.N. Security Council, and are much closer allies of Iran than they are of the United States. Obama worked for years to bring them on board. They’re not going to dance to Trump’s tune soon, or ever.
And it may well be the Iranian leadership will move no further, and will restart its nuclear program. What then? One can only guess.
In some negotiating situations, having an unpredictable leader might be thought helpful, as Richard Nixon imagined when he pursued his “madman” strategy with North Vietnam to convince Hanoi there was almost nothing he would not do. But in the end, as we know, that didn’t turn out so well.
In the Cold War, of course, there was also the MAD policy—Mutually Assured Destruction—but we run the risk under the current administration of SELF-destruction. [SAD!-Self Assured Destruction-someone chimed in from the audience.]
Which brings us to the threat of Al Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State. The art of the deal is not especially useful when confronting fanatics inclined to behead or immolate anyone who fails to follow their rules. And Trump’s actions thus far do not give him or us much insight into how he might construct an approach dramatically different from the faltering policies of the Obama administration. To the extent that we have heard and seen policy shifts, they promise to be in almost every case counterproductive.
Certainly that is true of the ones pushed by the ideologues who have had Trump’s ear.
Of course I am thinking of Stephen Bannon.
Europe was, well, amazed when it discovered Bannon in the wake of the Trump victory.
A French cable television report on Bannon made him look like one of the winos living on grates in Paris, and compared Trump’s grizzled éminence grise and newly-named White House chief strategist to Adolf Hitler’s propaganda chief Josef Goebbels.
Never mind the citations of rampant sexism on Bannon’s pseudo-news service, Breitbart. All he had to do was say he’d like to expand Breitbart’s operations to France and allude to Marion Maréchal-Le Pen as “the new rising star” on the French version of the alt-right — I love the French term for the alt-right — the fachosphere — and Marion started gushing on Twitter … in English.
Interestingly, Bannon did not mention Marine Le Pen, the 48-year-old woman who turned her father’s fringe right-wing party, the National Front, into the most dynamic and aggressive political force in the country.
Bannon talked about “the Le Pen women” generally, as if there were so many, and then focused on the comely Marion, a member of the French parliament who is only 26 years old and has the xanthachroidal allure of a younger Ann Coulter or Laura Ingraham.
(I love the word xanthachroidal. It sounds so alien! Like, “The Attack of the Xanthachroids!” In fact, it means blonde.)
Anyway, there is a kind of blond obsession on the far right. Have you noticed the changing spectrum of the president’s dye-job? Must be something in the air, l’esprit du temps, as they say.
Bannon’s support for European far-right parties runs far deeper than his interest in Marion Maréchal-Le Pen or the National Front. He brags about his international Breitbart operation as “the platform” for the American alt-right, and has for years been thinking globally, with an affinity for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), Alternative for Germany (AfD), and the Party for Freedom (PVV) in the Netherlands, all of which earned glowing coverage on the pages of Breitbart.
But the election of Bannon’s man Donald Trump as president of the United States seemed to make the “globalization” of Breitbart and its message infinitely more plausible than it ever was before, and politicians once considered Europe’s deplorables have been rushing to bask in the gilded glow of Trump and Bannon.
You’ll recall that Britain’s Nigel Farage, whose blatant and acknowledged lies helped convince his countrymen to opt out of the European Union in the Brexit vote, was the first “world leader” to visit the president-elect in his eponymous Fifth Avenue tower.
Farage emerged from the meeting looking like he’d just won the jackpot at one of the pre-bankruptcy Trump casinos, suggesting that the new president’s “inner team” was not too happy with Tory Prime Minister Theresa May, since she’d been skeptical of Brexit before the vote. Would that “inner team” be Bannon? In our post-factual world, maybe we can say, “People say…” and people might even think it’s true.
Breitbart, which currently has operations in London and Jerusalem, certainly has had plans to expand in France and Germany with new bureaus to cultivate and promote the populist-nationalist lines there.
That’s more than a little bit disturbing, considering that Bannon was openly influenced by Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks, as technicians of revolution, and also – the is less well known - by Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl, who rose to prominence as, yes, a blonde bombshell before producing such masterpieces of propaganda as “Triumph of the Will.”
But again, the Trumpian zeitgeist – and the taste the president and his men have for dyed blondes - makes us digress.
How has the Bannon program been working?
Actually, not so well.
No European right-winger has been identified so closely with the Trumpkins as Geert Wilders in The Netherlands (who dyes his hair blonde, by the way).
He even tapped into Trump’s trademark slogan. “We will make the Netherlands great again,” he liked to tweet, adding: “I will give the Netherlands back to the Dutch because the Netherlands is our country.”
