Mel Brooks has made a lot of funny movies but High Anxiety isn’t one of them. Being constantly on edge, even when played for laughs, just isn’t funny. It’s painful, and it’s painful to watch. Even Woody Allen’s ironic self-depreciating anxiety gets really irritating over time. He realized that. He stopped making movies about himself, starring himself. His alter ego had been the devastatingly witty little guy with monumental existential anxiety about everything. That little guy had become a pain in the ass. No one wanted to be reminded of their own existential anxieties, and the witty lines that had seemed charming early on soon seemed no more than pathetic whining. He was nervous. He made everyone else nervous. Who needs that?
This should have been fairly simple for Brooks and Allen. Thrill your audience. Scare the wits out of them. Delight them. Make them feel happy, or sad, or anything else – but don’t make them feel nervous. People hate that, but of course, in the political world, we’re about to get four years of that. Donald Trump makes people feel nervous. He delights in it. We’re about to get four years of high anxiety.
After all, it was just another day of what no one expected:
The turbulence began Tuesday morning with one of President-elect Donald Trump’s signature tweets of wrath: a public jab at Boeing alleging that the cost of building Air Force One had spiraled out of control.
That came an hour after Boeing’s chief executive was quoted questioning Trump’s stance on trade.
In the afternoon, Trump directed his attention elsewhere, taking credit in a surprise announcement for a Japanese conglomerate’s months-old pledge to invest $50 billion in the United States.
In the raucous hours in between, a top Trump aide announced offhandedly that, months before, Trump had sold his entire stock portfolio, which some ethics advisers had worried could raise questions about conflicts of interest during his presidency.
It was a day of big pronouncements and few details, leaving many wondering whether this would be the unusual and unpredictable way that Trump will govern when he takes office next month.
Boeing’s chief executive questioned his trade policy, so Trump made Boeing’s stock drop like a rock for a few hours – a bit of personal vengeance. The Japanese deal was not new. He just said it was new. Everyone had to look that up. The stock thing came out of the blue, and it took a few hours to figure out it meant nothing – his wealth is in real estate, not securities. He had the news folks jumping around and nervous for a few hours, but that’s his style, for better or worse, and mostly worse:
That style, including his opaque personal financial dealings and his sudden shots at certain companies, has helped unnerve a corporate America that traditionally craves stability. Some business leaders and economists have worried whether executives can speak their minds about the president-elect or his policies without fear of facing Trump’s rage.
“Twisting people’s arms is inherently problematic” for a president, said N. Gregory Mankiw, a professor of economics at Harvard who served as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush.
“The president has so much power, you always wonder if there’s some implicit threat to individuals, and that goes beyond what I think a limited government should do,” Mankiw said.
There are two issues here. Trump goes after people personally, and he’s using government to distort the free market – even Sarah Palin called the Carrier deal crony capitalism. Many did, on the right and the left, all of which makes folks nervous:
Trump’s announcements followed his assertion last week that he had saved 1,100 jobs in Indiana through a deal with air-conditioning company Carrier. The agreement, which includes $7 million in state incentives for the company, will actually keep 800 workers in the state, while 600 jobs will still go to Mexico.
In an interview Monday with CNBC’s Jim Cramer, the chief executive of Carrier’s parent company confirmed that it had made the deal in part out of fear.
“There was a cost as we thought about keeping the Indiana plant open,” United Technologies chief executive Greg Hayes said. “At the same time I was born at night but not last night. I also know that about 10 percent of our revenue comes from the U.S. government.”
Greg Hayes knows a real threat when he sees one. A vindictive president with a personal agenda will make the next four years scary. Watch what you say.
Dana Milbank put that a different way:
Is America becoming a rogue state?
The State Department stopped using the term years ago to describe the likes of Iran and North Korea, figuring it was needlessly provocative. But it would seem the incoming Trump administration plans to handle its affairs – domestic and foreign – in a manner that meets the dictionary definition of a “rogue state” as one “that conducts its policy in a dangerously unpredictable way.”
That seems to be what is going on:
Even before Donald Trump threw Sino-American relations into a new round of turmoil by speaking with the Taiwanese leader and by trolling a nation of 1.4 billion people on Twitter, Trump and his team set off new chaos between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, with Trump praising the repressive regime of the latter and pledging to visit, while a member of his transition team told the former that Trump supports designating Pakistan a terrorist haven.
Trump snubbed our closest ally, Britain, by having post-election calls with nine foreign leaders before granting British Prime Minister Theresa May the honor. He shattered protocol by suggesting Britain name Nigel Farage, the Brexit leader, ambassador to the United States. Meanwhile, NATO leaders meeting in Brussels this week were on edge about Trump’s coziness with Russia and his dismissive words about the alliance.
