The Virtues of Donald Trump I: Calculating and Clever
One response to yesterday’s blog asked the following: Is it more useful to call Donald Trump a fascist because he espouses a contemporary form of ethno-nationalism intent on destroying the liberal state and its humane values even when he is disinclined to adopt military models and ideals or a coherent model and set of objectives? Is what he offers a new version of fascism given that he shares with the vintage version so many traits – demagoguery, the cult of the great leader, nihilistic messianism – especially since many of these traits are shared with the so-called neo-fascists plaguing contemporary Europe? I will come around to a more concise answer, but I first want to fill out Donald Trump’s character.
I could begin with his negative character flaws. For example, Donald has a propensity to demonize and not just defame the Other. I do not include Trump’s efforts to delegitimize because the counter-attack has focused on Donald Trump’s complete lack of qualifications in temperament, in track record and in experience to be a presidential candidate let alone president of the United States of America. I leave aside for now lack of experience and his rotten record in the conduct of his business pointed out by Michael Bloomberg in his speech at the Democratic Convention.
Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City for twelve years with at least ten times the wealth of Trump, a political independent and former Republican, called Donald a demagogue and con artist (as a New Yorker, Bloomberg could recognize one when he saw one), risky, radical and reckless, a hypocrite and a failure as a business man who left unpaid workers and contractors, naïve investors and sophisticated banks, licking their wounds in the wake of his business exploitation. Donald Trump, he declared, had a “well-documented record of bankruptcies, numerous lawsuits and a history of hiring undocumented immigrants.” Donald Trump, he could have declared, gives billionaires a bad name.
Instead of beginning with these and other smears, generally justified, on Donald Trump’s record and performance, temperament and character, I want to examine his purported virtues. Below, I list six, two c’s, two p’s and two s’s.
• Pushy – an unstoppable determination to see things through
• Promoter of tolerance of others, in particular, ethnic mixing (controversial!!!)
Critics may not agree with this list or the descriptors used, but I ask for the reader’s indulgence as I elaborate. Calculating when applied to a spread sheet may suggest accuracy, care and caution, but in the case of Donald Trump, a whole set of other characteristics are associated with depicting Donald Trump as calculating – more “c” words – crafty, cunning and conniving. They imply a man who is both shrewd and wily, devious and designing, ruthless and determined. In some circles, these are considered admirable traits. These are words that in the past were often used to stereotype Jews by anti-Semites.
How did I select and check the relevance of these descriptors? Reading journalist reports did not help. There are too few references to his virtues and certainly very few calling him calculating and clever, much to my surprise. I collected a ream of articles on Donald Trump and not one of them applies the words “crafty” or “cunning” or “conniving.” There were several references to his being shrewd in his business deals – he had “a shrewd aversion to staking his own money” and he shared with other wealthy successes in business – “they’re worth millions and billions of dollars…because they’re tough and they’re shrewd.” In the context, these are hardly insults or deprecatory comments. I distilled these characteristics, though not the terms, from the speeches of his children, acolytes and other supporters.
If you try to google Donald Trump’s name in association with a term like “calculating,” what you find is a long list of articles about how he inflates his wealth by a wily method of arithmetical calculation. The juxtaposition of hyperbole and calculation applied to spread sheets seems very similar to how we all put our best foot forward in presenting our net worth when applying for a loan or a mortgage, but perhaps nowhere near the nth degree taken by The Donald. The difference seems to be both at the level at which he operates and his enormous capacity for exaggeration.
However, there were a few references to his being calculating in the sense that I mean. The Washington Post had a piece by Dana Milbank when Donald Trump first appeared to have secured his place on the Republican ticket for president. It was about the Donald’s misogyny and his backing away from a time when he used terms like “slob,” “dog” and “piece of ass” to describe women. Milbank concluded that when he accused Hillary of playing the “woman card,” the attack was “rational” and “calculated” and that he was building an election platform on gender resentment.
John Cassidy wrote a piece in The New Yorker (9 May 2016) and asked the question, “Is Donald Trump a Flip-Flopper or a Wily Politician?” That was the last place in the article to read the term, “wily.” He was presented as a flip-flopper on the minimum wage – no increase, yes a needed increase, but left to the states – cut taxes and then flipped to raising taxes on the rich. But isn’t a flip-flopper just another name for a wily politician who changes his or her opinion to suit the shifting mood of the electorate?
Calculations in the arithmetic sense were used to accuse Donald Trump’s tax policies, little different than those proposed by Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. As a result, Trump’s plan was criticized for being “fiscally irresponsible, mathematically unsupportable, and extremely regressive” that would provide the bottom 20% with an extra average of $128 a year but the top 0.1% a tax benefit worth $1.3 million per year. Subsequently, Trump said that the rich would have to be taxed much more. Similarly, initially he objected to raising the federal minimum wage standard above $7.25 as that would be counter-productive and lead to a loss of jobs. Subsequently, he supported the need to raise the minimum wage, but insisted it was a state responsibility. Was Trump being calculating in the second sense and adjusting his policies to be more congruent with the public demand?
