There are two competing dictums. Don’t sweat the small stuff. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Choose one or the other, but choose carefully. Or follow Albert Einstein’s advice – “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Some of that small stuff matters.
That’s how we ended up in Iraq for eight years. Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, or close enough – everyone “knew” that. There was a lot of evidence he didn’t have those, but the Bush Administration didn’t sweat the small stuff. The Bush Administration had a little information, and that was good enough. The Brits and the Australians thought that wasn’t good enough. France and Germany and most everyone else pointed out that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing – a little more knowledge might be useful. Let the inspectors keep inspecting. Then decide on war or not – but the Bush Administration didn’t sweat the small stuff and the rest is history.
Donald Trump doesn’t sweat the small stuff. He has a general idea of things – a few things he might remember from high school history class – what he’s watched on Fox and Friends – what someone told him once – what the last person in his office just told him – what the last foreign leader explained to him. He’ll go with that. That’s good enough, but that can be dangerous:
President Donald Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had a testy phone call on May 25 over new tariffs imposed by the Trump administration targeting steel and aluminum imports coming from Canada, including one moment during the conversation in which Trump made an erroneous historical reference, sources familiar with the discussion told CNN.
According to the sources, Trudeau pressed Trump on how he could justify the tariffs as a “national security” issue. In response, Trump quipped to Trudeau, “Didn’t you guys burn down the White House?” referring to the War of 1812.
He’d heard that somewhere, or some advisor or other had just told him that to get him all riled up, but a little knowledge is still little knowledge:
The problem with Trump’s comments to Trudeau is that British troops burned down the White House during the War of 1812. Historians note the British attack on Washington was in retaliation for the American attack on York, Ontario, in territory that eventually became Canada, which was then a British colony.
There wasn’t a “Canada” at the time, and the current Canadians weren’t happy:
When asked if the comment was received as a joke, one source on the call said: “To the degree one can ever take what is said as a joke. The impact on Canada and ultimately on workers in the US won’t be a laughing matter.”
Someone had to clean this up:
Asked about the state of US-Canada relations, National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow acknowledged some short-term tensions, but said he believes relations between the two countries remain “very good.”
“I have no doubt that the United States and Canada will remain firm friends and allies whatever short-term disagreements may occur,” Kudlow said.
Some advisor or other had gotten to Trump before Larry Kudlow could, but Kudlow is outnumbered in this White House:
A senior administration official declined to discuss the specifics of Trump’s phone call with Trudeau but acknowledged some of the President’s conversations with his foreign counterparts on the subject of trade have been confrontational.
Trump loves to be confrontational. That’s who he is. That’s how he sees the job. He tweets. He doesn’t use a computer. He never has. He’s never owned one. He wouldn’t look this up on history.com:
When the British arrived at the White House, they found that President James Madison and his first lady Dolley had already fled to safety in Maryland. Soldiers reportedly sat down to eat a meal made of leftover food from the White House scullery using White House dishes and silver before ransacking the presidential mansion and setting it ablaze.
Canada was involved in the War of 1812 – but mostly because we kept invading, hoping to make Canada the big prize in our victory – but he could have checked a Canadian Encyclopedia:
The War of 1812 (which lasted from 1812 to 1814) was a military conflict between the United States and Great Britain. As a colony of Great Britain, Canada was swept up in the War of 1812 and was invaded a number of times by the Americans. The war was fought in Upper Canada, Lower Canada, on the Great Lakes and the Atlantic, and in the United States. The peace treaty of Ghent, which ended the war, largely returned the status quo. However, in Canada, the war contributed to a growing sense of national identity, including the idea that civilian soldiers were largely responsible for repelling the American invaders.
Canadians do take the War of 1812 seriously – as a point of pre-national pride. Some advisor or other could have looked that up. They’re repelling the American invaders once again – and they didn’t burn down the damned White House way back when. Justin Trudeau must have been banging his head on his desk. There’s no way to deal with this belligerent man who doesn’t ever seem to know what he’s talking about.
Of course Americans remember the War of 1812 differently. Americans remember the Battle of New Orleans – Major General Andrew Jackson prevented a much larger British force from seizing New Orleans and the rest of what the United States had acquired with the Louisiana Purchase. That was a great victory – December 14, 1814 through January 18, 1815 – but the Treaty of Ghent had been signed on December 24, 1814 and neither side knew that the war was already over. It was a great victory – all of the British forces had retreated. It was also kind of dumb. And no Canadians were involved.