“Everywhere democratic revolutions are underway. They will drive the elites from power,” Wilders would say, his Twitter feed seeming to mirror Trump’s—or is it Bannon's?—at every turn.
Similarly, Wilders had no qualms about using the Kremlin’s RT television network to broadcast his message. In an interview with RT, Wilders said, “Politics will never be the same and what I call the ‘patriotic spring’ is an enormous incentive. What I say to the Europeans is, ‘Look at America, what America can do, we can do as well.’”
But the Netherlands did not vote Wilders into power, and did not even give him the plurality he expected in Parliament.
And, it’s irresistible to note that the European leader most often compared to Donald Trump in terms of background and style is not in the least flattered by the supposed parallels.
Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is patently offended by the analogy. “Of course there are some similarities in that he is an entrepreneur who decided to use his expertise to help his country,” Berlusconi said of Trump. “But I have never opted for protectionist or isolationist policies that would hurt the country,” and “politics has taught me that people are not judged by programs, but by their behavior. Let’s see him at work.”
That’s a good idea. Because it will be based on his performance, not his tweets, that he will be judged. And the verdict is not likely to be a happy one.
THE REVOLUTION – Which is Something More than “Resistance”
I am afraid the critical test for Trump now and in the future is going to be how he deals with what we might call, broadly, political violence, including Islamist-led or inspired terrorism, but not only that. Once senses in the United States the stirrings of violent left-wing radicalism, some of it on the fringes of movements like Black Lives Matter, some of it more deeply hidden. There is also the danger of disillusioned elements on the right—Trump voters who realize eventually what a fraud he is, the extent to which he has played them for fools, and indeed betrayed them—taking out their frustrations on government and its representatives.
But, clearly, his blustering about Islam and ISIS was key to his campaign, and his success or failure dealing with it will be critical to support, or the lack of it, for his presidency.
To the extent we can discern a strategy abroad or within the United States, almost every step he has taken or talked about charts a pretty clear path to disaster.
In one week in January, Trump made the United States a much, much more dangerous place for the vast majority of its people—those who live in cities—and terrorists are exulting.
As the former head of Britain's MI6 intelligence operations, Richard Barrett, told the BBC “The narrative of the Islamic State is precisely what Mr. Trump appears to be confirming—that Americans are against people of Muslim faith, they particularly discriminate against them in favor of other people. So it is this 'them or us' type picture that the Islamic State promotes.”
The initial implementation of the Trump ban on refugees and visitors and immigrants and at first even green-card holders from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen was wildly confused. Travelers from those countries with previously valid visas have been stranded around the world. People fleeing religious persecution in Iran and seeking U.S. asylum—Evangelical Christians, Jews, and Baha'is—were turned back from Austria where they normally would wait, usually for many months, for clearance finally to reach asylum in the United States. (The echoes of the U.S. turning away a ship full of Jews fleeing Germany before World War II are not lost on historically minded Europeans, especially after Trump's White House issued a statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day that made no mention whatsoever of the six million Jews who died.)
One's head spins, which probably is part of the Trump strategy: distracting from distractions.
In the face of chaos the administration claimed the travel ban is "a massive success." The alt-right's alternate facts take shape as a whole alternate reality—although this corner of the funhouse eventually was torn down by the courts.
But many of Trump's critics, focusing on the evident racism and bigotry of his policies, are missing one vitally important point that is key to understanding not only his strategy but the danger it poses for the majority of the people of the United States: in the supposed interest of fighting terrorism, Trump is attacking American cities.
Or, more precisely, he is heedlessly jeopardizing the people who live in them and the way they live in them. And the security implications of this campaign are frightening.
In the real world, over the last 15 years American cities have gotten a lot harder for terrorists to penetrate and attack because federal and local law enforcement have come to understand and adopt some basic principles about working with, and sometimes monitoring, very diverse communities.
About 40 percent of the population of New York City—quarante pourcent— for instance, was not born in the United States of America. According to Trump’s rhetoric, including the language of his first refugee ban and immigration decrees, that ought to make his home town a hell hole. But New York has rarely been more at peace or more prosperous than it was before his election.
Thanks to Trump’s new policies, it is unlikely to stay that way, but clearly Trump does not care. The cities never voted for him, and they were never going to. Trump was running against the cities, and it seems they knew it. His promised investigation of voter fraud (remember that?) if it had happened, would have focused of course on urban areas. There is no doubt they are the reason he lost the popular vote by a massive margin.
As The New York Times pointed out just after the election, in Manhattan—Trump’s home borough in his home town and ground zero for his eponymous empire—he got a pitiful 10 percent of the vote. In Washington, D.C., his nominal new home, he got 4 percent. (I hear from friends in Palm Beach he’s not so popular there either.)
