Selling Seriousness

Anyone can run for president – with sufficient funds or sufficient previously established name recognition, or, perhaps, a record of public service, although that seems less and less necessary now – but there’s still that first initial hurdle. The American people have to take that person seriously. Their ideas and policy positions and philosophy of governance, and really, their philosophy of life, won’t be considered until the first question is considered – is he (or she) serious? Does this person actually expect us to take them seriously? Total goofballs might have great ideas, but they’re still total goofballs.

Sarah Palin ran into this problem. John McCain decided she should be his running mate in 2008 – the vice presidency isn’t all that important – but even then he was an old fellow and that did matter a bit. She suddenly mattered. No one knew her and McCain asked us to take her seriously, so we gave it a try. America got to know her. America discovered that she really was a total goofball. Even if her ideas and policy positions lined up with the standard Republican stuff at the time she rambled into total incoherency far too often. America was unable to take her seriously. She was dangerous.

McCain and Palin went down in flames, because while no one really knew Barack Obama either, he was clear and coherent and thoughtful and careful and obviously smart as hell. America got to know him and he passed the “seriousness” test. He was the only real alternative. We don’t elect goofballs.

The Republicans wouldn’t make that mistake again. Four years later they ran Mitt Romney – wooden and oblivious and prone to saying exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time – but a serious person, a wealthy businessman whose father had run American Motors and has been a successful governor. His seriousness was a given, and he ran with Paul Ryan, the Republican budget nerd in Congress. Paul Krugman and many others pointed out that Ryan pretty much pulled his fancy numbers about taxes and growth and whatnot out of his ass, but Ryan had the patina of seriousness. He even looked thoughtful. Maybe he practiced that in front of a mirror, but it worked. The Republicans still lost, again, but at least they didn’t run Herman Cain, the rather goofy millionaire pizza magnate, or Rick “Oops” Perry, or Newt Gingrich, who was talking about making the moon the fifty-first state. They knew better.

But that didn’t work, did it? This time they’re about to run Donald Trump, the braggart and bully reality show star with his billions from his real estate empire, with its successes and multiple bankruptcies, and from his licensing deals – Trump Steaks and Trump University and other Trump enterprises that somehow seem to disappear after a year or two. Are we supposed to take him seriously?

Ted Cruz has been saying no, loudly, and he just made his last bid to be taken seriously:

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, desperate to alter the course of a presidential primary fight in which Donald J. Trump is closing in on victory, announced Wednesday that Carly Fiorina would be his running mate if he won the Republican nomination.

The move, a day after Mr. Trump scored unexpectedly wide victory margins in sweeping five East Coast states, amounted to the grandest diversionary tactic a presidential candidate can stage – or at least the grandest one available to a candidate trailing by about 400 delegates who failed to win more than 25 percent of the vote in any state on Tuesday.

Trump did crush it – and crush Cruz – in Pennsylvania, Maryland and three other northeastern states on Tuesday, making a Cruz nomination almost impossible now, so Trump must be taken seriously. But that’s not how Cruz sees it:

Mr. Cruz’s criteria for a pick, in his telling, seemed to be aimed squarely at Mr. Trump. “Do they think through decisions in a rash and impulsive way?” he asked. “Do they pop off the handle at whatever strikes them at any given moment?” He held up Mrs. Fiorina as someone who knows “where jobs come from.”

“Born in Texas,” he added, grinning, “The very first thing I liked about her.”

Mr. Cruz’s decision to rush out a vice-presidential pick before next week’s primary in Indiana, which is becoming make-or-break for his candidacy, was the political equivalent of a student pulling a fire alarm to avoid an exam: It was certain to draw attention and carried the possibility of meeting its immediate goal, but seemed unlikely to forestall the eventual reckoning.

That’s the New York Times reporters editorializing a bit, but that sums it up. It’s too late – and yes, she’s as nasty and sour and vindictive a person as he is, the woman who nearly destroyed Hewlett-Packard before the board of directors fired her to save the company – and that doesn’t matter either now. Cruz may be screaming that he’s the serious one here, not that other guy, but Donald Trump seems to have passed some threshold, at least with the Republican base. He’s serious enough for them. He’s not Sarah Palin. In fact, he’s stopped asking her to speak at his rallies and speak up for him to the media. He knows she’s poison.

