The Bluff

Everyone remembers the 1923 Conference of Lausanne, the international conference called to update European defense treaties to account for the rise of the new post-Ottoman Turkey. No? That’s okay. Everyone remembers Ernest Hemingway’s dispatch from Lausanne from January 27, 1923, to the Toronto Daily Star, headlined Mussolini: Europe’s Prize Bluffer:

Mussolini is the biggest bluff in Europe. If Mussolini would have me taken out and shot tomorrow morning I would still regard him as a bluff. The shooting would be a bluff. Get hold a good photo of Signor Mussolini sometime and study it. You still see the weakness in his mouth which forces him to scowl the famous Mussolini scowl that is imitated by every 19-year-old Fascisto in Italy. Study his past record. Study the coalition that Fascismo is between capital and labor and consider the history of past coalitions. Study his genius for clothing small ideas in big words… And then look at his black shirt and white spats. There is something wrong, even histrionically, with a man who wears white spats with a black shirt.

There is not space here to go into the question of Mussolini as a bluff or as a great and lasting force. Mussolini may last fifteen years or he may be overthrown next spring by Gabriele D’Annunzio, who hates him.

Think of Gabriele D’Annunzio as the Italian Joe Biden of the time, a pleasant old-school gentleman of politics, who had no use for the bluff and bluster of Mussolini, and of course the media-savvy Benito Mussolini is Donald Trump:

The Fascist dictator had announced he would receive the press. Everybody came. We all crowded into the room. Mussolini sat at his desk reading a book. His face was contorted into the famous frown. He was registering Dictator. Being an ex-newspaperman himself he knew how many readers would be reached by the accounts the men in the room would write of the interview he was about to give. And he remained absorbed in his book. Mentally he was already reading the lines of the two thousand papers served by the two hundred correspondents. “As we entered the room the Black Shirt Dictator did not look up from the book he was reading, so intense was his concentration, etc.”

I tiptoed over behind him to see what the book was he was reading with such avid interest. It was a French-English dictionary – held upside down.

Was that true? It didn’t matter. It seemed true, and that anecdote became famous, and Hemingway closed his dispatch with this:

A new opposition will rise, it is forming already, and it will be led by that bold, bald-headed, perhaps a little insane but thoroughly sincere, divinely brave swashbuckler, Gabriele D’Annunzio.

That new opposition amounted to nothing. Gabriele D’Annunzio became an obscure historical footnote. Benito Mussolini went on to power and fame, until April 1945, when he and his mistress Clara Petacci were shot and their bodies were hung upside down from the roof of an Esso gas station in Milan, and then stoned from below. The Italian Resistance had finally called that man’s bluff. Hemingway went on to write novels. That was for the best. His newspaper reporting wasn’t objective at all. But he had nailed Mussolini.

And then there’s Donald Trump:

Toughness, more than any other attribute, is what Mr. Trump has sought to project during his short and successful political career – and he believes his behavior makes him look tougher, no matter what the press thinks.

As a presidential candidate, he wanted to look dour, and vetoed any campaign imagery that so much as hinted at weakness, aides said. That is why every self-selected snapshot – down to the squinty-eyed scowl attached to his Twitter account – features a tough-guy sourpuss. “Like Churchill,” is what Mr. Trump would tell staffers when asked what look he was going for.

He may have been going for Churchill but every self-selected snapshot sure looked like that classic 1923 Mussolini sneer Hemingway saw.

That’s been a bit unsettling, but the parallel may be farfetched, or maybe not. Lesley Stahl certainly isn’t Ernest Hemingway, but she did a parallel interview:

President Donald Trump defied climate scientists, intelligence specialists and even his own defense secretary on Sunday evening, capping a week of freewheeling press engagements with a sprawling primetime network television interview in which he portrayed himself as an isolated but eminently empowered commander in chief.

