Governing by Ridicule

“I’m right and you’re wrong, I’m big and you’re small, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Matilda’s father keeps saying that in the Roald Dahl book – and Danny DeVito keeps saying that to the poor little girl in the 1996 movie – with the additional irony that he is a short tiny actor – but it doesn’t matter. Matilda is a hidden genius with extraordinary powers, and a good heart, and a quick smile, and she makes things all better for everyone. Her father doesn’t believe that. He can shut her down and shut her up through intimidation. But all he does is hurt her feelings and harden her resolve to do what she thinks is right, and is right. And everyone loves the story. Everyone knows what it’s like to be told to sit down and shut up, to be told who has the real power and always will have the real power – and it’s not you and never will be you. This is a story where bullies, in the end, have no power at all. They sputter out insults and ridicule but these bullies don’t matter at all. Smart and generous and decent people are the people who matter. Yes, it’s a fantasy.

There’s the real world and the question now. Is it possible to govern a nation and construct a new foreign policy based entirely on insults and ridicule? Is that what motivates others?

There’s the test case. Donald Trump has decided that Obama had been wrong. The way to deal with Iran, to get them to agree to never have nukes and love Israel and Jesus and stop being a pain, was not to slowly work out agreements on this and that, but to destroy their economy with massive sanctions and to mock and humiliate them – and then when they finally give in, to kick them in the face so the world would know we’re wonderful. And part of that humiliation was to take out one of the three top men in their government, their top general. He was a nasty man, but he seems to have been just a part of our plan. We would humiliate these people. Trump was Matilda’s father – “I’m right and you’re wrong, I’m big and you’re small, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

That’s part of his personality. There’s a pattern here. William Saletan identifies this:

Trump admires tyrants and defends their atrocities. He has excused North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s mass executions (“Yeah, but so have a lot of other people“) and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s murders of journalists and dissidents (“At least he’s a leader“). As a presidential candidate, Trump shrugged off the gravity of using chemical weapons. “Saddam Hussein throws a little gas, everyone goes crazy,” he joked.

At home, Trump has encouraged religious persecution and political violence. He called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States (he later imposed a modified version of the ban) and for collective punishment of Muslims who live here. As a candidate, Trump urged his supporters to “knock the crap out of” protesters. In 2018, at a political rally, he praised a Republican congressman for criminally assaulting a reporter. “Any guy that can do a body slam,” said Trump, “he’s my guy.”

Trump has long advocated war crimes. He has endorsed torture not just for information, but because our enemies “deserve it.” As a candidate, he proposed that for the sake of “retribution,” the United States should “take out” the families of terrorists. Wives and children were legitimate targets, he argued, because by killing them, we could deter terrorists who “care more about their families than they care about themselves.” Two months ago, he intervened in legal and military proceedings to thwart punishment of three American servicemen who had been indicted for or convicted of atrocities. Then he deployed the men in his reelection campaign.

But wait, there’s more:

Trump agrees with past presidents that we and our terrorist adversaries have played by “two [different] sets of rules.” But unlike his predecessors, he takes no pride in America’s higher standards. He sees them as a needless impediment, defended by “weak” and “stupid” people. In 2016, Trump complained that ISIS was “cutting off the heads of Christians and drowning them in cages, and yet we are too politically correct to respond in kind.” Torture laws should be relaxed, he argued, “so that we can better compete with a vicious group of animals.” “You have to play the game the way they’re playing the game,” he explained.

And there’s this:

Some presidents have caused pain through recklessness or indifference. Trump inflicts pain on purpose. To deter migration from Latin America, his administration separated migrant parents from their children. Trump argued that the separation was a “disincentive.” Too many people, he explained, were “coming up because they’re not going to be separated from their children.”

That’s just a bit of what Saletan lays out and ends with this:

Having an evil president doesn’t make the United States evil. We have a lot to be proud of: a culture of freedom, a strong constitution, vigorous courts, democratic accountability, and laws that protect minorities and human rights. On balance, we’ve been a force for good in the world. But Trump’s election and his persistent approval from more than forty percent of Americans are a reminder that nothing in our national character protects us from becoming a rapacious, authoritarian country.