It’s the seriousness thing, and now that he has the nomination pretty much locked up – barring something extraordinarily odd happening – the job is to convince the Republican “establishment” and then the general public, not just the angry old white straight evangelical militantly anti-intellectual Republican base, that he’s a serious person.

There are ways to do that. There’s the usual way. Donald Trump decided to give a major foreign policy speech:

Donald J. Trump, exuding confidence after his resounding primary victories in the East, promised a foreign policy on Wednesday that he said would put “America first.” He castigated President Obama and Hillary Clinton, a former secretary of state and a possible opponent in the general election, for what he described as a string of missteps that have disillusioned the nation’s allies and emboldened its rivals.

Mr. Trump, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, pledged a major buildup of the military, the swift destruction of the Islamic State and the rejection of trade deals that he said tied the nation’s hands. But he also pointedly rejected the nation-building of the George W. Bush administration, reminding his audience that he had opposed the Iraq war.

“America is going to be strong again; America is going to be great again; it’s going to be a friend again,” Mr. Trump said. “We’re going to finally have a coherent foreign policy, based on American interests and the shared interests of our allies.”

“The world must know that we do not go abroad in search of enemies, that we are always happy when old enemies become friends and when old friends become allies,” he added. “That’s what we want: We want to bring peace to the world.”

Who doesn’t? But there was this:

There were paradoxes throughout Mr. Trump’s speech. He called for a return to the coherence of America’s foreign policy during the Cold War. Yet he was openly suspicious of the institutions that undergirded that era. He promised to eradicate the Islamic State, but said the campaign against extremism – or as he called it, “radical Islam” – was as much a philosophical struggle as a military one.

“Our friends and enemies must know that if I draw a line in the sand, I will enforce that line in the sand – believe me,” Mr. Trump said. “However, unlike other candidates for the presidency, foreign aggression will not be my first instinct.” He did not mention anyone by name, though his strongest Republican opponent, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, has threatened to carpet-bomb the Islamic State until the desert sand glows.

Mr. Trump’s speech drew negative reaction across the political spectrum. Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, posted on Twitter that “Ronald Reagan must be rolling over in his grave.” Lanhee Chen, a fellow at the Hoover Institution who advised Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee, said “There was clearly an isolationist strain to the speech, but that runs into the reality of the world that we live in.”

The guy from the Hoover Institution favors reality (he probably didn’t like Sarah Palin way back when) and Josh Marshall explains the source of the problem:

There are many things you could say about Donald Trump’s foreign policy speech. At a minimum we can recognize that it is a restatement of Trump’s foreign policy ideas stripped of references to Mexican rapists and other shocking asides. But here’s the one thing I think is most salient.Trump is proposing making aggressive new demands of virtually every country in the world – whether that’s countries in Europe (who are part of NATO), China, Japan, Mexico, Russia, or in less high profile ways virtually every other country in the world. This might make sense for Russia, perhaps China, maybe Europe. It can’t make sense to do it with everyone at once.

This just wasn’t serious:

There’s no real strategy behind Trump’s arguments – no new set of alliances or regional focus, no emphasis on trade as opposed to military strength or vice versa. At least there is no strategy in terms foreign policy professionals would recognize (which, in fairness, is not necessarily a bad thing.) With basically every other country the demand is for respect and fairness because under the current rules we are humiliated and cheated.

This is precisely the same policy, posture and strategy Trump brings to America itself: white identity politics aimed at taking back what other rising or new groups in American society have taken away from the guys who used to be at the top of the heap. It is more or less the identical vision, only with the humiliated party looking to set things right transposed from within American society to the globe.

Trump seems to be stuck on that, which is not a serious position:

There are many people who think America has gotten shortchanged in global and bilateral trade agreements. But to the extent that this is true it is not a matter of poor US negotiation or weakness. It’s that the US has negotiated deals that benefit large corporations at the expense of the majority of Americans who’ve seen their wages stagnate for decades. Just how much of US trade policy has been about selling out US workers versus a pragmatic effort to adjust to a world that is dramatically different from the world of the mid-20th century is a complex question that I’ll leave aside for the moment. What is relevant for present purposes is that the US remains the dominant military power literally everywhere on the planet and far and away the world’s dominant economy. It’s not a big deal when weak countries see themselves as humiliated and abused. Often they are humiliated and abused. But even if they’re not, by definition, they are weak. So there’s little mischief they can do based on their distorted vision of their position in the world. It can be quite dangerous for all involved when a hugely powerful country, actually the most economically and militarily powerful country in the world, falls under the spell of these kinds of delusions.

