Constructive Disbelief

Hollywood depends on the willing suspension of disbelief. That’s a bargain the audience makes with the director. The audience knows those are actors on the screen, not the purported real people, and they’re probably on a sound-stage in front of a green-screen, not floating in a lifeboat in the North Atlantic. The audience is willing to forget all that and play along, wiling to suspend their disbelief, if you scare them, or move them to tears, or make them laugh. They’ll do that if you keep your end of the bargain – if you make the actions and reactions seem real, or probable, or at least possible.

That’s tricky. There was that 1944 film Lifeboat – survivors from a freighter torpedoed by a Nazi U-boat huddle together in the North Atlantic and die off, one by one, as things get really nasty. Alfred Hitchcock was unhappy with the over-the-top score from Hugo Friedhofer – all the swelling violins bothered him. It just seemed wrong. It wasn’t realistic. Hitchcock asked a question that he thought would settle the matter, and rid him of that stupid score. Where does the music come from? The reply from Friedhofer was classic – the same place the cameras come from.

The score stayed in. The audience has already willingly suspended its natural disbelief, in exchange for what “seemed” real, or at least possible. The violins stayed. They enhanced the tale, and perhaps Donald Trump knows all about such things. Give people what they want to believe, and scare them, or move them to tears, or make them laugh, or make them white-hot angry, and then, while they may not believe anything you tell them, they will suspend their disbelief – for the emotional high – what you say just might be so, or could be so, maybe. Mexico, totally humiliated, just might pay for that wall. There is no wall. Mexico isn’t paying for anything. But damn, that would make a great movie!

The willing suspension of disbelief can be emotionally satisfying. China is paying every penny of those new tariffs and Americans are rolling in money now. That Kim fellow in North Korea is our friend, and so is Vladimir Putin, and so is the new Crown Prince in Saudi Arabia, the one who orders that pesky journalists are chopped to death, chopped into little pieces. Don’t some American journalists deserve that? And of course all the NATO nations have been taking us for a ride – they pay nothing and we pay everything – so they are the enemy. And so is the European Union with their restrictions on American beef and chicken because they say that is filled with hormones and antibiotics and whatnot. And they won’t import our giant cars. So the European Union is our enemy too – especially Germany with their fancy cars sold here. And then there’s Canada and Mexico and NAFTA – they’ve been cheating us and laughing at us behind our backs for a generation. They are the enemy. So is Japan. So is South Korea. Everyone is out to cheat us. The only nations we can trust are Russia and Saudi Arabia and North Korea. Are you taking notes? Nothing is what you thought it was.

Who are you going to believe? Did the Russians meddle in the 2016 election? All our intelligence services say they did, all western intelligence services say that. They have proof – but last year, in Helsinki, President Trump said that while there may be proof, Vladimir Putin told him, very strongly, that the Russians did nothing of the sort. And then he added that he didn’t know why Russian would meddle in our elections. And then, one day later, he said he actually said he didn’t know why Russian would NOT meddle in our elections and the lying cheating fake-news American press refused to report that. Then everyone rolled the tape. He had said what he said in the first place, and he shrugged, and then everyone forgot about it.

There was no point in arguing about it. His base believes him and Putin and Kim and that Crown Prince, and doesn’t believe our intelligence services – or any part of the “deep state” that’s out to overturn the election of the best president ever in an actual coup d’état – and they certainly don’t believe the “fake news” at all – also out to get Trump and his kids and them too. That sort of thinking generates a mighty fine emotional high. Even if none of it is true, it ought to be true, just like Mexico paying for the imaginary wall. This is the willing suspension of disbelief.

And now it’s the National Weather Service. The next time they say a hurricane is coming, with their fancy maps, or issue a tornado warning, or any sort of severe-weather warning, do NOT believe a word of it. They’re part of the deep state too, out to make this president look bad. There is no hurricane out there. There never was. There will be no tornadoes. Trust you president. Never trust the National Weather Service ever again. They hate Trump.

Yes, that’s absurd, but that’s where this is heading:

A top official at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reportedly sent out a memo to the agency’s employees last week telling them not to contradict President Donald Trump’s incorrect claim that Hurricane Dorian was going to hit Alabama.

According to documents obtained by the Washington Post, the official sent the warning to staffers after the National Weather Service in Birmingham corrected Trump’s false claim and assured Alabamians that their state wouldn’t be impacted by the hurricane.

This is the new policy at NOAA – you may have the data and all the facts, but if president Trump asserts something else, never contradict him, and keep your actual scientists quiet:

The Post reported on Saturday that NOAA had also sent its scientists a similar memo after Trump flaunted a map of the hurricane’s trajectory that featured a hand-drawn bubble to include Alabama, which was reportedly drawn by Trump himself.

