Bob Woodward (2018) Fear: Trump and the White House, New York: Simon & Schuster
It is not enough to have fear and anger as your basic emotional tropes governing both how you get elected and how you will govern. These basic appeals have to be applied in a way that makes the attraction effective. Before I move on to indicate how they were applied in individual cases of foreign policy, I want to offer the frame in which they were used. Below, I suggest four elements that set the frame that were used by Donald Trump, but only after indicating that Donald Trump ignored all standard advice on how to get elected in a democratic polity. These are the techniques he eschewed.
Donald Trump is a formidable campaigner. He is also a lousy governor. His political campaigning, whether for president or in the mid-terms, inverts and upends every bit of advice of the U.S. government-supported National Democratic Institute for International Development (NDI) in its National Campaign Planning Manual written by Brian O’Day. The Manual is subtitled, “A Step by Step Guide to Winning Elections.” If Trump had read it and followed its advice, he would certainly not have won the presidency.
Trump and the Republicans
Establish, strengthen & advance democratic institutions
Undermine and weaken democratic institutions
|Build political & civic organizations||
Take over a political non-civic organization
|Establish best practices re democratic citizen participation||
Gerrymander and restrict voting access to maximize one party’s advantage
|Ensure an informed citizenry||
Use lies to misinform citizens
|Encourage active individual participation||
Hold rallies to reinforce group think
|Hold public officials accountable||
Do not publish your income taxes or disclose conflicts of interest
|Enhance voter and civic education
|Emphasize propaganda and the repetition of lies|
|Promote electoral integrity||
Deny Russian interference in the presidential vote
|Establish codes of conduct||
Engage and even promote mis-conduct
|Mitigate political conflict||
|Ensure public access to information||
Deny, delay and obfuscate to prevent or, at least, inhibit, citizen access
|Engage constructively with an opposition||
Label an opposition as traitors and enemies
Donald Trump certainly did not follow the NDI guideline. Instead he focused primarily on the following recipe:
- Personify fear
- Politicize intelligence
- Package sex
- Most surprising of all, promote pomposity.
The latter two may seem surprising, especially when applied to foreign policy and, in particular, making economic transactionalism the foundation for foreign policy in specific cases. However, let me deal with the first two that at least seem self-evident.
Trump’s main object of fear has been migrants, overwhelmingly from Mexico and Central America. In the presidential election, it was Mexicans.
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” (15.06.2015 announcing his intention to seek the Republican nomination).
“I would build a great wall — and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me — and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall.”
Fear is married to economic advantage and packaged in a sphere in which Trump is believed to have some expertise. In the mid-term campaign in 2018, it is the turn of Central Americans. Trump has threatened to completely close the southern border to Central American asylum seekers even though, in accordance with American law, they have every right to seek convention refugee status in the U.S. Trump is considering an executive order under Section 212(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act that, “would suspend that provision and bar Central Americans as a matter of national security,” “contrary to the national interest” and “detrimental to the interests of the United States.” He threatened to send 1,000 troops to enforce the order even though American law prohibits the use of the military for such purposes.
Why the threat? Why the hyperbolic stimulation of a totally unwarranted fear? Because a caravan of 2,500 Central Americans is making its way up Mexico towards the American border! According to journalists who have interviewed participants, they could find no miscreants, let alone terrorists and criminals as claimed, among those en route. The contingent is largely made up of destitute families and their children. The caravan is 900 miles away when the threat of a ban on the basis of security was stated to be under consideration. Progress has been slow as could be expected of a group trudging by foot, though the band has been dwindling as it moves north, as was the case with the previous caravan. There are no circumstances under which, even if the caravan remains at full strength, it could be regarded as a security threat. Illegal crossing has decreased in recent years. Outright lies and hyperbole are used to manufacture and stimulate fear.
The lies get worse. Democrats have orchestrated the caravan, even though it is self-evident that it would be against any self-interest of Democrats to do so. Democrats want open borders – a demonstrably enormous lie. Democrats want more Latinos to add to their electoral base in the U.S. Perhaps. But otherwise, lie after lie after lie.
The migrants are a menace as were Muslims in a previous campaign. Xenophobia, demagoguery and lies are used to heighten fears and rally Trump’s base. As one op-ed put it, Trump’s latest exercise in fear-mongering has been the most shameless ever. Not satisfied with manufacturing the fear, not satisfied with pinning the source of the fear on Democrats, Trump personifies the alleged culprit. In the presidential campaign it was “crooked Hilary’ as Trump led his mob with shouts of “Lock her up.” In this campaign, Elizabeth Warren, the Senator from Massachusetts, has become the prime target.
Targeting Warren began in June 2016 with, “Goofy Elizabeth Warren, sometimes referred to as Pocahontas, pretended to be a Native in order to advance her career. Very racist!” The ante increased as Warren became Trump’s most trenchant critic for his migrant family separation policy at the U.S.-Mexico border.
If Donald Trump manufactures and personifies fear, he also politicizes intelligence. Hence, his repeated attacks on the FBI, the CIA, and other sources of intelligence in the U.S. The fact-finding of the Mueller probe is dubbed a “witch hunt” in spite of the large number of indictments (32 individuals and 3 corporations); many were Trump associates, among whom five pleaded guilty. Hence, his attacks on the media of record in the U.S., the “failing” New York Times, The Washington Post depicted as an “expensive lobbyist” for online retailer Amazon (the Post is owned by Jeff Bezos who founded Amazon), with not a shred of evidence that the Post has supported reduced postal rates to benefit Amazon.
