Everything has to end. The Elves had to leave Middle Earth – that was the point of Tolkien’s tale – “The world is changing: I feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth, and I smell it in the air. I do not think we shall meet again.”
And that was that – the Fourth Age of Middle Earth began – the Age of Men, men “who are so weak and so easily seduced by power” – but that was inevitable. The magic was gone, and that’s as good a metaphor as any for what Donald Trump has just done. The democracies of the West had banded together to defeat the directorships of the Axis – Germany and Japan and Italy. Then they banded together again, and brought in the new Germany and the new Japan, and built a new and prosperous world – and the Soviet Union fell apart. Francis Fukuyama said this was The End of History – “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government” – and so it seemed – until Donald Trump
That 2017 Turkish constitutional referendum should have been a warning. The legislature became “advisory” to the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He now decides what the laws are. The courts became “advisory” to Erdogan. He now decides what’s constitutional. A lot of journalists are now in jail. Erdogan has banned the teaching of evolution in their schools. Erdogan received a personal congratulatory phone call from President Trump. Donald Trump was impressed, but he’s impressed with Vladimir Putin too. That guy’s a strong leader. Maybe he has had a few journalists murdered but we kill people too – and Trump admires Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. That guy knows how to handle the drug problem. His military and police just kill drug dealers – no trial, no evidence that they were drug dealers, just the word on the street. Duterte says he’s shot some of them himself, and thrown more than a few out of helicopters. And Trump is impressed with Abdel Fattah el-Sisi too – the President of Egypt, in office since 2014, because that democracy thing just wasn’t working out. The Egyptian people turned to a military guy to run things, again, a guy who would say what’s what and that was that – and of course Trump is not impressed with Angela Merkel or Emmanuel Macron or Theresa May and certainly not with Justin Trudeau. They’re weak leaders. They let their press say whatever their press wants to say. They let their people demonstrate in the streets, often against their own policies. Theresa May won’t even stop demonstrations against Donald Trump in the streets of London. Trump has yet to visit. Theresa May hasn’t laid down the law. She’s a weak leader. All four of them are weak leaders. They listen and make adjustments. They don’t lay down the law. Donald Trump has chosen sides.
Donald Trump has torn things up, and as Politico’s Annie Karni reports, that’s more than a metaphor:
Solomon Lartey spent the first five months of the Trump administration working in the Old Executive Office Building, standing over a desk with scraps of paper spread out in front of him.
Lartey, who earned an annual salary of $65,969 as a records management analyst, was a career government official with close to 30 years under his belt. But he had never seen anything like this in any previous administration he had worked for. He had never had to tape the president’s papers back together again.
Armed with rolls of clear Scotch tape, Lartey and his colleagues would sift through large piles of shredded paper and put them back together, he said, “like a jigsaw puzzle.” Sometimes the papers would just be split down the middle, but other times they would be torn into pieces so small they looked like confetti.
It was a painstaking process that was the result of a clash between legal requirements to preserve White House records and President Donald Trump’s odd and enduring habit of ripping up papers when he’s done with them – what some people described as his unofficial “filing system.”
But it had to be done:
Under the Presidential Records Act, the White House must preserve all memos, letters, emails and papers that the president touches, sending them to the National Archives for safekeeping as historical records. White House aides realized early on that they were unable to stop Trump from ripping up paper after he was done with it and throwing it in the trash or on the floor, according to people familiar with the practice. Instead, they chose to clean it up for him, in order to make sure that the president wasn’t violating the law.
And it was a group effort:
Lartey did not work alone. He said his entire department was dedicated to the task of taping paper back together in the opening months of the Trump administration.
One of his colleagues, Reginald Young Jr., who worked as a senior records management analyst, said that during over two decades of government service, he had never been asked to do such a thing.
“We had to endure this under the Trump administration,” Young said. “I’m looking at my director, and saying, ‘Are you guys serious?’ We’re making more than $60,000 a year; we need to be doing far more important things than this. It felt like the lowest form of work you can take on without having to empty the trash cans.”
These two career government officials were being punished – they had somehow crossed one of Trump’s appointees – but the menial work wasn’t enough. Both of them were just fired – no reason given. That’s why they talked to Politico, as if it matters. It doesn’t matter. This is just a metaphor.
That’s a metaphor for this:
President Trump left America’s closest allies dismayed Sunday after he yanked the U.S. endorsement of a Group of Seven economic agreement and then unleashed a Twitter attack – echoed by further harsh criticisms from his White House advisers – on Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Trump’s actions deepened the divide between the United States and its allies, and European leaders Sunday expressed shock and resignation at this latest sign that the president is eager to defy diplomatic norms and blow up trade relationships that have been strong for decades.