Baby boomers, like Trump, might remember the 1958 movie – Yul Brynner as Jean Lafitte, the dashing French buccaneer who helped out Andrew Jackson, played by Charlton Heston. It was rousing. Baby boomers, like Trump, also might remember that year Johnny Horton had a big hit with his version of The Battle of New Orleans
We fired our guns and the British kept a-comin’
There wasn’t nigh as many as there was a while ago
We fired once more and they began to runnin’
On down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico…
That was rousing too. Baby boomers, like Trump, don’t remember that, had there been better communication systems at the time, everyone involved could have had a beer and played cards in the shade, or napped. Donald Trump seems to have remembered Charlton Heston and Johnny Horton, and that someone once told him that the Canadians burned down the White House. It wasn’t like that? He doesn’t sweat the small stuff.
No one does that:
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert on Tuesday cited the D-Day invasion during an answer about the current state of US-German relations.
“We have a very strong relationship with the government of Germany,” Nauert said. “Looking back in the history books today is the 71st anniversary of the speech that announced the Marshall Plan. Tomorrow is the anniversary of the D-Day invasion. We obviously have a very long history with the government of Germany, and we have a strong relationship with the government of Germany.”
What? Was she saying the government of Germany helped us out on D-Day in our effort to rid the world of the government of Germany? Has the United States enjoyed a long relationship with Germany? Yes. Does D-Day serve as a helpful representation of that relationship? No. Nauert is a former Fox News “personality” who doesn’t sweat the small stuff.
And then there’s this:
U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, who is scheduled to meet with German Foreign Ministry officials on Wednesday, needs to rethink his role in Germany or risk becoming a “highly ineffective” ambassador, a prominent lawmaker from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives told Deutsche Welle.
“His time may be quickly running out to be an effective and workable ambassador to this country,” Andreas Nick, a Christian Democratic Union (CDU) lawmaker who also sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee in the German parliament, said on Tuesday.
This too has a bit to do with not paying attention to the details of history:
Grenell has been roundly condemned in Germany after he said it was his goal to “empower” anti-establishment conservative forces in Europe in an interview with right-wing news outlet Breitbart.
Grenell’s language, Nick said, was “highly inappropriate” and, when translated into German, reminiscent of language used by extremist politicians in the 1930s.
“If you translate ‘awakening’ and ’empowering’ in this context, very ugly German language comes up, which resonates with the 1920s and 1930s,” he said, adding that Grenell would “be well advised” to learn more about German history “and the sensitivities that result from that.”
There is not a strong relationship with the government of Germany now:
Asked whether Germany should expel Grenell, Nick said it was up to the United States to decide on its representative in Berlin. But he added that Grenell risked his long-term clout in Germany if he continued to act as he had until now.
That stems from this:
In a wide-ranging interview with Breitbart London that was released over the weekend, Mr. Grenell, who assumed his post just last month, said, “There are a lot of conservatives throughout Europe who have contacted me to say they are feeling there is a resurgence going on.”
Mr. Grenell praised Austria’s young chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, as a “rock star” of the right in the Breitbart interview. Mr. Kurz rose to power as foreign minister by criticizing Ms. Merkel’s open-door immigration policies, and banded together with Balkan nations to put a halt to the practice of waving illegal migrants over national borders.
Sebastian Kurz is a bit of a Nazi – or a national populist. There may be no difference now, but Grenell was a frequent commentator on Fox News and a longtime spokesman for John Bolton, Trump’s new national security advisor, another frequent commentator on Fox News, before he got his new job too. No one sweats the small stuff of history over there on Fox News.
There’s a trend here. The small stuff of history, even if it’s big stuff to others, really doesn’t matter. The necessary niceties of diplomacy – not attacking your closest allies – doesn’t matter either. Our new ambassador to Germany is telling the world that the current government of Germany ought to be more like the Nazis of old. That’s mere detail. An international trade war with escalating tariffs all around could crash the world’s economy. That’s mere detail too. That’s the small stuff.
There’s the big stuff. Greg Sargent sees that as this:
Remember when Republicans were going to make their tax cut the centerpiece of their strategy for the midterm elections? That plan is no longer operative. The new plan: Bet that President Trump’s race-baiting attacks on Democrats for coddling immigrant gang members, and on football players protesting systemic racism, energize the GOP and Trumpist base just enough to enable Republicans to hold on.