Want about his being clever? After all, how could he have accumulated so much wealth if he were not clever? A little over a year ago (27 July 2015), when Trump had already achieved a double-digit lead over his rivals, Bob Taylor wrote an article asking, “Donald Trump: Loose cannon or deceptively clever?” He referred to Wayne Allyn Root describing what Trump has done is to magnify the situation in America – “the unholy conspiracy between big government, big business and big media” – to the point that Americans no longer trust anything anyone says in Washington, regardless of political affiliation. His wealth gave him free reign to do his own thing independent of lobbyists and outside influences. Taylor wrote, “Americans simply want somebody to tell them the truth. Or, at the very least, the truth as a candidate honestly perceives it. Trump has done exactly that.”
But he has not. And he does not. And he will not. Railing against the establishment is not telling the truth or even telling the truth as Trump perceives it since it has been well demonstrated that he seems incapable of distinguishing a statement of truth from a lie. It may be that the establishment in both the Democratic and Republican parties neglected to attend to the needs of the middle class workers who have been disadvantaged by globalization. It may be that young people who made such a large part of Bernie Sanders supporters are burdened with too much educational debt and too few career opportunities in spite of the enormous numbers of jobs created since the Great Recession. These are situations that require analysis of the causes and proposed prescriptions to deal with the problems. Railing against the establishment – of which there are many different ones, often far from being in accord – is no substitute for hard attention to detail, careful and precise analysis and imaginative alternative proposals.
Taylor in his piece never directly answered the question about whether Donald Trump was “deceptively clever.” He did write:
Certainly, when the debate season begins, ratings will skyrocket for networks who broadcast the Republican talk-fests. Trump will be front and center with the headlines. In that sense he has become the Tiger Woods of politics. Realistically, Trump may be too much of a loose cannon to handle the daily crises that erupt during a presidency. For all of Barack Obama’s hesitation and “reviewing of situations,” Trump is 180-degrees the opposite, thus possibly making him too quick to respond. Certainly his business skills, like those of Mitt Romney, would be a boon to the American economy, but the question is whether Trump has the appropriate temperament to deal with global issues. One could easily see The Donald telling Vladimir Putin “You’re fired!”
With hindsight, particularly in light of Trump’s record a comments about Putin, and particularly his most recent ones over the last few days, Trump would be more likely to say to Putin, “You’re hired.” For Trump’s cleverness does not have to do with international affairs, but with attracting news coverage, with being the story of the day, with outflanking the Democratic Party in his appeal to older voters, particularly anti-establishment working class male voters in the rustbelt states. Rush Limbaugh insisted that Donald Trump was “quite clever” last week when The Donald invited Russia to hack into Hillary’s emails. It was a “masterstroke of political theatre.” For his provocative answer kept him in the headlines. His provocative answer proved that he would reply to any question thrown at him and dodge the bullets afterwards. Hi provocative answer succeeded in keeping the voters’ distrust of Hillary, especially for her handling of her emails, front and centre.
But why not turn to what Donald Trump says about himself rather than looking elsewhere? “I’m like really a smart person,” including the term “like” both as an inarticulate reflex as well as an unintended suggestion that, though he is not a clever person, he is similar to one in that he has a head on his shoulders and a brain in that head. But the similarity may stop there. For if he used that brain properly, he would not be so stupid as to walk around telling people how clever he is.
But he is not the only one to describe Donald Trump as clever. At the end of May, Kim Jong Un of North Korea suggested that Donald Trump was a very clever American and described him as a “sensible politician” and a “far-sighted presidential candidate” after Trump offered to directly talk to the North Korean dictator. After all, Trump suggested, wouldn’t it be nice to have friendly relations with Russia – and with North Korea and the Assad regime and all the other tin pot dictators around the world?
What about the rebuke to Khizr Khan and his wife that Donald Trump shot back at them after they appeared at the Democratic Convention as the parents of an American war hero and attacked Trump for his attacks on their co-religionists? “Has he not read the constitution?” Khan asked him as he offered to lend Donald his copy. Donald shot back that Khizr’s wife (Ghazala) just stood silently beside him and was probably “not allowed” to speak, throwing even more aspersions on Islam for their treatment of females. Surely, attacking a Gold Star mother must rank as the stupidest, or, at least, among the top of the heap of Trump’s asinine blurts. On the surface, it seems so counter-productive at the very least and demonstrates a temperament so apposite to one needed by and essential to a president who must not and cannot have a trigger finger. When the options are available, Donald Trump can always be counted on to respond with aggressive rhetoric rather than a gracious response.
So the Donald can be reasonably accurately described as calculatingly clever, not knowledgeable, not reflective, not deliberative, but driven by an instinct for the opportunity, a drive to take advantage of a situation and a magnificent belief in his own merits.
With the help of Alex Zisman