That means Trump got stuck on stupid:

Seeing America as humiliated and abused by foreigners is no more healthy, productive or based in reality than the idea that middle aged whites are under the heel of minorities and millennials. It’s all of a piece. Most people will get tripped up by the scaffolding of foreign policy talk around this basic worldview. That’s mainly beside the point. Trumpism at abroad is basically identical to Trumpism at home. We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that will be any less toxic abroad than it is at home.

Kevin Drum agrees and covers more ground:

America First. And that’s about it. Trump will do only things that are in America’s interest. He will destroy ISIS, crush Iran, wipe out the trade deficit with China, eradicate North Korea’s bomb program, and give Russia five minutes to cut a deal with us or face the consequences. Aside from that, Trump’s main theme seemed to be contradicting himself at every turn. We will crush our enemies and protect our friends – but only if our friends display suitable gratitude for everything we do for them. We will rebuild our military and our enemies will fear us – but “war and aggression will not be my first instinct.” We will be unpredictable – but also consistent so everyone knows they can trust us. He won’t tell ISIS how or when he’s going to wipe them out – but it will be very soon and with overwhelming force. He will support our friends – but he doesn’t really think much of international agreements like NATO.

Then there was the big mystery: his out-of-the-blue enthusiasm for 3-D printing, artificial intelligence, and cyberwar. Where did that come from? In any case, the Pentagon is obviously already working on all three of these things, so it’s not clear just what Trump has in mind. (Actually, it is clear: nothing. Somebody put these buzzwords in his speech and he read them. He doesn’t have the slightest idea what any of them mean.)

So what would Trump do about actual conflicts that are actually happening right now? Would he send troops to Ukraine? To Syria? To Libya? To Yemen? To Iraq? Naturally, he didn’t say. Gotta be unpredictable, after all.

But whatever else you take away, America will be strong under Donald Trump. We will be respected and feared. Our military will be ginormous. No one will laugh at us anymore. We will proudly defend the values of Western civilization. This all serves pretty much the same purpose in foreign policy that political correctness, Mexican walls, and Muslim bans serve in Trump’s domestic policy.

Yawn – but Slate’s Fred Kaplan wasn’t yawning:

Donald Trump’s “major foreign policy address” on Wednesday – a written speech, which he read off a teleprompter – was even more incoherent than his impromptu ramblings of the past several months. In fact, it may stand as the most senseless, self-contradicting foreign policy speech by any major party’s presidential nominee in modern history.

For example, he said that, because of President Obama’s policies, our friends and allies feel they can no longer depend on us – then said that a Trump administration would quit NATO and abandon our allies in Asia entirely unless they started spending more on defense.

He said that his No. 1 national-security goal would be to defeat ISIS – then said that he would work with other nations to do so only if they “appreciate what we’ve done for them,” because for us to be good to them, “they also have to be good to us.” (There’s something childish, even narcissistic, about this demand, which he recited in the tone of a desperately firm parent.)

This went on and on:

He said, as he has many times, that our trade deficit has severely weakened America and strengthened China – then said that we have enormous economic leverage over China and that we should use it to get China to rein in North Korea.

He said we should not help any country that isn’t our friend – then proposed easing tensions with Russia. (It’s possible to hold one view or the other, but not both.)

He said he would strengthen America’s economy in order to shrink the deficit – then said he would use the extra wealth to boost jobs, then said he would use it to increase the military budget, without the slightest recognition of possible trade-offs or the need to set priorities. …

And there were the bombastic pronouncements with no basis whatsoever. “The world is more dangerous than it has ever been.” (Think about that claim for one minute, and you’ll see how absurd it is.) About ISIS, he said, “They’re going to be gone if I’m elected president, and they’ll be gone very, very quickly.” (What does this mean? Is he going to scowl at them? Nuke them?) “No one knows how to reduce debt, but I do.” (One way he reduced debt in the private sector was to buy debt-ridden companies, then abandon the creditors or offer them dimes on the dollar or nothing. International debt doesn’t work this way.) He also said, as he has before, that he opposed the Iraq war because it would destabilize the Middle East – when, in fact, he supported the invasion not long before it took place.