According to foreign government accounts, Trump praised Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign against drug users and dealers, which has killed at least 4,500 people in five months. And he hailed Kazakhstan dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev for his “fantastic success” that can be called a “miracle.”
Jittery world leaders are unlikely to be reassured to learn that the man Trump tapped to run the Pentagon goes by the nickname “Mad Dog.”
The worldwide high anxiety has begun, and predictably, Trump surrogates have fanned out to explain that this is intentional – it’s time to shake things up – but Milbank isn’t buying it:
Some suggest that there is a method to Trump’s madness, that he is trying to make would-be adversaries think he is irrational and capricious, thereby making foes and rivals wary of pushing him too far. This is why North Korea’s Kim Jong Un gets a wide berth. On a lesser scale, this also underpinned Richard Nixon’s “Madman Theory” during the Vietnam War: If he appeared to be crazy enough to use nuclear weapons, the theory went, North Vietnam and the Soviet Union might back down.
But in Trump’s application of the Madman Theory there seems to be less theory than madman. There may be advantages to keeping foes and opponents off guard, but Trump is baffling friends and allies, too. In foreign affairs, unpredictability spooks allies and spreads instability. And unpredictable policy at home has long been seen as toxic for business.
That’s why Milbank waxes nostalgic:
George W. Bush made predictable leadership a matter of pride. When I covered his White House 16 years ago, I found that the best way to predict Bush’s actions was to listen to his words: He did exactly what he said he would do. Many didn’t like the result, but Bush made it easy for Republicans in Congress to follow his lead.
Now, Trump’s uncertain trumpet is having the opposite effect. The corporate welfare offered to Carrier’s parent company to keep jobs in the United States has some previously supportive conservatives complaining about crony capitalism. His revived talk of high tariffs on imports has GOP congressional leaders worried about a trade war. On his decision to speak with the Taiwanese leader, Trump’s would-be defenders were split: Was it a meaningless courtesy, as some Trump advisers said? Or a well-thought-out shift in U.S. policy, as others claimed?
The widespread chaos suggests Trump isn’t signaling new policies as much as he’s winging it. His unpredictability is not a theory. It’s the absence of one.
That may be so, but this runs deeper. Steven Benen notes this:
Before the election, Donald Trump and his team made a deliberate decision to avoid substance and policy details. One of the Republican candidate’s top policy advisers said after the conventions that the typical American voter would be “bored to tears” if the campaign focused on substance – a sentiment Trump himself endorsed in June when he said “the public doesn’t care” about public policy.
In May, Politico quoted a campaign insider saying Trump didn’t want to “waste time on policy.” The Trump source added at the time, “It won’t be until after he is elected that he will figure out exactly what he is going to do.”
Okay, high anxiety levels will soon drop – the man has been elected – but Benen points to what Politico is reporting now:
While Donald Trump dines on frog legs with Mitt Romney and meets with a parade of lawmakers and governors in his gold-plated Midtown skyscraper, most of his transition staff are hunkered down in Washington, D.C., writing detailed governing plans for his first 100 days.
But so far, Trump and his inner circle have largely ignored those plans as they focus on top appointments and lean on the advice of politicians, CEOs and donors, rather than on their transition staff, say sources close to the transition.
The president-elect, meanwhile, has been more likely to set policy on Twitter than through consultation with his D.C. advisers.
“The senior people are all focused on Cabinet appointments,” said a Republican official involved in past transitions. “I wonder how much time, attention and decision-making is being allocated to the rest of the government. … It is not a recipe for smooth governance.”
It isn’t, but Trump is Trump:
The New York-D.C. transition divide reflects Trump’s tendency to focus on personnel and, especially, personality, over policy. Experts say that bent, combined with his improvisational style and the divisions between the teams will complicate his transition to the White House, making it less likely he’ll have a cohesive roadmap for governing on Day One.
He gets irritated and he tweets. That’s it, but that may not do:
On the Obama transition team, for instance, John Podesta ran interference between the president-elect and the massive D.C. transition operation and kept a tight rein over it. While Vice President-elect Mike Pence is technically doing this job, he’s also the governor of Indiana and vice president-elect, responsible for advising on Cabinet picks and reaching out to Capitol Hill.
That official noted that if they had, say, a well-defined tax plan, parts of it would already have been shared with the Joint Tax Committee or Congressional Budget Office to see how much revenue would really be lost. “For this gang, I don’t think this stuff matters very much,” he said.
