The New Age of Kafka

The handsome and noble and brave Victor Lazlo in Casablanca – played by an Austrian, Paul Henreid – was Czech. That character had to be Czech. Czechs were heroes back then, and Neville Chamberlain had a bit to do with that. In 1938 he gave Hitler a big chunk of Czechoslovakia to assure “peace in our time” and got a World War instead. And then the Czech resistance gave Hitler no end of problems. And then the world suddenly loved the Czechs. They were the real good guys back then. They didn’t whine. They did the right thing. Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) was in awe of Victor Lazlo.

Those days are long gone, but those of us who are Czech still have our pride and our heroes. In politics it’s the late Václav Havel – the witty and humane dissident playwright and philosopher, and friend of Frank Zappa. Havel was the last president of the newly freed Czechoslovakia and then the first president of the new Czech Republic, the way-cool guy who blew away all the nastiness of the Soviet years with grace and irony. In music it’s Dvořák and Bedřich Smetana of course, and in literature it’s Milan Kundera – because The Unbearable Lightness of Being makes existential despair into a pleasant dance. Kundera may not count, however. He moved to Paris long ago and writes in French now.

And then there’s Franz Kafka – born into a middle-class, German-speaking Jewish family in Prague, and trained as a lawyer, but who worked at an insurance company and wrote in his spare time. That might explain a lot. He’s dark. There’s that tale of the guy who wakes up to find that he’s a cockroach – a metaphor of modern life perhaps. And there’s The Trial – about the guy locked up with no explanation. Even those who are putting him on trial don’t know what the charges are – but everything proceeds anyway. It can’t be stopped. He’s guilty, of something. No one’s sure what that is.

And he matters now, because this is the Age of Kafka, not the Age of Trump, unless they’re the same thing. It’s not just the thousands of little kids locked up alone in cages at our southern border, not knowing why they’re there or if they’ll ever see their parents again (they won’t) and not knowing what they can do about any of it (nothing) while our government doesn’t even know what comes next. That’s the Kafka tale come to life. But that may be our whole criminal justice system. We put a higher percentage of our citizens in prison than any other nation, anywhere, and everyone knows much of that is bullshit. Anyone can end up in jail, and not know why. Now and then, but not often, someone on death row, expecting execution, will be freed. They were innocent after all. Someone had been too eager. Someone had lied. Someone had been simply incompetent. Oops. But others we execute anyway. That’s why everyone talks about criminal justice reform. But nothing much changes. Kafka would understand.

All of that is dramatic, but it’s the small stuff too, the feeling big stuff is going on that no one will ever tell you about, even if they could, which perhaps they can’t, because everyone is a pawn in some game being played by others. Of course you’ll have questions. Don’t ask. You won’t get an answer. Just keep going. Maybe you’ll wake to find that you’re a cockroach, if you’re lucky, but would that even make a difference? Face it. You’re on trial every minute of every day and you’ll never know the charges. The most you can hope to do is to occupy a few cubic feet of space, with as much quiet dignity as you can manage, until you die. You’ll understand what Kafka was getting at.

Now people understand that. Consider the headline – ‘You’re a prop in the back’: Advisers struggle to obey Trump’s Kafkaesque rules – a bit of careful reporting from Ashley Parker and Philip Rucker in the Washington Post. Yes, it’s a Kafka thing:

In President Trump’s renegade orbit, there are unspoken rules he expects his advisers to follow. He tolerates a modicum of dissent, so long as it remains private; expects advisers to fall in line and defend his decisions; and demands absolute fealty at all times.

These rules and more were broken by John Bolton, the national security adviser who left the White House suddenly Tuesday on acrimonious terms.

The rupture between Trump and Bolton, as chronicled in public and in private accounts of administration officials, is a case study of the president’s sometimes Kafkaesque management style – an unusual set of demands and expectations he sets for those in his direct employ.

But really, you just don’t matter:

“You’re there more as an annoyance to him because he has to fill some of these jobs, but you’re not there to do anything other than be backlighting,” said Anthony Scaramucci, a former White House communications director who is now critical of Trump. “He wants, like, a catatonic loyalty, and he wants you to be behind the backlights. There’s one spotlight on the stage, it’s shining on Trump, and you’re a prop in the back with dim lights.”

And you won’t be there long:

Trump’s desires for his advisers range from the trivial – someone who looks the part – to the traditional – someone willing to vigorously support him and defend his policies in media appearances. But these demands can be grating and at times terminal for members of his staff – especially for those who, like the national security adviser, may find themselves at odds with the president on critical issues.

“There is no person that is part of the daily Trump decision-making process that can survive long term,” said a former senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment. “The president doesn’t like people to get good press. He doesn’t like people to get bad press. Yet he expects everyone to be relevant and important and supportive at all times. Even if a person could do all those things, the president would grow tired of anyone in his immediate orbit.”

There’s no possible way to win. Kafka would understand, but Kafka saw random indifference as the problem and never thought up a villain like this:

Current and former White House officials stress that Trump brokers and even encourages disagreement, but only to a point and only on his terms. The president enjoys gladiator fights – pitting his aides against one another like so many ancient Romans – but only if he can play emperor, presiding over the melee and crowning the victor.