Trump is tearing all of that up:
Trudeau had hosted the G-7 summit in Quebec. The leaders of the seven industrial powers had managed by Saturday to overcome their differences and cobble together a joint communique expressing common principles and economic aspirations.
Trudeau announced the agreement at a news conference, and then, taking questions from reporters, reiterated his objections to Trump’s imposition of tariffs on steel and aluminum from Canada, Mexico and the European Union.
Trump took umbrage at those comments. Traveling on Air Force One to Singapore for the historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, Trump charged Trudeau with “false statements” and accused him of being “dishonest” and “weak.”
No one knew what Trump was talking about, but it didn’t matter:
The White House tripled down on the Trudeau attack when it sent two top aides onto the Sunday morning talk shows. One of them said that the bizarre aftermath of the G-7 economic summit was a political calculation, meant to show muscularity in advance of the Singapore summit.
“POTUS is not gonna let a Canadian prime minister push him around,” Trump’s chief economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, said on CNN’s State of the Union. “He is not going to permit any show of weakness on the trip to negotiate with North Korea.”
“So this was about North Korea?” CNN host Jake Tapper asked.
“Of course it was, in large part,” Kudlow said. “Kim must not see American weakness.”
So, Justin Trudeau has nothing to do with this, or he did:
Peter Navarro, Trump’s top trade adviser, denounced Trudeau with language rarely used even against America’s adversaries.
“There’s a special place in hell for any foreign leader that engages in bad-faith diplomacy with President Donald J. Trump and then tries to stab him in the back on the way out the door,” Navarro said in an interview on Fox News Sunday. “And that’s what bad-faith Justin Trudeau did with that stunt press conference.”
Well, Navarro had to say something:
There is no obvious precedent for such a coordinated and acerbic series of attacks by White House advisers on a stalwart U.S. ally. Some foreign policy experts argued that North Korea’s Kim could see the chaos at the end of the G-7 gathering as an opening to gain leverage on Trump in negotiations, with Trump looking to avoid having two summits collapse back to back.
That may be a legitimate concern, so Justin Trudeau and Canada had to be sacrificed, but there was this:
Trump had initially roiled the waters by saying Russia – expelled from what had been the G-8 after its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula – should have been allowed to participate. Trump later said that while he has strong personal relationships with Trudeau and other leaders, he believes their countries are ripping off the United States through high tariffs. He threatened to stop all trade with any country that did not lower or even eliminate tariffs.
No nation will do that. Tariffs are negotiated over time, over years. Trump says he’ll stop all trade with all of them anyway. Let the world’s economy collapse. Let American farms and businesses go under. He will NOT appear weak.
Oops. He just made Justin Trudeau appear strong:
Before he was elected Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau faced a consistent type of criticism from his opponents: he was too young and too eager to please, conservatives said. His economic plans added up to “unicorns and rainbows.” He did not have the gravitas to represent Canada internationally.
But President Trump has helped bring together the most bitter of Canadian enemies, as he lashed out at Trudeau following the Group of Seven meeting in Quebec, and even the country’s most staunch conservatives have publicly backed up their Liberal prime minister for taking a tough tone in the U.S.-Canada trade conflict.
“I think sometimes, you know, you have to tell the schoolyard bully that they can’t have your lunch money. And I think that’s what the prime minister did today,” said Jaime Watt, a Toronto-based conservative political strategist. “I think most Canadians would say that they were proud of their prime minister.”
That had to happen:
In the bigger picture, Trump’s provocations are gauged to elicit a reaction, others said – and Trudeau’s response, far from off-the-cuff snarkiness, is also carefully planned.
“You know, I think this is a case of ‘kick the dog,'” said Fen Hampson, a political scientist at Carleton University in Ottawa.
“My reading is that Trump is, you know, trying to negotiate with the Koreans and dealing with much bigger players, the Chinese and the Europeans, on trade issues. I think he’s trying to make an example of Canada. Canada’s a small, super-friendly ally and I think he’s just kind of sending a message to the rest of the world: ‘If we can treat the Canadian this way, you ain’t seen nothing yet in terms of what might be coming your way.'”
