Implementing Economic Transactionalism in Foreign Policy Part I: Fear

Bob Woodward (2018) Fear: Trump and the White House, New York: Simon & Schuster

On the back cover of his latest tome, Bob Woodward quotes candidate Donald Trump: “Real power is — I don’t even want to use the word — fear.” In a very important article in The Atlantic (2 September 2016), Molly Ball, a Time magazine correspondent, wrote a very important and informative article entitled, “Donald Trump and the Politics of Fear.” Ball wrote this when Trump’s candidacy was at its lowest ebb in August of 2016, when Trump’s poll numbers were so bad that a desperate Trump in mid-August brought a totally inexperienced and not yet widely known far-right populist pundit, Steve Bannon, on board to run his campaign. Paul Manafort was dumped. Kelly-Anne Conway, another neophyte in campaigning, joined Bannon to bring into the equation her polling knowledge and her sensitivity to voter desires and fears. (See Chapter 2)

The above changes to the campaign took place at a time when, as Woodward writes, Time writers were describing Trump as “bewildered, exhausted, sullen gaffe prone and in trouble with donors.” (8-9) The last two depicters were objectively accurate; the first three subjective descriptors were only partially true of Trump’s emotional state. Bewildered, exhausted, sullen? Except in comparison to Bannon, Trump was the epitome of certainty, even the certainty that he was going to lose. Further, Trump exhibited more energy than all his minions. And rather than sullen, he was enraged, enraged at his staff and at the campaign situation in which he found himself. Two-and-a-half months before the election, Trump was running as much as 20 points behind Hilary Clinton. Even the Republican National Committee chaired by Reince Priebus seemed to be about to jettison their organizational and economic support for the president.

Except for his deep-seated passion to win, to win at all costs and at any cost. Donald Trump is a fatalist, a Marcus Aurelius in the making. What position does he hold? “It doesn’t matter.” What are the risks of open diplomacy with the leader of the very repressive North Korean regime? “It doesn’t matter.” Did he regret saying he could do anything to women as a TV star, even grasp them by the pussy? To a small extent – only because it might throw his chase for victory off course for the moment. But, in the end, Donald Trump is a stoic. “It doesn’t matter. Shit happens.” “We’ll see.”

The result: Donald Trump is fearless. He can play on fear but not really experience it. Not for Trump, “to strive, to fight, to overcome, to succeed.” Rather, to strive and fight and ignore whether you will win or lose, for that is the magic formula for winning, for destroying your opponent and emerging victorious, for taking in stride financial, psychological, political and personal setbacks. Trump, in the end, just doesn’t give a damn. Trump is a mystic who deep down believes that it will all work out to his advantage. Though very gaff prone and time and again facing desertion by his most loyal associates, never mind the Republican National Committee, though he will become enraged, he does not wallow in despair. And he has a deep-seated well of energy that makes him relatively inexhaustible.

Because he is ultimately so fearless himself, he can use fear to manipulate others. He has no inhibitions. No one can get to him like he can get to them. Though campaigning to becoming the Republican candidate was founded on fear. Trump, now reinforced by Steve and Kelly-Anne, successfully turned his campaign around by throwing overboard the ballast of presidential respectability and instead once again restored fear as the foundation of the campaign. On the basis of appealing to fear, to cultural fears, to economic fears, Trump won the presidency.

He was right. We would see what we all along failed to see. We’ll see what happens. We will see what happens in the Khashoggi affair as Trump twists and turns inside out. We’ll see what happens as the caravan of Central Americans moves north through Mexico. For, as Ashley Parker, Philip Rucker and Josh Dawsey reported for The Washington Post this morning (22 October 2018), “President Trump has settled on a strategy of fear — laced with falsehoods and racially tinged rhetoric — to help lift his party to victory in the coming midterms, part of a broader effort to energize Republican voters with two weeks left until the Nov. 6 elections.”

Trump’s messaging — on display in his regular campaign rallies, tweets and press statements — largely avoids much talk of his achievements and instead offers an apocalyptic vision of the country, which he warns will only get worse if Democrats retake control of Congress. The president has been especially focused in recent days on a caravan of about 5,000 migrants traveling north to cross the U.S. border, a group he has darkly characterized as gang members, violent criminals and “unknown Middle Easterner” — a claim for which his administration has so far no concrete evidence.

For we who fear Trump, it is crucial that we see and understand what is happening and what happened in the past.