“He has become more convinced than ever that he is the ‘chosen one,'” said Tony Schwartz, who co-wrote Trump’s 1987 bestseller, “The Art of the Deal” but has since become critical of the president. “The blend of the megalomania and the insecurity make him ultimately dismissive of anybody’s opinion that doesn’t match his own.”

But it’s more complicated than that:

Trump’s advisers can be arranged into several categories, as one former senior White House official explained. In bucket one, this person said, are those aides whose demise – often via tweet – is all but foregone, the result of the president’s coming to suspect that an adviser thinks he or she is smarter than he is or is trying to undermine him in some way. Rex Tillerson, Trump’s first secretary of state, is a cautionary tale of this category.

In bucket two sits the adviser who simply doesn’t gel with the president, ultimately failing to build the personal rapport necessary to survive, this person said. Trump may think this official is a good person who genuinely wants to help implement his policies – but for whatever reason, the adviser just irritates the president. H.R. McMaster, who preceded Bolton as national security adviser, is an example.

There is the politically expedient adviser, who brings Trump utility in the short term. Stephen K. Bannon, a former White House chief strategist, was useful early in the administration in helping to channel the hard-right base that lifted Trump to victory.

A final category is the shiny new toy – an adviser Trump has recently hired and is excited about, whether because of a tough nickname (James “Mad Dog” Mattis, Trump’s first secretary of defense) or because he or she has vigorously defended Trump on television.

Bolton moved through all the buckets before being unceremoniously dismissed.

And of course it actually comes down to this:

“He really doesn’t believe in advisers,” said a Republican in close touch with Trump, speaking on the condition of anonymity to share private conversations. “He really just has people around him he asks questions of. John Bolton saw his role as advisory, but Trump thinks he’s his own adviser, and I don’t think people fully appreciate this.”

Some people do appreciate that now, having learned the hard way this time:

Former Secretary of Defense Rex Tillerson, speaking to CBS News’s Bob Schieffer in December, described the president as “pretty undisciplined” and someone who “doesn’t like to read.” Tillerson also described an imperious president who would sometimes suggest ideas that were illegal.

“So often, the president would say, ‘Here’s what I want to do and here’s how I want to do it,’ and I would have to say to him, ‘Mr. President, I understand what you want to do, but you can’t do it that way. It violates the law,'” Tillerson said.

And there’s that other general:

After leaving the administration, John F. Kelly said serving as Trump’s second chief of staff was “the least enjoyable job I’ve ever had.” Asked during an appearance at Duke University what advice he had given to his successor, Mick Mulvaney, Kelly joked, “Run for it.”

Not everyone has that option, so it’s Kafka Time for them:

People who have known the president over the years stress that, for Trump, everyone is eventually expendable.

“When you use people like Kleenex, eventually the Kleenex is filled with snot, and you throw it out,” said “Art of the Deal” co-author Schwartz. “That’s the way Trump treats everyone.”

That may be so, but Kevin Drum sees a man in conflict:

Donald Trump has two warring traits when it comes to foreign policy. First, he likes to think of himself – and he likes others to think of him – as a tough guy. It’s central to his self-image. Second, he likes to think of himself as a dealmaker. He wants a deal in the Middle East. He wants a deal with North Korea. He wants a deal with China. He wants a deal with Iran.

And that means he doesn’t fit in on his own side of things:

Most conservatives don’t want deals at all. Most of them won’t quite say this outright, but they don’t. We see this over and over, from START to the Law of the Sea to Iraq to Israel. They want to squash their enemies, not compromise with them.

And that’s why John Bolton was doomed, but perhaps the best Trump could do at the time, but then perhaps the whole thing was hopeless from the start:

This leaves Trump with no good people to hire. He could hire a dealmaker, but most dealmakers are too dovish for his taste. He can hire tough guys, but he’ll soon learn that they have no interest in deals. There’s hardly anyone around who truly shares Trump’s values.

Drum, however, sees some good here:

One of Trump’s few redeeming qualities is that he genuinely isn’t very keen on military intervention. I suspect this stems more from a fear of losing than anything else, but who cares? At least it’s the right instinct. If he could find a competent NSA who shared his nationalistic impulses but was also eager to make deals with adversaries, he might actually get somewhere.

But there is no such person, The last person who wanted to make deals, not war, was Barack Obama – the wimp who was always talking about “leading from behind” and made bad deals – that TPP thing that had all the Pacific Rim nations ganging up on China and forcing China to behave better – the Iran nuclear deal that stopped all their work on these weapons for at least ten years – the Paris Climate agreement where each nation sets its own goals – all lousy deals made by a man who knew nothing about how a real (white) man makes good deals and doesn’t give away the store. Trump would show the world how it’s done – and right now he would cause so much pain in Iraq that they’d have to give in and bend to his will. Cause massive pain. They’ll give in. If they don’t give in, cause even more pain. They’ll give in. That’s how it’s done. Donald Trump is not Barrack Obama.