Trudeau sent a different message. Anyone can stand up to a bully, even Canada. Everyone should do that. Do the right thing, but Slate’s Josh Keating notes this:
Trump’s motives for sticking up for Russia may be murky, but he’s not wrong that the G-7 in its current incarnation sometimes appears anachronistic. The grouping, an informal institution rather than a chartered multilateral organization like NATO or the United Nations, was founded in the mid-1970s to coordinate responses to economic problems like the oil shock and inflation, but its remit eventually grew to encompass political and security issues. Today, a club that includes Italy and Canada but not China, India, or Brazil can hardly be said to represent the world’s leading economies.
But that doesn’t mean it’s useless:
To the extent that the G-7 still has a purpose, it’s as a forum for the leading “western” countries (in the political rather than geographic or cultural sense – Japan is a member), meaning they share a common commitment to democracy, free markets, and what’s become known as the “rules-based international order.” Membership was extended to Russia in 1998, creating the G-8, in hopes that it would encourage Russia’s integration into the west (and assuage Russian concerns about the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe). Vladimir Putin’s increasing authoritarianism made it clear those hopes were misplaced, and Russia was finally suspended after its annexation of Crimea in 2014. Now, Putin’s public appeal is largely based on his willingness to stand up to what he portrays as western pressure and bullying.
You can hear echoes of Putin’s posturing in Trump’s repeated insistence that U.S. trading partners have been ripping us off for years and that we see no tangible benefits from security alliances.
And that means Trump shouldn’t have been there at all:
While Trump often warns of the threats to “the West” and “our civilization” from immigration and terrorism, it’s been clear for a while now that he doesn’t really see himself as a “western” leader in the G-7 sense. Trump shows more affinity with – and has much nicer things to say about – leaders like Xi Jinping and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi than Trudeau or Merkel. Trump sees the Philippines’s extrajudicial killings as a model for drug enforcement and Saudi Arabia, notorious for its human rights abuses as well as abetting extremism, for fighting terrorism. At a time of growing consensus among leading industrialized countries about the urgency of fighting climate change, he’s working to pull the United States out of that fight entirely – he skipped meetings at the summit devoted to the topic on Saturday. His policies on trade are near-mercantilist and bafflingly inconsistent: He gives China credit for its trade policies, even those that have hurt the U.S. economy, but Canada apparently gets no such leeway. On immigration, his views are in line with Europe’s populist far-right, a stance made explicit by his ambassador to Germany last week. As for the “rules-based international order,” the American delegation reportedly objected to even including the phrase in the communiqué that Trump signed on to, then unsigned.
Trump was the odd man out before he even showed up, and David Frum, that Canadian-born former speechwriter for George W. Bush, who came up with the term Axis of Evil back in the day, has this to say:
“He’s like Heath Ledger’s Joker – but without the operational excellence.” That was the grim after-action assessment of one senior G7 official with whom I spoke in the shocked aftermath of President Donald Trump’s savage post-summit tweets.
That’s a good metaphor too:
To the very last minute, the Charlevoix summit seemed business-no-worse-than-usual. Trump had arrived at the summit in a credible semblance of a jolly mood. He joked about where he would site the condos if he redeveloped the hosting hotel. He assured the other heads of governments not to mind the false reports in the media. We’re all still friends, he said. We’re going to make a deal.
The United States still being the United States, the deal was made on America-friendly terms. Language praising the “rules-based international order” was struck to appease Trump. His aides explained: The guy campaigned against a system his voters think is broken. He can’t sign a document praising that system.
During the sessions, he was visibly swayed by the appeal from the other democratic leaders: The senior G7 official characterized the mood of accord that seemed to be taking hold during the summit hours: What are we fighting over? We’ve built something that has delivered more prosperity for more people than the world has ever seen. Can’t we keep it working? In the moment, Trump seemed to share the mood.
Whether or not the president’s demands made any sense even from the most parochial American point of view, his demands were to a considerable extent accommodated. Trump had issued orders, sent his people out to war, and won victories for his idiosyncratic approach to foreign affairs. As late as 3:30 on Saturday afternoon, all the conferees thought that the facade of Western unity had survived another day, another summit.
Not even the president’s testy Saturday morning attack-CNN press conference shook the assembly. On his way to the podium, he winked and joked – a performer about to mount a show. “Trump’s gonna Trump,” an official from another G7 government quipped to the official to whom I spoke.
But again, what happened after that had to happen:
Trump is recovering from two weeks of criticism that he went soft on the Chinese tech giant ZTE. A bipartisan group of 27 U.S. senators signed a letter criticizing him, and even Fox News chimed in. The president’s opponents suggested that his decision had been swayed by a state-owned Chinese company’s $500 million investment in an Indonesian project that had licensed Trump’s name.