“I felt comfortable at the beginning, other than it was a little surreal to say I’m the president of the United States, but I think that’s true with everybody,” Trump told journalist Lesley Stahl during an interview on CBS’ “60 Minutes” that aired Sunday evening.

“Now I very much feel like POTUS. I do,” he said. “I feel like the president.”

That set the tone. He is The Man now. He knows it. Everyone else should just deal with it, but of course everyone is out to get him:

Trump showed signs that reports from the last month – including an anonymous New York Times op-ed describing a “quiet resistance” within the Trump administration, as well as a story alleging that the deputy attorney general considered wearing a wire to record the president – have heightened his sense of loneliness and feelings of paranoia in the nation’s capital.

“I don’t trust everybody in the White House, I’ll be honest with you,” Trump said, revealing that he is “usually guarded” during meetings.

“I always used to say the toughest people are Manhattan real estate guys and blah, blah. Now I say they’re babies,” the president said, adding: “This is the most deceptive, vicious world. It is vicious; it’s full of lies, deceit and deception. You make a deal with somebody and it’s like making a deal with that table.”

But he himself is perfect, even if misunderstood:

Pressed by Stahl on whether he harbored any regrets from his almost two years in office, the president cited not his administration’s controversial “zero tolerance” immigration policy, his much-criticized response to the violence in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017, or the various scandals that have plagued several members of his Cabinet.

Instead, Trump lamented that “the press treats me so badly” and said he should have moved sooner to terminate the NAFTA trade agreement with Canada and Mexico.

In keeping with his condemnation of America’s long-standing allies and praise for its historic foes, the president bashed the European Union as a hostile league “formed in order to take advantage of us on trade” – declaring that “nobody treats us much worse” – and rebuked Defense Secretary James Mattis’ support for a multinational Western alliance.

The problem is that Mattis is a stupid man who knows nothing, while he himself knows better:

“Frankly, I like General Mattis,” Trump said. “I think I know more about it than he does. And I know more about it from the standpoint of fairness – that I can tell you.”

“I’m fully in favor of NATO, but I don’t want to be taken advantage of,” he continued.

And of course Mattis is disloyal to the whole idea of America:

The president did little on Sunday to tamp down escalating rumors that Mattis would be the latest high-level official to exit the administration. Last week, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, surprised much of the White House with her resignation announcement.

“I think he’s sort of a Democrat, if you want to know the truth,” Trump said of the four-star Marine general.

And yes, Trump does know better than those other people:

The president also dismissed the work of researchers studying increases in global temperatures that could threaten the well-being of the planet and exacerbate natural disasters, purporting that “they have a very big political agenda” and claiming that Earth’s climate “could very well go back.”

And this was predictable too:

After being read a litany of Kim Jong-Un’s alleged human rights abuses, however, Trump insisted he was “not a baby,” and was aware of the various cruelties the North Korean leader carried out against his people.

Still, the president said he shared “good energy” and “good chemistry” with Kim, and characterized his frequently warm words for the despot as a means to advancing America’s national security and improving diplomatic relations with a rogue nation.

“I get along with him really well,” Trump said, adding: “Look at the horrible threats that were made. No more threats. No more threats.”

Trump also brushed off purported assassinations and similarly malign behavior by President Vladimir Putin of Russia, commenting, “It’s not in our country.”

And that was about it – publicly humiliate our allies and praise Kim and Putin – say you know everything and others know nothing – and preen and scowl. It was 1923 again, but at least this guy wasn’t reading a French-English dictionary held upside down.

But the details were as disturbing:

The president raised eyebrows last month when at a rally he said he “fell in love” with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un over denuclearization letters. When Stahl pointed out that Kim is a brutal dictator who had his half-brother assassinated, conducts public executions, and oversees an oppressive regime, Trump tried to pretend like his love comments were just a “figure of speech.”

“I know all these things. I mean, I’m not a baby,” Trump said of Stahl’s listing of Kim’s record.

“I get along with him, okay?” he added.