The memos were sent out before the NOAA released a statement on Friday backing Trump’s claim, saying that the NWS in Birmingham “spoke in absolute terms that were inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time.”

In short, never be sure of your facts, because this president deals in what he thought he heard, or kind of remembered something about what he once heard. Defer to him, or don’t:

NOAA came under fire for the statement, which critics (including former NOAA officials) assailed as an attempt to politicize the agency and side with the President in contradiction to what the agency’s own scientists had forecasted.

That went like this:

The American Meteorological Society tweeted, “AMS believes the criticism of the Birmingham forecast office is unwarranted; rather they should have been commended for their quick action based on science in clearly communicating the lack of threat to the citizens of Alabama.”

Dan Sobien, president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization, called NOAA’s action “utterly disgusting.”

Elbert “Joe” Friday, former Republican-appointed director of the NWS, said on Facebook, “This rewriting history to satisfy an ego diminishes NOAA.” He told the Associated Press, “We don’t want to get the point where science is determined by politics rather than science and facts. And I’m afraid this is an example where this is beginning to occur.”

W. Craig Fugate, who was Florida emergency management chief under Republican Gov. Jeb Bush and director of FEMA under Democratic President Obama, said the action “falls into such uncharted territory – you have science organizations putting out statements against their own offices. For the life of me I don’t think I would have ever faced this under President Obama or Governor Bush.”

Jane Lubchenco, NOAA administrator during the Obama administration, tweeted, “Using woefully out of date information is truly irresponsible, especially for a rapidly evolving situation. But covering up that mistake, and blaming the blameless is appalling.”

Why do these people hate Donald Trump? Expect a new discussion among Republicans now. Should the National Weather Service – like the EPA – be shut down entirely? Should it be abolished? Or should it, at least, be staffed by those loyal to Trump, not meteorologists and other scientists?

This is matter of suspending your disbelief in this president. Maybe he is, as he says again and again, a very stable genius. Maybe he does know more about ISIS and all that stuff than all of the generals combined. Maybe he knows exactly what’s up everywhere in the world and is ten steps ahead of everyone, or maybe not:

President Trump said on Saturday that he had canceled a secret meeting at Camp David with Taliban leaders and the president of Afghanistan and was calling off months-long negotiations that had appeared to be nearing a peace agreement.

“Unbeknownst to almost everyone,” Mr. Trump wrote in a series of tweets, Taliban leaders and the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, were headed to the United States on Saturday for what would have been a politically fraught meeting at the president’s official Camp David retreat in Maryland.

But Mr. Trump said that “in order to build false leverage,” the Taliban had admitted to a suicide car bomb attack on Thursday that had killed an American soldier and 11 others in the capital of Kabul. “I immediately cancelled the meeting and called off peace negotiations,” he wrote.

“If they cannot agree to a ceasefire during these very important peace talks, and would even kill 12 innocent people, then they probably don’t have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway,” Mr. Trump added. “How many more decades are they willing to fight?”

But something seemed wrong here:

A surprise summit at Camp David with leaders of an insurgent group that has killed thousands of Americans since the October 2001 invasion of Afghanistan would have been a sensational diplomatic gambit, on par with Mr. Trump’s meetings with the once-reclusive North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. A senior administration official said the meeting had been planned for Monday, just two days before the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which were plotted from Afghanistan and led to the United States’ invasion of the country.

There is that – the Taliban welcomed by the president at Camp David on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks they helped arrange – and there is this:

Mr. Trump’s statement also appears to scuttle – for now – his longstanding hope to deliver on a campaign promise to withdraw American troops from an 18-year conflict that he has called an aimless boondoggle.

It comes amid stubborn resistance within Afghanistan’s government about the peace agreement that had been under discussion, not only for security reasons but also because Mr. Ghani has been determined to preserve a planned Sept. 28 election, which he is favored to win. The Taliban have insisted on postponing the election before proceeding with negotiations with the Afghan government.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani wants nothing to do with this, and it may be that Trump realized that:

Several people familiar with the diplomacy between the Trump administration and the Taliban puzzled over Mr. Trump’s stated decision to cancel peace negotiations entirely in response to one American casualty, however tragic. The Taliban had not agreed to halt their attacks on Americans in advance of a formal agreement. That raised the question of whether Mr. Trump might have been looking for a pretext because the talks had run into trouble.

Something else was going on here, and at Politico, Victoria Guida sees this:

The decision has imperiled what was, in the scope of Trump’s presidency, a relatively successful diplomatic effort so far to bring an end to the 18-year war in Afghanistan. It also adds to a growing list of Trump’s negotiating shortfalls – from Iran to North Korea to China – that gives ammunition to Democrats seeking to unseat him. The fact that the meeting could have happened the same week as the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks especially outraged Trump critics.