Trump’s campaign against the ravages of “globalization,” echoing similar campaigns in Europe, is essentially rhetoric that draws on the anger of people who feel they don’t fit in, or are being victimized, by the dynamic urban majorities in their own countries.
In every case, arguments of the rising demagogues are based on what Adrian Monck of the World Economic Forum recently called “nostalgic nationalism.” Its opposite, says Monck, is “cosmopolitanism,” an idea defined by Merriam-Webster as “having worldwide rather than limited or provincial scope or bearing.” But in American and European politics these days, as Monck puts it, “I don’t see many people sticking up for cosmopolitanism.”
Which would all be rather academic if the terror threat to Americans and Europeans were driven by the kinds of factors Trump has claimed to address: too much immigration, too many refugees, too many “sanctuary cities,” perhaps not enough torture.
But nostalgic nationalism is a very poor tool when it comes to keeping cities safe. Facts are much more useful.
As veteran counterterror analyst Brian Jenkins at the RAND Corporation points out, a study of all the post-9/11 terror attacks in the United States leads to the conclusion that the danger is posed by ideas not refugees, or, as Jenkins puts it, “inspiration, not infiltration.”
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If If Trump’s directives had been put in place the day after 9/11—that is, on September 12, 2001— they “would not have saved a single life,” says Jenkins.
By Jenkins’s count, 89 Americans have been killed in seven jihadist terrorist attacks since 9/11. [[[[[These include the 2002 shooting at LAX, the 2009 killing of an Army officer in Little Rock, Nidal Hasan’s 2009 shooting at Ft. Hood, the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, the 2015 Chattanooga shooting, the 2015 San Bernardino attack, and the 2016 Orlando attack (which alone accounts for 49 of the 89).]] This in a nation that has “an average of 15,000 homicides a year.”
And, this is important, not one of those terror attacks had any connection to a Syrian refugee.
“Most of the perpetrators were U.S. citizens,” Jenkins told me. “None were from the countries included in the directive. That is the prevailing pattern. Jihadist terrorists are not imported, they are manufactured in the United States. Inspiration, not immigration, is the problem we face.”
In 2008, when I was researching my book Securing the City: Inside America’s Best Counterterror Force—the NYPD, I was struck by the delicate balance that law enforcement had to strike between force and persuasion in an urban environment a complex as Gotham.
“A city is not an abstraction like ‘homeland,’” I wrote, “it is home, full stop, to millions of people. And if you live here, and are part of it, what would you be willing to do to defend it? What wouldn’t you be willing to do?
“The job of securing any big city seems at first glance almost impossible; the results obtained in New York almost a miracle. What’s required is an incredibly sensitive equilibrium among disparate and contradictory forces: coercion and finesse, political expediency and public interest; basic cop-on-the-beat police work and sophisticated intelligence gathering; respect for the law but a willingness to bend the rules; ostentatious spectacle and secret surveillance; lots of police on the street, but maybe a few outside the country, cooperation with federal agencies, but also competition.”
There is no indication that Trump understands any of those principles, and there is every reason to believe his executive orders and statements, item by item, will make that vital equilibrium harder to sustain.
Consider the threat to cut off federal funding to so-called sanctuary cities. Why do they exist? Why do big-city police commissioners support them? Not because they feel some moral obligation to protect undocumented immigrants, but because when you make crime-fighting police do the work of immigration agents, crime-fighting suffers: People do not report crimes, they do not cooperate with police, they avoid them at all costs.
In that same vein, when you make the point, as Trump has done with his orders and declarations, that all illegal immigrants eventually should be booted out of the country, that all refugees are suspect, and Muslims from seven countries—with more to come—should be regarded as a threat, what’s the message? That a minimum of some 11 million people in the United States, and possibly many, many more, have no stake in its future.
They are deemed outlaws.
But that does not mean they will leave.
It does mean they will become much easier prey for organized crime, which will promise them ways to survive and, yes, for terrorists who would encourage some of them to take revenge. We have seen in Europe how closely crime and terror are connected.
One of the factors that helps keep the peace in American cities is what’s called the American dream, which is based on an immigrant ethic—an immigrant ethic, not a “Protestant” ethic: the belief that a better world can be built in a land of freedom—and that it is tied to basic respect for human dignity.
That’s what has made America great. Period.
But Trump shatters that notion every day. One terrible and conspicuous example: his insistence that “torture works.” He wouldn’t name the “experts” who told him this, but it’s a fair guess they’re the little cabal of present and especially former FBI agents who saw defeating Hillary Clinton as a greater priority than investigating Russian hacking.