People close to Trump say they expect him to rely heavily on Pence and other policy staffers once he enters the White House, freeing up Trump to stake out a broader strategic and political vision.
Expect a “casual” new government. Someone will do the work, or someone won’t – whatever – it’s all good – but the signs aren’t good:
One D.C.-based transition staffer said he gets most of his information about what’s happening with the transition from watching the comings and goings at Trump Tower on the news. “It’s pretty secretive,” the person said. “What you all know is about what I know. All the work that’s being done on personnel is literally being done out of New York, not here.”
And that’s the problem:
Multiple people close to the transition said the best way to influence Trump’s policies is to talk to his core advisers in New York. “New York is the fun and the TV cameras, and D.C. is the people who are going into the Pentagon and Labor and Interior. It is not the glamorous end of the stick,” a GOP strategist added.
The glamorous end of things seems to be everything to Trump – he’s that kind of guy – and Steve Benen assesses that:
In theory, one can imagine a team of seasoned veterans, who bring vast experience in government and management of massive institutions, investing less time in governing plans during the transition phase because they’re confident in their expertise.
But with Trump, it’s largely the opposite. The president-elect has no governing experience, and neither does his chief of staff. The same is true of his chief strategist. And his Treasury secretary. And his HUD secretary. And his Education secretary. And his Commerce secretary. And some of his deputy cabinet officials.
In other words, Trump and many of those he’s surrounded himself with have no idea what they’re doing, and about a month from now, they’ll be running the executive branch of a global superpower. These are the same folks, however, who’ve decided to “largely ignore” detailed governing plans.
They’re led by a president-elect who seems deeply interested in “Saturday Night Live” and self-indulgent, self-congratulatory victory-tour rallies, but who tends to tweet more than he attends policy briefings.
High anxiety might be entirely appropriate at the moment:
What could possibly go wrong when the most inexperienced and unprepared presidential amateur takes office in six weeks?
That’s a worry, and Joshua Keating reports on how, later in the day, President Obama addressed that:
From George Washington and foreign entanglements to Dwight Eisenhower and the military-industrial complex, there’s a tradition of presidents on their way out the door warning the American public about threats they failed to prevent. But few presidents have ever handed the country over to as uncertain a situation as Barack Obama will soon do. This uncertainty and unease was reflected in his speech at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, Tuesday, which he described to the audience of troops as “my final words as your commander in chief.”
Those final words were actually about getting Trump to get serious:
Obama never referred to Trump directly, but much of the speech seemed aimed at him. Referring to torture, specifically waterboarding, which Trump promised to bring back during the campaign but is perhaps now wavering on after conversations with Mattis, Obama said that “at no point has anyone who worked with me told me that [prohibiting torture] has cost us good intelligence.” Perhaps prompted by Trump’s completely illegal suggestion that the U.S. should “take the oil” from the countries in the Middle East where it sends troops, Obama said, “We are a nation that won world wars without grabbing the resources of those we defeated.” Responding to any number of Trump statements about Muslim Americans, Obama said, “The United States is not a country that imposes religious tests as a price for freedom. We’re a country that was founded so that people could practice their faith as they chose. The United States is not a place where some citizens have to withstand greater scrutiny or carry a special ID card or prove that they’re not an enemy from within.”
And don’t get trapped into thinking about only ISIS:
A sustainable counterterrorism strategy requires keeping the threat in perspective. The terrorist threat is real and is dangerous. But these terrorists want to cast themselves as the vanguard of a new world order. They are not. They are thugs and they are murderers and they should be treated that way. They don’t pose an existential threat to our nation and we must not make the mistake of elevating them as if they do. That does their job for them. It makes them more important and helps them with recruitment.
Well, Obama had to do something:
At times Obama seemed to be casting his arguments in terms that might appeal to Trump. He made appeals to the bottom line, noting that, thanks to his light-footprint counterterrorism approach, which relies more on drones and special forces than large troop deployments, “We’ve accomplished all this at a cost of 10 billion over two years, which is the same amount that we used to spend in one month at the height of the Iraq war.” His argument against continuing to keep the detention center at Guantánamo Bay open was financial as well as moral, saying we’re “wasting hundreds of millions of dollars to keep fewer than 60 people in a detention center in Cuba. That’s not strength.”
Trump understands money, so that might work, or not. No one knows. The man tweets. That’s about it, but Dahlia Lithwick and Robert Tsai are pretty fed up with that:
The defenses of President-elect Donald Trump’s Twitter feed are all pretty horrible. But of the many baffling and dangerous premises being used to defend Trump’s use of Twitter as a bully pulpit for spreading pernicious lies, perhaps the most baffling and dangerous is this one: It’s just words.