“This isn’t a game show. These are terrorists,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who is vying for the Democratic presidential nomination, said of the Taliban on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday. “The way he conducts foreign policy, this reminds me exactly of North Korea. He loves the showmanship. He wants to have that moment, but then all the details aren’t done, and then we end up in a worse place on the world stage than we were before.”

Trump’s first defense secretary, Jim Mattis, while not criticizing the president directly, called for caution on Sunday. “When we reduced nuclear weapons with Russia, we talked about trust but verify,” Mattis said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “In this case with this group, I think you want to verify then trust.”

Mattis prefers understatement, but this was no time for that:

Trump’s advisers aren’t all on the same wavelength when it comes to dealing with the Taliban. National security adviser John Bolton has been highly skeptical of the talks, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has backed the diplomatic efforts so far. The dissonance has caused friction between the two men and their aides.

According to a person familiar with the discussions, Bolton told Trump that he opposed holding talks at Camp David. And during a meeting of top national security officials on Aug. 29, Bolton said he opposed any deal with the militant group and urged the president to simply scale down the U.S. troop presence to around 8,600 – essentially the same level it was at the end of the Obama administration.

Bolton said Trump could cast the remaining troop force as being for counterterrorism, according to the person familiar with the issue, although Defense officials have said the 8,600 figure would include other U.S. troop missions, such as advising regional Afghan military units. In Bolton’s view, Trump could declare a political victory by reducing the troop number and not signing a deal.

“The president can say, ‘I ended the war in Afghanistan,'” the person said.

In short, declare victory and go home – but don’t go home. Keep all the troops there and just say they’re not really “troops” now, so maybe they’re really not there. And say, loudly, that you ended the war in Afghanistan, and then keep the war going. People will believe anything, if it’s what they want to believe – so give them that emotional high. Mike Pompeo wants peace talks and an agreement and a withdrawal. Why? There’s an alternative. Lie.

And that may be the plan:

Before he ran for president, Trump repeatedly said the U.S. should get out of Afghanistan. After taking office, he grudgingly accepted that American troops might need to stay – and in fact ordered a modest surge of several thousand troops in the country. About 14,000 American troops are in Afghanistan now, but the president has remained eager to cut the number down and is likely to talk about his vision during future visits to U.S. regions that are home to many troops, such as Fayetteville, N.C., where he will hold a campaign rally on Monday.

He can say all the troops are flying home as he speaks, and that their airfare was paid by Mexico, and that the Taliban are our friends now, but that’s a stretch:

It’s not the first time Trump, a real estate mogul and reality show star who wrote a book called “The Art of the Deal,” has stumbled in his attempts to strike deals that he promised voters in 2016 would give the U.S. an edge.

He has been unable to secure a new, more comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran as he promised he would do. He has met three times with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, but has made little progress in getting Kim to abandon his nuclear arsenal. His trade talks with China are going nowhere. And while his administration did manage to come to a new trade deal with Canada and Mexico to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement, it has yet to gain approval in Congress and it’s not drastically different from NAFTA itself.

A former Trump adviser who remains close to the campaign acknowledged on Sunday that inviting the Taliban to Camp David was “stupid,” saying it appeared as if it was a reward.

This man may be not good at deals after all:

Ned Price, a former top Obama administration official now working with Democratic campaigns, cautioned that Trump’s cancellation of the talks could be – at least in the president’s mind – an attempt to gain leverage. He pointed out that Trump temporarily called off his first summit with North Korea’s Kim before agreeing to meet.

“I don’t think we can be sure that this isn’t just a negotiating tactic,” Price said, “because I think the lure of the deal is always going to be paramount in Trump’s mind.”

But a former U.S. defense official with recent Afghanistan experience suggested that the Trump administration overestimated the degree of leverage it might gain over the Taliban with the public cancellation.

“It’s the predictable fallout from an unpredicted move,” the former official said. “It all contributes to a Taliban narrative that we can’t be trusted.”

And there are domestic issues too:

Republican congressman Adam Kinzinger of Illinois gave Trump a dressing down. “Never should leaders of a terrorist organization that hasn’t renounced 9/11 and continues in evil be allowed in our great country. NEVER. Full stop,” he tweeted shortly after Trump’s announcement, also via Twitter, on Saturday night…

On Sunday, Liz Cheney, a Republican congresswoman representing Wyoming, criticized the summit while supporting its cancellation. “Camp David is where America’s leaders met to plan our response after al Qaeda, supported by the Taliban, killed 3000 Americans on 9/11. No member of the Taliban should set foot there. Ever,” she tweeted on Sunday morning.

Oops. That’s basically what Max Boot says:

“Deals are my art form,” President Trump proclaimed in his ghostwritten book, “The Art of the Deal.” “Other people paint beautifully on canvas or write wonderful poetry. I like making deals, preferably big deals.” It’s true that Trump likes making deals. He’s just not very good at it. In fact, he may be the worst dealmaker ever to occupy the Oval Office. The abrupt disintegration of his accord with the Taliban provides the latest evidence that he’s too impetuous and ignorant to be a successful negotiator.