The media are “totally dishonest,” filled with “fake news” and Bob Woodward’s “fake book.” NBC News edits interviews with him to misrepresent what he says. Google online services and their allied tech oligarchs are all “dishonest, terrible people.” Trump tells the crowd, “When you get good ratings, you can say anything.” Yet, the media are decried as the “enemy of the people.”
When knowledge is degraded, when fear is manufactured and lifted up as a prime motive for policy, wannabe authoritarians like Trump can emerge as the sole arbiter of “truth,” especially in a time when many users of media occupy their own echo chamber and silos for news sources.
But why include in the above list the “packaging of sex”? Did Trump not say that he was sorry for the old Hollywood tape of his insisting he could grope women’s pussies with impunity? It was only “locker room” talk. Of course, that is its appeal. For locker room talk objectifies women. And a large majority of American men indulge in such locker room talk. While other candidates for various positions resigned when charges of sexual peccadilloes were aimed at them, Trump follows the Bill Clinton path, but in a far more vicious way, and denounces those who “tell on him” by, for example, dubbing adult-film star Stormy Daniels as “Horseface.” If women resist him, if women do not fall under his spell, or after they escape it, they are called fat, ugly or disgusting.
Sex packaging is intended to essentialize sex as a well-designed experience, not a real one. How does insulting women advance such a program? By dividing women into three categories: 1) those who are beautiful but inaccessible to ordinary mortal men – Melania Trump; 2) those who are repulsive to ordinary mortal men, and 3) those who are both desirable and accessible, but only if you have the power and position to take advantage of such women. The latter is the widespread fantasy that the packaging and commodification of sex addresses.
Bracket cognition and critical analysis. Promote fear and desire rooted deep in the human brain and in animal instincts. All of these seem to be reasonable claims, whether valid or not. Even package sex, an American pastime. But promoting pomposity? On first appearance, such a claim appears to have no validity whatsoever.
But ask yourself, why does Donald Trump include an unsmiling and wooden Mike Pence with his own version of neurotically-combed hair in the backdrop of a photo-op? Why does Donald Trump trot out the schlump, Rudy Giuliani, who, incidentally, suffers from verbal diarrhea, to defend him on “fake media’ and then, afterwards, degrades him as an apologetic wimp? (32-38) Why does Trump appoint a fat sycophant like Chris Christie to head his transition team and then take away his responsibilities and subsequently deny him a cabinet post? (32-37)
Pence is the most pompous with his ostentatious display of dignity in contrast to the foul-mothed and loose-lipped Donald Trump. If Trump’s speeches are down-to-earth, Pence’s are high-flown, but in a rigid compartmentalized evangelical frame. Pence may perhaps be pompous. But Giuliani pompous? Christie pompous? The latter two appear as anything but. However, if pomposity is understood as characterizing someone full of self-importance, a self-importance that they need to put on display, then both Giuliani and Christie display their own respective brands of pomposity.
Jeff Toobin in the 18 September issue of The New Yorker argued that Giuliani, as Trump’s brawling special counsel in the Mueller probe, was Trump’s clown with his seedy theatrics on display in his countless television appearances with his false or misleading claims. Giuliani, craving publicity, labels the prosecutors in the Mueller probe as “thugs.” Nevertheless, Rudy has a very high regard for his own performances and combative bombastic style. He combines naked aggression and a thirst for attention, seeming to be a mirror of Donald Trump.
If Pence is a study in contrast that makes the Donald look good, the politically incorrect provocateur, Giuliani, is indeed a study in imitation, but also in a way that makes Donald Trump look good. As Donald stands tall, Rudy slumps. Trump holds his chin high. Rudy’s disappears into his thickening neck. Trump hides his expanding girth in his tailored suits; Rudy’s expanding girth is on full display.
If Pence is an example of constrained and disciplined pomposity and Giuliani an example of unrestrained and undisciplined pomposity, Chris Christie is the shabby sycophant without any backbone. When Trump had dropped in his ratings following the release of the Hollywood tapes, Christie advised dropping out, for the sake of his brand, for the sake of his children. Trump ignored the advice, accepted Bannon’s and said, “Fuck ‘em!”
Pence had distanced himself from the pussy remarks. Giuliani had squirmed but went out to battle. Christie folded. All in different ways were pompous men. But Donald Trump had what they did not have. He wolfed down hotdogs. He did not, like Giuliani, smoke $40 stogies. Lust after women, certainly, but never cringe in the face of an attack. Battle back. Not only was his base fed with fear, but taught to love him, not in spite of his foibles, but because of them. Trump may have had gold-plated toilets, but, in the end, he was a regular guy. Surrounding himself with pompous fools only made him look better to those that counted.
In his swashbuckling tale of intrigue and betrayal, Trump as d’Artagnan needed his own Athos, Porthos and Aramis, his own three Mouseketeers, to make himself appear as a man of unsurpassed guts with an embarrassing sense of his own high intelligence and certainly with the greatest political skill set, though he was the outsider compared to these three polished politicians. Foils have a role. Foils closest to you have the most important role. They can make even a fool look good.
Trump, the supreme paranoid narcissist, had to appear as if he could beat Steve Bannon and John Bolton, both far more intelligent than he was and is, at the fear-mongering game, beat James Clapper and James Comey at the intelligence game, and John Dowd and General Joseph Dunford at the defense game, whether in the legal or military field.
The frame and packaging were then applied to particular foreign policy issues.
With the help of Alex Zisman
To be continued.