“But you love him,” Stahl said. When Trump said it was a figure of speech, she retorted, “No, it’s like an embrace.”

He shrugged, and at this too:

When asked by Stahl whether he agrees that Putin has been involved in assassinations, Trump shrugged, “Probably he is, yeah. Probably.”

And when asked about Russian interference in US politics, Trump said he thinks that Russia meddled but that “China meddled too.”

“You are diverting the whole Russia thing,” Stahl said in the back-and-forth over Russia.

“I’m not doing anything,” Trump said.

That may have been a Freudian slip, but he was clear on climate change:

“I think something’s happening. Something’s changing and it’ll change back again. I don’t think it’s a hoax, I think there’s probably a difference. But I don’t know that it’s manmade. I will say this. I don’t want to give trillions and trillions of dollars. I don’t want to lose millions and millions of jobs. I don’t want to be put at a disadvantage.”

“I’m not denying climate change. But it could very well go back. You know, we’re talking about over a millions of years. They say that we had hurricanes that were far worse than what we just had with Michael.”

Lesley Stahl pressed Trump on who “they” were. Who was he citing? What has he been reading? He has no answer, other than saying that “they” were “people, you know, people.”

Mussolini was the biggest bluff in Europe, but Trump is a bluffer too, as Laura McGann notes here:

Donald Trump finally just said it: he doesn’t care if Christine Blasey Ford was telling the truth.

Journalist Lesley Stahl asked Trump in an interview aired on 60 Minutes Sunday night why he had mocked Ford at a rally a few days after she testified before the Senate that Brett Kavanaugh had attempted to rape her when they were teenagers.

“Do you think you treated her with respect?” Stahl asked.

“I think so, yeah, I did,” the president said.

Stahl followed up: “But you seem to be saying that she lied.”

“I’m not going to get into it,” Trump said. “Because we won. It doesn’t matter. We won.”

Trump turned the Republican subtext on Ford into text: Ford’s story – true or not – is not important.

You thought the truth was important? McGann says this was always about bluffing:

Most Republicans have said they “believe” Ford, as in, they believe she is the victim of the kind of assault she described before Congress. The testimony she presented sounded credible. They just think she is mixed up or confused about the details. Only one Republican senator objected to seating him on the Supreme Court.

Republicans were comfortable with Kavanaugh’s response to the accusations, which included lying about his past behavior, refusing to answer questions during a Senate hearing and losing his temper before the Judiciary committee on national television, including in his prepared remarks.

The contrast has stumped Ford supporters – how can Republicans not weigh the credibility of the two people in question and not be at least wary of Kavanaugh?

Trump solved the mystery. It doesn’t matter who is telling the truth.

Matthew Yglesias sees the same thing:

Donald Trump trusts Kim Jong-Un but not American climate scientists. He knows more about NATO than Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. He thinks the European Union was created to take advantage of America on trade. And he isn’t sure whether or not Vladimir Putin is involved in assassinations.

In short, his sit-down interview with 60 Minutes’ Lesley Stahl revealed the president of the United States to be grossly dishonest, woefully ill-informed, and congenitally incapable of admitting error or demonstrating any kind of moral or intellectual growth.

He is, in other words, totally unfit for high office and fairly obviously so. Even more amazingly, despite Stahl covering an incredibly wide range of issues she broke essentially no new ground. Every terrible, disqualifying thing he said was something he’s said before.

This was Lausanne in 1923 all over again, with new details:

One untrue thing Trump almost invariably says is that the US trade deficit with China costs us $500 billion a year. This is neither how trade deficits work, nor the correct figure which should be more like $350 billion.

For Sunday night’s performance, Trump was seemingly prepped that his number is wrong, but instead of using the accurate one he simply modified his usually statement, telling Stahl “I told president XI, we cannot continue to have China take $500 billion a year out of the United States in the form of trade and other things.”

What other things? Who knows?