Trump stoked the fears of others. As Bannon summed it up when he presented the radically revised thrust of the presidential campaign in August 2016: “Number one, we’re going to stop mass illegal immigration and start to limit legal immigration to get our sovereignty back. Number two, you are going to bring manufacturing jobs back to the country. And number three, we’re going to get out of these pointless foreign wars.” (15) Fear of foreigners, fear of financial ruin and fear of the furies of war all combined to energize the Trump campaign.

On the surface level, Ball was correct and prescient. “Fear pervades Americans’ lives—and American politics. Trump is a master of fear, invoking it in concrete and abstract ways, summoning and validating it…And if Trump still stands a chance to win in November, fear could be the key.” And it could work again in November 2018 as it did in 2016.

Certainly, this was the case in the race for the Republican nomination. Serendipity helped. Terror attacks in Paris in November and in San Bernadino in December were used to reinforce his mantra that Muslims were scary. In the aftermath of the attacks, Trump’s polling rose seven points. (See Shana Gadarian, “The Politics of Threat: How Terrorism News Shapes Foreign Policy Attitudes”)

What is the source of those fears? The outer situation? Trump said that real power is fear. But fear of what? Fear, in no uncertain words, of the wrath of God or of your teacher or your parent bringing his or her rage as an authority figure down on your forehead? Or is it fear of physical blows – a slap across the head – or military might in which the prospect of missiles, especially ones with hydrogen warheads, raining on your head terrifies you? Or is it fear of economic ruin and the corresponding loss of status – of effectively being reduced to a homeless panhandler on the street, in the cases covered in this blog, the boulevard of international relations? Or is it a combination of two or three of the above, or, God forbid, apocalyptic destruction, such as the havoc expected if climate change is not brought under control, an apocalyptic possibility buried under an apocalyptic vision of what will happen if 5,000 Central Americans marching through Mexico eventually reach the U.S. border?drock fear of stasis, an individual’s stall or even fall in income and a corresponding decline in status. These economic fears are not only shared by a vast swath of Democrats, but so are military fears of increased involvement in foreign wars. What distinguishes Trump’s base is its cultural fears. No leader in America has spread and heightened these fears to the degree and with such repetition and emphasis as Trump. For the sociologist, Barry Glassner (The Culture of Fear), Trump is the greatest master in this satanic art.

Is the source of fear objective circumstances or an inner state of mind and heart that frames the world out there to reinforce one’s inner fears? Trump supporters disproportionately fear external violence – crime and terror allegedly enhanced by immigrants, particularly Muslims. Contrary to many claims, Trumps supporters are no more anxious about the economy than Democrats, though the source of their cultural fear focuses on foreigners. Unlike Democrats, the source of their economic fear focuses on foreign states rather than foreign people.

Cultural fears rest on a bedrock fear of change. Economic fears rest on a bedrock fear of stasis, an individual’s stall or even fall in income and a corresponding decline in status. These economic fears are not only shared by a vast swath of Democrats, but so are military fears of increased involvement in foreign wars. What distinguishes Trump’s base is its cultural fears. No leader in America has spread and heightened these fears to the degree and with such repetition and emphasis as Trump. For the sociologist, Barry Glassner (The Culture of Fear), Trump is the greatest master in this satanic art.

Two-thirds of Americans, a significantly higher percentage of Republicans than Americans in general (65:50 on crime, and 75:63 on terror), fear rising crime and terrorism respectively, roughly double the percentage that used to have such fears fifteen years ago. A remarkable body of evidence, however, all reinforce the reality that such fears are unjustified. Nevertheless, those running Trump’s past campaigns and his current one, and, more importantly, Trump himself, pinned the source of that fear, first on migrants and foreigners, and behind that, the Democrats who were the source of that alleged crime and terror for they supported immigration and immigrants. Trump woke up the fear of pain, the fear of uncertainty in those who would become his Kell followers.

Why? Because Trump promised them: “You’re not going to be scared anymore. They’re going to be scared.” “I will protect you.”

But from what? Though a majority of Americans, both Republicans and Democrats, though a significantly higher percentage among Republicans, believe that the crime rate is higher than ever before and so is the threat of a terrorist attack. The reality is the opposite. Crime is at its lowest level in fifteen years. Since 9/11, far more terror attacks come from the American right than foreign Muslims. The source of the fear is not what exists in the objective world. It resides in your fundamental basic emotional state. Conservatives are more fearful than liberals, specifically from believed cultural threats. They want more certainty in their lives. They fear ambiguity. They fear nuance. They fear a loss of control. Trump promises the restoration of order in the face of alleged chaos and of control in a world experienced as out-of-control.