Yes, this was not a brilliant move:

Disinviting terrorists from Camp David seems like a good idea. It’s appalling that Trump would have even considered hosting Taliban leaders just days before the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks plotted by their ally, Osama bin Laden. Imagine what Trump – who excoriated President Barack Obama for negotiating with the Taliban – would have said if Obama had invited them for a sleepover. But Trump’s explanation for the cancellation – as with most things he says – makes little sense.

The Taliban have been staging attacks throughout their negotiations with the United States – and Afghan and U.S. security forces have been carrying out operations against it. The United Nations reports that 1,366 civilians were killed and 2,446 wounded during the first half of the year. Maybe Trump cares only about U.S. casualties? Well, 16 additional U.S. troops have been killed by hostile action in Afghanistan so far this year. Sgt. Ortiz’s death was tragic but hardly a departure from the violent norm, because the Taliban never agreed to a cease-fire.

It is bizarre to call off negotiations because the other side continues doing something it never agreed to stop doing.

And then the New York Times provided more detail:

What would have been one of the biggest headline-grabbing moments of Donald Trump’s tenure was put together on the spur of the moment and then canceled on the spur of the moment. The usual National Security Council process was dispensed with; only a small circle of advisers was even clued in.

And even after it fell apart, Mr. Trump took it upon himself to disclose the secret machinations in a string of Saturday night Twitter messages that surprised not only many national security officials across the government but even some of the few who were part of the deliberations.

But he had a plan:

Mr. Trump did not want the Camp David meeting to be a celebration of the deal. After staying out of the details of what has been a delicate effort in a complicated region, Mr. Trump wanted to be the dealmaker who would put the final parts together himself, or at least be perceived to be.

Daniel Larison sums this up:

The deal itself left much to be desired. Thousands of American troops would have remained in Afghanistan even after it was implemented. But it did offer a chance to bring our longest war to an end, and if he had had slightest idea what he was doing Trump could have seized that opportunity. As it turned out, he would rather blow up talks than not be able to take personal credit for the result. That is a warning to every other government that tries to negotiate with this administration that nothing Trump’s representatives say can be relied on, and the president may yank the rug out from under their feet at any time.

But that’s not all:

Trump is a provocateur, and he doesn’t have the concentration or discipline to complete any diplomatic initiative. The president had an opportunity to stop more Americans from having to fight and die in Afghanistan, and he squandered it. That is the real scandal here, and the president is the one responsible for it.

But to those who want to believe that inviting the Taliban to Camp David to make a deal with them, two days before September 11, and then announcing to the world they weren’t welcome, not now, because Donald Trump had suddenly realized that they were not good people, was a brilliant move, this was a brilliant move. All his moves are brilliant. And the National Weather Service has sided with the enemy of the people, the press, and said that hurricane was never going to come even close to hitting Alabama. So don’t believe them. Believe him. Agree to that. Willingly suspend your disbelief. It’ll feel so good!

That only works in the movies. That’s the devil’s bargain.

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 Constructive Disbelief

  1. Rick Brown says:

    I like your theory, that Donald Trump is asking Americans for their “willful suspension of disbelief” in exchange for him supplying them with more excitement than they’re used to receiving from their supreme leader.

    Of course, he’s gotten used to his audiences doing that, having performed in so-called “reality television”, and while it probably did work on those people out there who chose to watch his show, he forgets that for most of us out here didn’t watch it. He’s relying on a deal made with a receptive but relatively small audience, forgetting that it’s an agreement that doesn’t come with the unwritten social contract implied in Democratic governance, which is the contract that most of us have with him.

    In short, the American people didn’t hire him to entertain us, we hired him to execute the policies that we, the majority, through our elective representatives, want him to do.

    He seems to be making the mistake that virtually all his predecessors had the decency to avoid, which is playing to the peanut gallery that elected him instead of using the opportunity provided by his accidental victory to build on his base and to govern for all Americans, even those who didn’t vote for him. And if he thinks that pleasing the minority instead of the majority of the country is the proper thing to do in this situation, he should stop and examine how he’s destroying the country, and then do the decent thing by just resigning.

    And while he’s up and reexamining his abilities, he should stifle that silliness about him being an “artist” at making “great deals” — a reputation apparently birthed from somewhere inside his own skull and popularized by his former alter ego spokesman, “John Barron”, back in his New York City days — since it’s becoming more and more evident to everybody that his deal-making skills rival, say, those of the late Yasser Arafat, which is to say, “Lots of whiz-bang excitement, but in the end, nothing worth bragging about.”

    He may think the public doesn’t mind his constant bullshitting, but he’s wrong; we do. All he need do is ask us.


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