And this:

Stahl asked Trump squarely why he never says anything harsh about Vladimir Putin, setting Trump up for what should have been one of the easiest layups in the history of American politics. Except he once again refused to take it.

Stahl: Well, I mean him personally, Vladimir Putin –

Trump: I think I’m very tough with him personally. I had a meeting with him. The two of us. It was a very tough meeting and it was a very good meeting.

Stahl: Do you agree that Vladimir Putin is involved in assassinations? In poisonings?

Trump: Probably he is, yeah. Probably. I mean, I don’t –

Stahl: Probably?

Trump: Probably, but I rely on them, it’s not in our country.


On its face this appears to be yet more damning, albeit circumstantial, evidence that Trump and the Russians are up to no good – complete with the oddly ominous “I rely on them” reference. Rely on them for what?

But in Trump’s defense – if you can call it a defense – he’s actually like this with a broad range of figures. He maintained that “nobody knows yet” who killed Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate even though there’s pretty clearly only one government that can be reasonably suspected of killing a Saudi dissident inside a Saudi government building. But Trump has his doubts because “they deny it.”

And then there’s the matter of the secretary of defense:

Mattis is, of course, not a Democrat. He is a career military officer and defense hawk who was fired by Barack Obama’s administration for his unwillingness to get on board with their diplomatic opening to Iran. That, in turn, is how he ended up working for Trump.

But Trump refuses to listen to anyone about anything, even subject-matter experts who clearly know more than he does. Instead he concocts a bizarre mirror universe in which Mattis holding a very normal Republican Party view about NATO becomes evidence that he’s a crypto-Democrat.

And then he believes that bizarre mirror universe is the real universe, but there’s a lot of such bluffing going on, as the New York Times’ Jim Rutenberg reports here:

Just six months ago, American media outlets presented a sunny-side-up portrait of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia as he made a good-will tour of New York, Hollywood and Silicon Valley.

Eager journalists captured him at Starbucks with Michael R. Bloomberg, strolling the Google grounds with Sergey Brin and dining with Rupert Murdoch. Built into the narrative was a mostly cheerful acceptance of the story Crown Prince Mohammed was selling about himself – that here, at last, was the modern Middle Eastern leader the West had been waiting for.

That story started to crack apart on Oct. 2, when the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a sharp critic of the Saudi government, walked into the country’s consulate in Istanbul and didn’t walk out.

Last week, American intelligence officials found supporting evidence for Turkish assessments that Mr. Khashoggi, who lived as an exile in Virginia and wrote opinion columns for The Washington Post, was murdered at the hands of the Saudis, who deny involvement. Fred Ryan, the publisher of the Post, called Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance a likely case of “state-sponsored, cold-blooded murder.”

That bluff fell apart:

The embrace between the American establishment and the leader known as MBS was set to continue in Riyadh later this month at a business conference hosted by Crown Prince Mohammed. The sponsors, partners and participants of the conference – known informally as “Davos in the Desert” – included a number of media companies: CNBC, The New York Times, Bloomberg, The Los Angeles Times, The Financial Times, The Economist, CNN and Fox Business Network.

With the exception of Fox, which is reviewing its participation, all of those organizations pulled out as the Khashoggi story climbed most-viewed article lists and drew cable coverage. The story’s popularity was helped along by its thriller-like qualities, which included the allegation that the journalist’s body was dismembered with the aid of a bone saw before it was removed from the consulate.

And suddenly the “MBS” moniker took on a grim new meaning among the plugged-in set of Washington: Mister Bone Saw.

And that bluff, as Philip Rucker reports, involves the bluffers in the White House:

When President Trump chose Riyadh to make his debut on the world stage last year, he was placing a bet on Saudi Arabia, which serenaded him with military bands, dazzled him with a flyover of fighter jets and regaled him with a traditional sword dance.

The mastermind behind that wager – the White House adviser who convinced Trump to visit Saudi Arabia for his maiden foreign trip and who choreographed a veritable lovefest between the new president and the desert kingdom’s white-robed ruler, King Salman bin Abdul Aziz – was Jared Kushner.