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan did a version of this on 60 Minutes on Sunday when he said that the veracity of Trump’s tweets doesn’t matter. All that matters is he won. “It doesn’t matter to me. He won the election,” Ryan told Scott Pelley. “The way I see the tweets you’re talking about, he’s basically giving voice to a lot of people who have felt that they were voiceless. He’s communicating with people in this country who’ve felt like they have not been listened to. He’s going to be an unconventional president.”
An even blunter version of the president-elect’s words don’t matter idea came from his former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. “This is the problem with the media,” Lewandowski told a post-election panel at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government last week. “You guys took everything that Donald Trump said so literally.” Vice President–elect Mike Pence added his cheerful gloss on Trump’s false vote fraud claims on the Sunday shows as well: They’re “refreshing.”
That may be a nonsense argument:
The argument seems to be that Trump’s false statements don’t matter because everyone knows that his false statements are not necessarily meant to be true. His advisers contend that his actual words are just impressionistic communications – thought experiments that do not have any lasting force or meaning. This is not about “post-fact” America, or “reality-based communities,” or even “fake news.” This is a much deeper problem that goes to the nature of language in general – and a president’s words in particular. It’s certainly one thing to argue that Donald Trump’s words had no legal consequences during a political campaign, when he was scratching and clawing for advantage as an insurgent candidate. It’s quite another to suggest, as some increasingly do, that his words, or his tweets, or his off-the-cuff remarks carry no real force once he becomes the president. That is preposterous.
And that’s even more preposterous now that he has won the election:
Trump no longer speaks as a private citizen when he howls at the moon. Instead, his statements carry sovereign meaning and will be treated that way, regardless of the medium and regardless of what his followers choose to believe. It’s not just the media that cares: Litigants, activists, and government officials will almost certainly quote his utterances as evidence of his true intentions, plans, and views about the law. Foreign leaders will hear his threats and promises, and take them as pronouncements of intent. People who admire him will strive to act in his name and joyfully pursue his perceived agenda, pressed on by his words. That is terrifying. And those who fear his words will seek to obstruct what they understand to be the half-baked and dangerous ideas reflected in these comments. This should not be a complicated concept. It is something we teach our kindergartners: Words are signifiers of a person’s purposes and beliefs, and words have consequences.
This is not simply about technology or trust. This is precisely what happened to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose garbled syntax and extemporaneous speaking style earned him a reputation for being indecisive, confused, and out of touch during a crucial period of the Cold War and the struggle over racial equality. After he left office, revisionists tried to salvage his historical standing by claiming that he had governed with a “hidden hand.” Perhaps, but tremendous damage was done to his ability to lead and effectively govern. For example, asked about widespread local defiance of Brown v. Board of Education, Eisenhower repeatedly denied knowing what was going on. He compounded his verbal errors in July 1957, by musing at a press conference, “I can’t imagine any set of circumstances that would ever induce me to send federal troops into any area to enforce the orders of a federal court, because I believe that common sense of America will never require it.” Such statements were taken by Gov. Orval Faubus as license to whip up racist defiance of desegregation efforts in Arkansas and instruct the National Guard to turn away black students seeking to integrate Central High School. Trump runs similar risks with his undisciplined rhetoric.
Those are, of course, just as real:
Even if we could believe that Trump’s Twitter feed is merely a jumbled stream of consciousness, what do we do when his followers are stirred up to vilify Muslims or attack journalists? The problem isn’t just in distinguishing which of Trump’s words have meaning and which are mere performance art. The problem is that as president, all of his words will have meaning to somebody, and thus consequences. You don’t get to traffic in racially inflammatory discourse or advocate lawbreaking, and then escape responsibility by saying, “Just Kidding” as Trump did after imploring Russia to spy on his political opponent Hillary Clinton. Loose talk of this sort makes Trump morally compromised when bad stuff starts to hit the fans based on his “meaningless words.”
That leaves this:
We will no longer be able to believe anything that comes out of his mouth. Some of us will choose to consult Pence for guidance as to what words count and what words don’t. Others will seek refuge in Trump’s press secretary. Trump will be in charge, but in name only.
That’s what happens when the most inexperienced and unprepared presidential amateur takes office in six weeks. The president will tweet. No one will quite know what’s going on. Was he serious? Was he just fooling around? Was he venting? Then various parties, foreign and domestic, with agendas of their own, will explain what’s really going on, and then no one will know anything. Donald Trump will make people very nervous. He delights in it. Others will exploit that nervousness. We’re about to get four years of high anxiety – but we can’t walk out of this movie.