Thursday, February 9, 2017

There is no method in Trump’s madness

As we slowly come to terms with the fact that this isn’t a horrible nightmare and Donald J. Trump really is the President of the USA (God help America), the internet is full of journalists, bloggers and just everyone explaining all the clever tricks that Trump is using to consolidate power, distract us from the real issues and imitate Adolf Hitler. I’ve seen articles claiming that Trump has read all of the Führer’s speeches and is cleverly following the “Nazi playbook” outlined in Mein Kampf.

That would be an interesting trick: Mein Kampf was written more than ten years before Hitler seized power, right after the Munich Beer-Hall Putsch which ended when the putschists, led partly by Hitler himself, marched at random through the streets until they found themselves face-to-face with the army.

That’s one theory. The other current theory is that somebody else behind the scenes, almost certainly the man people are now calling “President Bannon”, is pulling Trump’s strings and making him do all that stuff.

If I were forced to choose one of those two positions, I’d go with the latter. Trump has never struck me as particularly intelligent, and I don’t think he is capable of strategic planning or political cunning. As if to prove this, a young commentator by the name of David Pakman has suggested that Donald Trump has very poor reading skills, and the evidence for that just keeps coming. This really does look like the Wizard of Oz model of government: we should be paying attention to the man behind the curtain.

I’m not convinced that this is the case.

But I would go further than that. I see people marvelling at the “clever” ways that Trump is manipulating us and the press, undermining confidence in the judiciary, gaslighting us into believing all sorts of fantasies and focusing our attention in all the wrong places, like a magician. But I don’t believe that at all: I don’t think Trump is deliberately doing any of that.

I used to think maybe he was. During the election campaign, when Melania Trump gave a speech that apparently plagiarized Michelle Obama, I was impressed. It was a tactic straight out of the pages of Donald’s book The Art of the Deal: it meant that for days afterwards, people were talking about Ms Trump in the same sentence as Ms Obama, getting people used to the idea of “First Lady Melania Trump”. A masterstroke!

But of course, Trump didn’t write The Art of the Deal, and David Pakman isn’t sure Trump has even read it. Perhaps — and this is just speculation — his ghostwriter simply watched how Trump does business, and organized his observations into a sort of instruction manual. It’s not that Trump is following this instruction manual: Trump is simply being Trump. His business practices are being retconned.

It’s a bit like asking a 100-year-old what the secret to a long life is. They’ll just tell you about some of their habits, whether it’s a bottle of gin a day or a strict vegetarian diet, but this is an example of “survivor bias”: they just got lucky, and happened to live to be 100 years old. It doesn’t mean their personal habits had anything to do with it: most likely, it was their genes, good fortune and decent healthcare.

If the decision to plagiarize Obama was deliberately intended to get us talking, it probably wasn’t Trump’s idea. If it was Trump’s idea, it was simply because, with his evidently poor literacy skills, he thought that Michelle’s speech was impressive and suggested his wife make a similar speech. Nothing more sophisticated than that.

It’s hopeless, I think, to look at Trump’s behaviour and try to discern a clever pattern: you will find one, but that’s thanks to our human ability to find clever patterns wherever we look. The reason Trump behaves like an ignorant, narcissistic bully given to temper tantrums is that he is an ignorant, narcissistic bully given to temper tantrums. It’s not an act.

But for the people who are really in charge — the usual suspects being Bannon, Miller, Pence, and possibly also Priebus — Trump is the gift that keeps on giving:
  1. He has no political skills whatever, and so has no way of understanding what’s being done to him.
  2. He isn’t even interested in politics, beyond the simplistic “build a wall and deport the illegals” philosophy he espouses, and so won’t be inclined to ask questions.
  3. His childish behaviour and outbursts can be safely relied upon to grab the headlines and cause outrage, leaving Bannon et al to get on with their work.
  4. As an extra bonus, he can be kept out of the way, happily occupied with milking the system for his own personal gain — which will be why he was allowed to pretend his family constitutes a “blind trust”.
  5. Unable — or at least unwilling — to read anything complicated at all, he will obediently sign anything that’s shoved under his nose.
This isn’t Trump’s cleverness at all: as deplorable as he is as a human being, I actually think he’s as much a victim of all of this as anyone else. He’s a useful idiot — and, I think, part of a panel of useful idiots that includes Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway and Betsy DeVos: all patently hopeless at their jobs, all the focus of media attention.

The way they are being deployed is actually very simple: let the idiots do their idiotic stuff and grab the headlines. Forget about all the complicated psychological tricks they’re supposedly using, the clever use of a particular word or a sophisticated tactic: none of that is planned. They’re just idiots, and they pretty much run themselves.

Take the current ruckus over the dozens of terrorist attacks the media allegedly didn’t cover. This started with an offhand comment Trump made during a speech; but I don’t think it was planned. I don’t think it was part of his speech: if we assume that he can barely read, it looks as if he reads out a sentence or two, then extemporizes a bit, before tackling the next sentence. It’s totally random.

So Trump simply vaguely aired a personal grievance, probably picked up from the likes of Breitbart or Fox News, and the media collectively went, “Wha...?” Back in the White House, somebody saw an opportunity, and quickly (very quickly, judging by the spelling mistakes) drew up a list of terrorist (and some non-terrorist) incidents culled from the web. Conway and Spicer were then armed with that list and sent out to talk to the press about it.

I am convinced there is no rhyme or reason behind Trump’s behaviour. It’s not, in itself, part of a plan. It’s just Donald Trump being Donald Trump, and it just by chance happens to be exactly what Bannon and his cronies need at the moment, and they are taking advantage of every opportunity as and when it arises.

1 comment:

  1. It hardly seems likely that someone who has risen to the top in three very competitive pursuits - the property business, entertainment and now politics - is not particularly intelligent or is "incapable of strategic planning" - whatever other faults he may have.