Immigrants are invading. Trump stirs up fears as a caravan of future refugee claimants from Central America cross into and wend their way up the length of Mexico. The fact that as many as there are in the caravan – perhaps as many as 5,000 – and despite past experience that most will not reach the border with the U.S. to make a claim, despite the fact that on any two days running, more migrants than are in that caravan arrive at the Mexican-American border every two days to make a claim, despite the fact that Trump’s deploying 6,000 National Guardsman to the Mexican border has not made an iota of difference and sending army troops as threatened would be even more useless, despite the fact that his open aggression against Central American children by separating them from their immigrant families did not deter as intended and, in fact, more not fewer families arrived, the appeal to those fears remains central to the Trump appeal.

Chief of Staff John Kelly may get into a verbal shouting match with Trump’s National Security Adviser, John Bolton, who was supported by Stephen Miller, the young greybeard White House aide behind Trump’s anti-immigrant stance and rhetoric, and even walk out in a rage at the gross discrepancy between the alleged basis of the fears of immigrants and actual reality, Trump himself remained unmoved. He denounced Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s suggestion that UNHCR be invited to process asylum claimants in Mexico.

Trump ignored advice from his own State Department that what was needed was increased aid to those Central American countries. The numbers of families and children that arrived at America’s southern border is the highest since 2014. Trump’s response? Cut off foreign aid to the Central American countries from which the refugee asylum claimants are coming.

The reproduction rate in the U.S. has dropped dramatically among almost all ethnic groups and economic sectors. America is entering the future with fewer and fewer workers to support an increasingly aged population. American women marry later to pursue education, careers and pleasure. The inadequacy of social benefits for pregnant women (parental pay and leave for pregnant women) in the U.S. does not help. This long-term prediction concerning the effects of falling fertility rates – from 2.15 on average ten years ago (barely sufficient for a population to maintain itself) to about 1.75– should be a real source of fear, of economic fear. Trump is a political performance artist creating a totally fictional world even though the reality is that America now needs more immigrants than ever before as pregnancy rates have dropped significantly below that needed to maintain a country’s population levels. Trump knew what worked politically in 2016. In 2018, he claims again to know what is needed to bring out his base to the polls in the midterm election. Facts! Shmacks!

The reality is that President Trump is a bumbler and serial liar, but he is also a political performance artist. Like many other real artists, Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt, Degas and Picasso, Trump is walleyed, but in the political rather than creative sphere. He has political strabismus. One eye sees the world as 2-dimensional. There is fear and there are objects that arouse fear. This may not be the world as it really is, but it is a world that can be represented easily on a 2-D canvas.

On the other hand, the other eye sees the world in 3-D, detached and with a cold and acute eye indifferent to any emotional distractions. He is a political performance artist because, in the interplay of his 2-D and his 3-D vision, he can both see the world with a clarity and perspective most lack who have 3-D vision in both eyes. The latter recognize subtlety and ambiguity. Trump creates a 2-D world of fear based on his insight into the reality of the 3-D world he views. He sees clearer because that eyesight is unencumbered by facts and analyses, in comparison to the 2-D world he favours. Trump suffers from an acute case of exotopia and favours the vision of his 2-D eye.

The combination of 3-D acute vision in one eye and 2-D vision in the other eye that he greatly favours makes him a formidable political opponent and an objective source of real fear. When 2-dimensional portraits are favoured over 3-D in the political world, however helpful they can be in the artistic one, we should be fearful.

Several readers of my first draft asked me to explain the analogy and one challenged my use of the term “artist” to characterize Donald Trump. I will elaborate and clarify.

I distinguish between a political performance artist and a creative one. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is a creative performance artist. On Sunday, she was presented with the Mark Twain Prize for lifetime achievement in comedy. She had previously earned six consecutive Emmy Awards for her roles as Elaine Benes on Seinfeld and as Vice-President Selina Meyer on Veep. I would contend that Louis-Dreyfus is a creative performance artist, often about politics, while Trump is a political performance artist who turns politics into farce.

Like Donald Trump, I suggest that she possesses 3-D acute vision in one eye and 2-D vision in the other eye. Unlike Donald Trump who converts a 3-D image into a 2-D one to create a totally fictional world, Louis-Dreyfus inverts that process and takes 2-D characters in the real world and develops 3-D characters on stage or on the TV screen. Instead of relying on repetition of the same theme to exhort laughs, she possesses comic precision and variation. The character she creates may be selfish and petty. The Donald is self-centred and petty. While she has a deep sense of irony and a brilliant ability to be sarcastic, Trump has no sense of irony whatsoever. While Louis-Dreyfus uses her wit without any intention to hurt anyone’s feelings, Trump intentionally does the opposite. He is a bully.