Vexed by the criticism, Trump struck back at the readiest targets: America’s closest friends and allies. Rule-of-law democracies cannot deliver the emoluments Trump collects from more authoritarian regimes. They cannot expedite Ivanka Trump’s trademarks to gain favor. They don’t book their national-day celebrations in Washington’s Trump International Hotel.
That’s how Trump rolls, but Frum sees more than that:
This is more than a personal story. Trump is day by day abdicating U.S. leadership. “He is testing to the breaking point relationships that there was never any reason to test in the first place,” said the G7 official, resignedly.
The governments of the G7 are America’s closest partners and allies: “None of us has the luxury of being pissed off,” the official said. But from Canada, Trump has arrived in Singapore to meet North Korea’s Kim Jung-Un. It is a good guess that he will show himself much more respectful and conciliatory to this dictatorial adversary than to America’s democratic friends – by now, that’s a familiar pattern of Trump behavior.
Frum see that as the problem:
Trump is locked into a cycle in his top-level diplomacy: bully-cringe-bully-cringe. He bullies traditional friends and allies; he cringes to adversaries, dictators, and potential funding sources for Trump enterprises.
Bullying the G7 was the weekend’s story; cringing to North Korea – and behind it, China – will be the story of the week ahead.
Frum is not impressed, but the New York Times’ David Leonhardt sees more:
The alliance between the United States and Western Europe has accomplished great things. It won two world wars in the first half of the 20th century. Then it expanded to include its former enemies and went on to win the Cold War, help spread democracy and build the highest living standards the world has ever known.
President Trump is trying to destroy that alliance.
President Trump would deny that, and has denied that, but Leonhardt sees this:
Is that how he thinks about it? Who knows? It’s impossible to get inside his head and divine his strategic goals, if he even has long-term goals. But put it this way: If a president of the United States were to sketch out a secret, detailed plan to break up the Atlantic alliance, that plan would bear a striking resemblance to Trump’s behavior.
It would involve outward hostility to the leaders of Canada, Britain, France, Germany and Japan. Specifically, it would involve picking fights over artificial issues – not to win big concessions for the United States, but to create conflict for the sake of it.
A secret plan to break up the West would also have the United States looking for new allies to replace the discarded ones. The most obvious would be Russia, the biggest rival within Europe to Germany, France and Britain. And just as Russia does, a United States, intent on wrecking the Atlantic alliance, would meddle in the domestic politics of other countries to install new governments that also rejected the old alliance.
Check. Check. Check. Check. Trump is doing every one of these things.
And it was all about nothing:
The meeting’s central disagreements were over tariffs that Trump has imposed for false reasons. He claims that he’s merely responding to other countries. But the average current tariff of the United States, Britain, Germany and France is identical, according to the World Bank: 1.6 percent. Japan’s is 1.4 percent, and Canada’s is 0.8 percent. Yes, every country has a few objectionable tariffs, but they’re small – and the United States is not a victim here.
So Trump isn’t telling the truth about trade, much as he has lied about Barack Obama’s birthplace, his own position on the Iraq War, his inauguration crowd, voter fraud, the murder rate, Mexican immigrants, the Russia investigation, the Stormy Daniels hush money and several hundred other subjects. The tariffs aren’t a case of his identifying a real problem but describing it poorly. He is threatening the Atlantic alliance over a lie.
Something is up:
It is past time to take seriously the only explanation for all of Trump’s behavior: He wants to destroy the Western alliance.
Maybe it’s ideological, and he prefers Putin-style authoritarianism to democracy. Or maybe he has no grand strategy and Putin really does have some compromising information. Or maybe Trump just likes being against what every other modern American president was for.
Whatever the reason, his behavior requires a response that’s as serious as the threat. As the political scientist Brendan Nyhan pointed out, this past weekend felt like a turning point: “The Western alliance and the global trading system are coming under the same intense strain that Trump has created for our domestic institutions.”
This past weekend was a turning point, so Leonhardt offers this:
A few Republicans, like John McCain, offered appropriately alarmed words in the last two days. Now members of Congress need to do more than send anguished tweets. They should offer legislation that would restrain Trump and hold hearings meant to uncover his motives.
For American voters, it means understanding the real stakes of this year’s midterm elections. They are not merely a referendum on a tax cut, a health care plan or a president’s unorthodox style. They are a referendum on American ideals that are older than any of us.
Ah, but everything has to end. “The world is changing: I feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth, and I smell it in the air.” And there’s Donald Trump in the Oval Office out of blithe indifference or out of seething anger tearing up every piece of paper that crosses his desk. This age of the earth is over.