And there’s the worst part:

Finally, he lent credence to the suspicion that he’s never read a history book. In what a cynic might interpret as an act of speechwriter’s sabotage, he embraced the tag “America First,” going so far as to say it will be “the overriding theme” of his foreign policy. He doesn’t seem to realize that this was the slogan of Charles Lindbergh – in his 1940 campaign against President Franklin D. Roosevelt – to remain neutral and isolationist during World War II. Is Lindbergh Trump’s witting role model?

This is not a serious man:

This was, I repeat, a prepared speech, not some rambling remarks by a candidate in over his head. I don’t know who wrote it, but it seems to confirm rumors that no prominent Republican national-security advisers are assisting Trump’s campaign. Clearly this is the speech of an unserious man who hasn’t read up on the issues or thought through his own instincts. The dangerous thing is not so much that he knows nothing about foreign policy; it’s that he doesn’t know just how much he doesn’t know.

Perhaps that doesn’t matter, as Jim Newell explains here:

This speech was almost assuredly one of those things that the new, “grown-up” Trump is doing at the behest of his freshly hired advisers, led by Republican lobbyist and operative Paul Manafort. The goal is not necessarily for Trump to become more “presidential” so much as it is to trick idiots in the media into swallowing the narrative that he is becoming more presidential.

This is simply what is done:

One of the most tiresome and successful rituals for tricking media suckers into believing a presidential candidate is legit is the spectacle of the Major Foreign Policy Address in which a candidate Lays Out His Foreign Policy Vision. This speech, usually delivered near the beginning of a presidential campaign but, in Trump’s case, delivered after he’s convinced primary voters to select him without demonstrating any knowledge whatsoever, does not have to be coherent. All it needs to do is toss a little Pentagon lingo and a few out-of-context numbers into a broth of wild threats and unearned projections of strength.

The setting for such an address is critical, too, and Trump’s team went with what you might call the Full Washington: a ballroom at the ornate Mayflower Hotel downtown stocked with white-haired old men in suits who’ve spent their careers musing pensively about whom to bomb next…

The address also brought out old Washington journalistic hands who might not be used to the Trump campaign’s strong-arming of reporters at events. Shortly before the speech began, for example, Washington Post legend Bob Woodward was instructed to move inside the designated press pen.

Everything about the setting was perfect, down to the smell of cigarette smoke (even though no one was smoking). Smoke in a D.C. room connotes seriousness; perhaps it was pumped in artificially.

And then the charade began:

This was Manafort making his candidate eat his broccoli. Trump read his prepared remarks briskly and woodenly, cheering up only during his ad-libbed flourishes. He checked off certain statistics about, say, the number of ships the Navy maintains. He said secondly and thirdly at various points in the speech, as a serious policy speaker does, even if it was unclear whether there had been a first plank or if he had even introduced a numbered list. He delivered the standard lines about how neither President Obama nor Hillary Clinton will say Radical Islam, how our allies no longer trust us to have their backs, how he will do whatever it takes to destroy ISIS. He bravely refused, however, to tell ISIS specifically how he intends to eliminate the terrorist group, because he believes it’s imperative to be “unpredictable” in foreign policy. (“We tell everything!” he ranted, off-script. “We’re sending troops, we tell them. We’re sending something else, we have a news conference.”)

Mostly clean sentences, a few statistics, vague threats, and an oversimplification of how easy it is to conduct foreign policy…

That was about it, and nothing more:

Another way of describing Trump’s foreign policy worldview: He doesn’t have one. He makes it all up minute by minute, and the words his aides made him read on television today were simply words his aides made him read on television. This speech was television; it was spectacle, just like the rest of his presidential campaign, which did not in any way begin a new, more serious phase today. Surely even the suckers in the media weren’t naive enough to take the “wow, this is some serious presidential stuff” bait today, right?

Newell goes on with example after example of how they took the bait, which was the whole point anyway. There is that minimal threshold after all. Does this person actually expect us to take them seriously? Donald Trump now expects us to take him seriously. He gave the Big Speech, didn’t he? What he said made no sense at all – but he managed the stage effects well. Like Paul Ryan, he generated and sustained that thin patina of seriousness.

Newell has only one thing to say to this – “We’re doomed.” Perhaps we are, seriously. Anyone can run for president.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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