If Louis-Dreyfus can be described as acerbic, Donald Trump’s comments are usually acrid. If Louis-Dreyfus insights are dead-on, Trump’s are wide off the mark and gets laughs through hyperbole only. Louis-Dreyfus’ wit can be both scalding and scathing, but the target of her jokes is immediately a character she creates or even her own self or the folly of others. Trump always and only targets others, not to expose vices but to use irrelevant characteristics to suffocate virtues.

Trump’s comments are sadistic rather than cutting and mordant. His caustic commentary corrodes the social landscape. Her sharp-tongued jokes on the follies and foibles of humans enhance and enrich society. Trump’s remarks are mean and defamatory; hers are gentle and aim at raising our consciousness. They are not demeaning, derisive or divisive and intended to abuse and offend.

At one of his never-ending rallies, Trump performed to a crowd that laughed and clapped in approval as the Donald mocked Dr. Christine Blasé Ford’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee:

“I had one beer. Well, do you think it was — nope, it was one beer. How did you get home? I don’t remember. How’d you get there? I don’t remember. Where is the place? I don’t remember. How many years ago was it? I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. What neighborhood was it in? I don’t know. Where’s the house? I don’t know. Upstairs, downstairs — where was it? I don’t know — but I had one beer. That’s the only thing I remember.” When critically questioned by reporters about someone whom he said appeared very credible in her testimony when she described the attempted rape, Trump responded, “It doesn’t matter. We won.”

While Trump derided and denounced Dr. Christine Blasey Ford for not remembering how she got home from an attempted rape, Julia Louis—Dreyfus, who attended the same Maryland college prep school as Blasey Ford, the elite Holton-Arms School, Louis-Dreyfus recalled her high school performance in a play called Serendipity. “I can remember every single aspect of that play that night so much so that I would testify under oath about it. But I cannot remember who drove me there or who drove me home.”

Her comments on the Kavanaugh Senate hearings were barbed; Trump tried to wallop Blasey Ford with a spiked club, the simplest and most primitive of weapons intended to bludgeon rather than enlighten the target or anyone else.

Trump’s comments are rooted in bitter acrimony and insecurity; Louis-Dreyfus is the embodiment of compassion even for the most flawed and foul-mouthed characters she plays. Whereas she is good-natured and good-humoured in her sarcasm, Trump is bilious and totally indifferent to whom he hurts.  His derision and taunting are intended to inflict pain and not relieve it through a comic art.

Donald Trump and Julia Louis-Dreyfus may both be walleyed and suffer from strabismus, but Trump converts politics into farce and the 3-D real world into a 2-D caricature. Louis-Dreyfus inverts the process and takes a real world reduced to two dimensions and re-presents it with creativity and acute timing and insight to convert it into a 3-D representation so that one can understand that our world has been diminished.

The differences are best observed when you watch Trump and Louis-Dreyfus satirizing the President as Selina.

Donald Trump Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Selina Meyer)
   
Contempt for democracy and voters Ditto
Politics as response to crises Ditto
Rotating appointments Ditto
Dissing of members of one’s own administration Ditto
Government only a venue for advancing personal positions & enrichment Ditto
Barging into something without thinking or reflection Ditto
Saying something totally inappropriate Ditto
Screwing up and then boasting of success Ditto
Lying and contradicting a previous claim Ditto
Incompetent, disloyal and competing aides Ditto
Venomous abuse Ditto
Restless, bored and impatient Ditto
Brazen lies, whether about trivia or issues of world importance Ditto
Shouting matches Ditto
Aides insulting each other to the press Ditto
Announces cancellation of trade deal before the press in the oval office but forgets to sign the document Ditto
Frozen faces of aides and Republicans always in the background of Trump’s formal announcements Ditto
Theft of documents from President’s desk Ditto
Shoves the President of Montenegro aside to be in a better position in a photo-op Ditto
Love of luxurious pageantry Ditto
With President Sisi of Egypt but distracted and touching a glowing orb Ditto
Engaging in macho handshake contest with President Emmanuel Macron of France Ditto

 

Cozying up to oligarchs Ditto
Primacy given to business deals Ditto
   

What begins as satire can end as docudrama.

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