Fine, but Kevin Drum was right. This guy makes deals, not war, at least not now:

President Donald Trump has left the impression with foreign officials, members of his administration, and others involved in Iranian negotiations that he is actively considering a French plan to extend a $15 billion credit line to the Iranians if Tehran comes back into compliance with the Obama-era nuclear deal.

Trump has in recent weeks shown openness to entertaining President Emmanuel Macron’s plan, according to four sources with knowledge of Trump’s conversations with the French leader. Two of those sources said that State Department officials, including Secretary Mike Pompeo, are also open to weighing the French proposal, which would effectively ease the economic sanctions regime that the Trump administration has applied on Tehran for more than a year.

This is Trump saying he’d be willing to have the United States government pay Iran big bucks if they’d just agree to return to Obama’s original agreement with them to stop building nuclear warheads for at least ten years. He can be Obama too. He will be Obama:

The deal put forth by France would compensate Iran for oil sales disrupted by American sanctions. A large portion of Iran’s economy relies on cash from oil sales. Most of that money is frozen in bank accounts across the globe. The $15 billion credit line would be guaranteed by Iranian oil. In exchange for the cash, Iran would have to come back into compliance with the nuclear accord it signed with the world’s major powers in 2015.

Obama had been right all along, and now it was time to build on that:

Tehran would also have to agree not to threaten the security of the Persian Gulf or to impede maritime navigation in the area. Lastly, Tehran would have to commit to regional Middle East talks in the future.

While Trump has been skeptical of helping Iran without preconditions in public, the president has in public at least hinted at an openness to considering Macron’s pitch for placating the Iranian government – a move intended to help bring the Iranians to the negotiating table and to rescue the nuclear agreement that Trump and his former national security adviser John Bolton worked so hard to torpedo.

At the G7 meeting in Biarritz, France last month, Trump told reporters that Iran might need a “short-term letter of credit or loan” that could “get them over a very rough patch.”

What ever happened to inflicting massive pain and causing total humiliation as the only tools to win in these matters? That’s what Trump sold his base. That’s not what this is, because this is pure Obama:

The French proposal would require the Trump administration to issue waivers on Iranian sanctions. That would be a major departure from the Trump administration’s so-called “maximum pressure” campaign to exact financial punishments on the regime in Tehran. Ironically, during his time in office, President Barack Obama followed a not-dissimilar approach to bring the Iranians to the negotiating table, throttling Iran’s economy with sanctions before pledging relief for talks. The negotiations resulted in the Iran nuke deal that President Trump called “rotten” – and pulled the U.S. out of during his first term.

And now it’s not rotten? Perhaps so, but this item in the Daily Beast notes that Trump is not like Obama at all, having his own special motivations:

Trump’s flirtations with – if not outright enthusiasm toward – chummily sitting down with foreign dictators and America’s geopolitical foes are largely driven by his desire for historic photo ops and to be seen as the dealmaker-in-chief. It’s a desire so strong that it can motivate him to upturn years’ worth of his own administration’s policymaking and messaging.

That seems to be what’s happening here:

While President Trump has not agreed to anything yet, he did signal a willingness to cooperate on such a proposal at various times throughout the last month, including while at the G7 meeting in Biarritz, France, according to four sources with knowledge of the president’s conversations about the deal.

Several sources told The Daily Beast that foreign officials are expecting Trump to either agree to cooperate on the French deal or to offer to ease some sanctions on Tehran. Meanwhile, President Trump is also considering meeting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in September.

“I do believe they’d like to make a deal. If they do, that’s great. And if they don’t, that’s great too,” Trump told reporters Wednesday. “But they have tremendous financial difficulty, and the sanctions are getting tougher and tougher.” When asked if he would ease sanctions against Iran in order to get a meeting with Iran Trump simply said: “We’ll see what happens. I think Iran has a tremendous, tremendous potential.”

He’s wavering, and this seems to be why John Bolton quit, even if Trump says he fired him:

Trump’s willingness to discuss the credit line with the French, the Iranians and also Japanese President Shinzo Abe frustrated Bolton who had for months had urged Trump against softening his hard line against the regime in Tehran.

Bolton, who vociferously opposed the Macron proposal, departed the Trump administration on explicitly and mutually bad terms on Tuesday. On his way out of door, Trump and senior administration officials went out of their way to keep publicly insisting he was fired, as Bolton kept messaging various news outlets that Trump couldn’t fire him because he quit. The former national security adviser and lifelong hawk had ruffled so many feathers and made so many enemies in the building that his senior colleagues had repeatedly tried to snitch him out to Trump for allegedly leaking to the media.

On Tuesday afternoon, Bolton messaged The Daily Beast to say that allegations about him being a leaker were “flatly incorrect.”

But of course all of this may be wrong:

Whether or not the president follows through with supporting Macron is unclear, as Trump is known to consider or temporarily back high-profile domestic or foreign policy initiatives, only to quickly backtrack or about-face.

That’s the Kafka part of this. No one ever knows what’s really going on. Big stuff is going on that no one will ever tell you about, even if they could, which perhaps they can’t, because everyone is a pawn in some game being played by others. Of course you’ll have questions. Don’t ask. You won’t get an answer. Just keep going. And be Czech. Elegant irony is the answer.

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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