The president’s son-in-law has carefully cultivated a close partnership with the heir to the Saudi throne, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom Kushner has championed as a reformer poised to usher the ultraconservative, oil-rich monarchy into modernity.

But the U.S.-Saudi alliance – and the relationship between Kushner, 37, and Mohammed, 33 – is now imperiled by the un­explained disappearance and alleged gruesome murder of Jamal Khashoggi… Kushner, however, has already signaled that he has no intention of turning his back on the crown prince.

In short, keep the bluff going:

As Kushner and his father-in-law see it, the partnership has paid dividends in the form of Saudi pledges to purchase billions of dollars-worth of U.S. weaponry as well as the kingdom’s position as an Arab ally in countering Iran and in fighting extremism throughout the Middle East, according to administration officials.

Trump and Salman together convened 54 Muslim leaders to jointly condemn terrorism at a Riyadh summit in May 2017. And the Saudis built a center to combat extremist ideology, which Trump inaugurated during his trip by placing his hands on a glowing orb.

Kushner has celebrated Mohammed’s moves to modernize the Saudi economy and long-repressed society, including allowing women to drive and encouraging women’s entrepreneurship. Furthermore, he considers MBS an influential and wise sounding board on geopolitics in the Muslim world and holds out hope that the crown prince might eventually deliver the support of Saudi Arabia – home of the two holiest sites in Islam – for his foundering Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.

Others don’t see that:

U.S. intelligence officials who have been warily watching Mohammed’s rise since before he was appointed crown prince in June 2017 said they assessed him as a naive, inexperienced and ambitious upstart who was not prepared for a position of great power. They said they heard an echo of Mohammed in Kushner. Here, too, was a young, power-hungry “prince” with no track record in government…

Mohammed and Kushner became close early on in the Trump administration. They struck up a friendship at a White House lunch in March 2017 and had private, one-on-one phone calls that took senior intelligence leaders by surprise and worried career national security officials because note-takers were not always present, according to multiple people familiar with the relationship. One Trump adviser said it was “insane” how much Kushner spoke with Mohammed. The contents of some of those conversations remain a mystery…

That was a red flag:

Anxiety grew among some U.S. spies when they learned that foreign officials in at least four countries had privately discussed ways to manipulate Kushner by taking advantage of his complex business dealings, financial difficulties and lack of foreign policy experience, according to current and former U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence about those discussions. One of the countries was the United Arab Emirates, a key Saudi ally.

One senior U.S. intelligence official said that Kushner has come under the influence of Mohammed’s simplistic view of power dynamics in the Middle East. “MBS has an elevator pitch,” this official said, that Kushner has bought into: Iran is the main enemy and the single obstacle to peace and stability in the Middle East.

The reality is far more complicated. But this official said Kushner has appeared uninterested in studying the nuances of security dilemmas in the region and has skipped some intelligence briefings before some high-stakes negotiations.

That because he’s a bluffer like his father-in-law:

The administration voiced little public criticism when Mohammed seemed to overstep with the detention last fall of leading Saudi business executives and a bizarre episode involving what may have been the brief kidnapping of the Lebanese prime minister, nor when the Saudi crown prince picked a diplomatic fight this year with Canada, a close U.S. ally.

In general, Trump’s critics have said, the president’s admiration for strongmen and his reluctance to champion human rights and democracy make authoritarian leaders feel empowered because they do not fear U.S. retaliation.

Perhaps those authoritarian leaders see him sitting at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office pretending to read a book, his face contorted into the famous frown he has practiced in the mirror for years, the famous frown registering President, while knowing exactly how that will appear on television and in print – the world he really knows – and they feel empowered because know it’s all a bluff.

Why doesn’t everyone know that? Where is Hemingway when you need him?

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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1 Response to The Bluff

  1. barney says:

    Great read. Thank you.

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