There are multiple reasons why this may get much, much worse, in effect producing a midterm election that is to no small degree a referendum on Trump’s racism and authoritarianism.
Keep it simple, and this is simple:
The Washington Examiner’s David Drucker reports that Republicans are increasingly planning to rely on Trump’s culture-war attacks – particularly those involving MS-13 and football players kneeling during the national anthem – to goose the base in the midterms.
Drucker sees this:
Trump’s habit of ignoring the economic message preferred by House and Senate Republicans in favor of the culture war tropes that propelled him to the White House is increasingly seen as an asset. Though provocative, the president’s rhetoric resonates with the base, offering Republicans a vehicle for matching the Democrats’ critical voter enthusiasm edge.
Sargent sees this:
Republicans are privately cheering Trump for claiming that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) loves MS-13. And as GOP consultant Brad Todd put it, Republicans believe that “cultural cudgels” like Trump’s attacks on African American football players as anti-American and anti-military are “all upside for him.”
There are multiple reasons why this may intensify. Republicans have already shown that they don’t think messaging on the tax cut works, having cycled out of it during their loss in Pennsylvania’s 18th District. Trump himself appears persuaded that the race baiting of kneeling football players will work: Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that Trump plans to periodically “revive” these attacks, because he believes doing so “revs up his political base.”
That makes things as simple as possible, as does this:
Meanwhile, various circumstances may bring immigration to the fore. Centrist House Republicans are pushing a discharge petition to force a vote to protect the “dreamers,” and GOP leaders are trying to find a compromise that Trump might sign – protecting the dreamers, plus cuts to legal immigration – to avert that outcome. It’s unlikely that Republicans will find this compromise, and if the discharge strategy does force a House vote protecting the dreamers, Trump will insist that Senate Republicans block it. Whatever is to be in this debate, as it comes to a head, Trump’s demagoguery about immigrants will veer headlong into his usual modes of xenophobia and hate.
It’s possible more young people will try to cross the border in the warming weather, which we already know triggers Trump – and more news may emerge about children getting separated from their parents, thanks to Trump’s “zero tolerance” border policies – further polarizing the country on these issues. On these things, GOP candidates may echo Trump to energize his voters.
That makes things as simple as possible, as does this:
Robert S. Mueller III’s probe may hit a climax of sorts soon, as he is expected to produce a report on whether Trump obstructed justice. As it is, Trump – with his claims of absolute power to pardon people associated with the probe, himself included, and his legal team’s insistence that he cannot obstruct justice by definition – is already descending into new authoritarian depths. Trump’s attacks on Mueller are dramatically eroding Mueller’s credibility with Republican voters, and we’ve already seen some GOP candidates start mimicking Trump’s authoritarianism, aping his calls for locking up Hillary Clinton and ending the Mueller investigation. If we learn more about Mueller’s findings, setting off Trump, all this could get louder.
This, then, is a process of ignoring that pesky small stuff:
As Ron Brownstein reported for the Atlantic, Republicans are basically betting their majorities on the idea that such racial and cultural provocations will boost turnout just enough among aging, blue-collar and rural white voters unhappy with the evolution of the country to enable them to prevail. The embrace of Trump’s latest attacks underscores that point. Of course, we’ve also seen Trump’s racism, xenophobia and authoritarianism trigger a massive backlash on the other side of this cultural divide, among younger and more diverse voters, and college-educated and suburban whites (see, for instance, the Virginia gubernatorial race). And the GOP’s embrace of Trump’s cultural attacks could keep fueling it through Election Day.
All that’s left is this:
Of course, it’s not clear if the anti-Trump backlash will be enough to deliver the House to Democrats. Indeed, Republicans, emboldened by their somewhat improved fortunes, appear to believe it might not be. Last night’s primary results suggest that confidence may be premature – as one GOP strategist commenting on the Missouri loss tells the Kansas City Star: “Every suburban Republican should be petrified tonight. This devastating loss signals they could lose this fall.”
That would comport with the story we’d been seeing before GOP fortunes ticked up, suggesting the new GOP confidence is overstated and that the previous dynamic is still in force. But either way, the GOP embrace of full Trumpism means they’re going to bet it all on this gamble.
That means that there is a clear choice now. Trump is right. Don’t sweat the small stuff. No one cares about the details. Trump is wrong. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. All those details matter. Choose one or the other, but choose carefully. Or move to Canada. They really didn’t burn down the White House. They’re rather nice people.