Meanwhile the professionals who might question such policies—people like the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Director of National Intelligence—are being squeezed out of White House councils.
All this breaks down the understandings that allow people to live together by the millions in peace and security in urban America. Trump's voters in small-town America and gated communities may be complacent, even pleased, about what he is doing. But they were never the ones at risk.
In effect, Trump has turned a famous phrase of Abraham Lincoln on its head. What we are saying to the world now, and a vast swathe of our own population, is that this administration has malice toward many, and charity for none.
That is morally reprehensible, yes. But more importantly, it is no way to keep the United States safe.
To understand Trump’s view of terrorism, and the way that plays out, one must understand first that he rules, and is ruled by, anecdotes.
Hard facts, which are hard to digest, do not work well for him. “I’ve seen that information around,” is his typical refrain. Or he saw “something” on TV or heard it from “somebody,” like, you know that thing that didn’t happen in Sweden last night. Or that thing about Obama bugging Trump Tower. And every time he draws on these spectral anecdotes—which is almost daily—he looks like the weak-minded tool of these nameless sources and their tweets. Or, to be more precise, like a witless rich guy in thrall to a smart, unprincipled intellectual con man like—not to put too fine a point on it—Steve Bannon.
You may remember what he said about Paris.
When Trump talked at CPAC a few weeks ago he made this statement in the midst of his usual onanistic oratory:
“I have a friend, he’s a very, very substantial guy. He loves the city of lights, he loves Paris. For years, every year during the summer, he would go to Paris, was automatic with his wife and his family. Hadn’t seen him in a while. And I said, Jim, let me ask you a question, ‘How’s Paris doing? ‘Paris? I don’t go there anymore, Paris is no longer Paris.’ That was four years—four or five years hasn’t gone there. He wouldn’t miss it for anything. Now he doesn’t even think in terms of going there.
“Take a look at what’s happening to our world, folks. And we have to be smart. We have to be smart. We can’t let it happen to us.”
Was Trump thinking about the terrorist attacks of 2015? Guess not. Those were long after Jim Whatshisname supposedly quit going to Paris.
Was it taxes? One can imagine that would be the case if Jim were not just a visitor but a resident, but, no, that’s not what it sounds like. Was it a heat wave in the summer? Air conditioning’s not great in France, and the world is getting warmer. But, no, probably that wasn’t it either.
So what was it? We won’t get an answer because there probably isn’t one. Anecdotes are like that. As the ironic old adage of the news business goes, they’re “too good to check.” And Trump, who has the attention span of a restless eight year old, but without as much curiosity, wouldn’t see a need to verify the information in any case.
There’s something more at play here, however. Because Trump, who knows nothing about France, is pushing an agenda and promoting politicians there, thanks to Bannon, who will be hugely destructive to France and to the future of the European Union as a peaceful, cooperative enterprise.
Bannon’s public utterances and occasional appearances on stage, as at CPAC, are reminders that he’s playing what he figures is a great intellectual game with this orange-haired Barnum as a front man. And a big part of that game, for Bannon, is to destroy the social contracts that have developed in Europe over centuries of blood, sweat, tears, and more blood—social compacts and compromises that have been admired and to some extent emulated by American liberals, especially when it comes to questions like health care and human rights. Bannon likes to posit the press as the “enemy of the people” and himself as the enemy of “the state,” especially that European kind of polity and policy.
Thus when Bannon talks about the “Trump” revolution, he says it’s about “the deconstruction of the administrative state.” Interesting turn of phrase that, using the term “deconstruction” popularized by the late French philosopher Jacques Derrida and banalized (banalisé) by academia ever since. What Bannon meant by it, one presumes, is not just dismantling (which would be the usual American word) but a whole new and fluid conception of what the state is and what it does.
This would be amusing if we were bullshitting in a bar. Bannon’s very smart. But these conversations are ones he’s able to have in the White House with a man who may think deconstruction is what happened to the elegant old Bonwit Teller building before he built Trump Tower on top of the rubble on Fifth Avenue.
As for “Jim” and his alienation from Paris, let me say as someone who has lived in that city for almost 30 years: it does have its problems. It’s not as pristine as it once was. And it was shocked by the terror attacks of 2015, sure, just as New York and Paris were shocked in 2001. But Paris is still the city of lights, not only because it’s brilliant at night, but in the sense of the Enlightenment: la ville lumière et la ville des lumières. If that makes Jim uncomfortable, the city can get along quite well without him. And if Bannon wants to come spend drunken evenings in the Latin Quarter telling us about deconstruction, that’s okay, too.
In fact, we’d much rather have him there than in the White House.