It’s too easy to become Matilda’s absurdly unaware father, and that’s where Trump is comfortable. The Washington Post’s Anne Gearan and John Hudson cover that:

When President Trump decided early in his administration to pressure fellow NATO members to spend more on their military budgets, he threatened to pull out of the alliance.

When Iraqi leaders this month said they wanted U.S. troops to leave their country, the president said he would impose “very big sanctions” on Baghdad in response.

And after tensions with Iran recently escalated to the point of potential war, his administration privately threatened large automobile tariffs on European countries if they didn’t call out Tehran for alleged violations of the 2015 nuclear deal that Trump has sought to dismantle.

Trump’s maximalist approach to diplomacy has become a hallmark of his administration’s foreign policy, one that has scored him some short-term victories, been derided as extortion by his detractors and played a central role in an impeachment fight over his actions toward Ukraine that will play out on the floor of the Senate this week.

That is, threats and insults and ridicule seem self-limiting, not that this matters to Trump:

Although the president has been inconsistent in how he has carried out his worldview, he has made clear that he has no plans to back away from his strong-arm tactics even as they have increasingly antagonized American friends and foes alike, leaving the United States potentially more isolated on the world stage.

Trump heads to snowy Davos, Switzerland, on Monday for an economic forum attended by world leaders and corporate honchos where tensions with his administration will probably be on display. The president is expected to use his address there Tuesday to crow about successful trade deals, a humming U.S. economy and his recent showdown with Iran.

“We are booming. Our country is the hottest country anywhere in the world. There’s nothing even close,” Trump said Thursday as he confirmed that he planned to go to Davos. “Every world leader sees me and they say, ‘What have you done? This is the most incredible thing that we’ve ever seen.’ “

Every world leader would deny saying that, if it were worth the effort to deny having said any such thing, but getting into an argument with Trump over this sort of thing will only encourage the guy. Let it go. He says everybody everywhere loves him. He says that everyone agrees that he’s the greatest president of all time. Don’t argue with him. Let everyone see the pathology.

Deal with the real issues:

Trump’s visit to Davos will put him in close quarters with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and executives from European manufacturers, days after news that the Trump administration had threatened a 25 percent tariff on European automobiles.

The White House has not announced whether Trump will meet directly with Merkel, although diplomats said they expect the two to talk. Germany has been a central target of Trump’s threats on several fronts, as he argues that it does not compensate the United States enough for the military units hosted there and has been allowed to take advantage of economic policies that are unfair to American consumers and companies.

How to deal with Iran is also likely to be a discussion at the forum, particularly if Trump and Merkel meet.

This is tricky:

Last week, the Trump administration confounded European officials by threatening to impose the auto tariff if the governments of Britain, France and Germany didn’t initiate a mechanism in the Iran nuclear accord that could re-impose an arms embargo and economic sanctions on Tehran. That step, which the three took Tuesday, could eventually unravel the wobbly remains of the Obama-era agreement, though the Europeans are still actively seeking to salvage it. Trump pulled the United States out of the international pact in 2018, but the other signatories to the deal have tried to keep Iran committed to its tenets.

“Extortion,” said one European official of the U.S. effort to coerce European foreign policy through tariffs.

Yes, the whole thing backfired:

The U.S. allies had already planned to initiate the dispute mechanism, said U.S. and European officials, but the threat forced them to reevaluate their plans for fear of being viewed as bowing to Washington pressure.

“We wanted to do this, but Trump’s threat nearly derailed the plans because of how sensitive we are to being perceived as Washington’s lap dog,” said a European official.

“This case demonstrated that the Trump administration has lost the art of diplomacy with allies,” said Jeremy Shapiro, director of research at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The entire nature of a close ally is that you work together to find ways to be in sync without resorting to threats.”

But what about threats and insults and ridicule? They’re supposed to work wonders. But they may have gotten Trump impeached:

House Democrats allege that Trump tried to leverage a White House meeting and military aid, sought by Ukraine to combat Russian military aggression, to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to launch an investigation of former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden, as well as a probe of an unfounded theory that Kyiv conspired with Democrats to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

Trump insists he did nothing wrong and that his concern was with corruption broadly in Ukraine rather than to force investigations that could benefit him in his reelection campaign this year.

And as part of Trump’s defense, administration officials have tried to couch his handling of Ukraine policy, which even concerned some Republicans while the aid was withheld over the summer, as fitting perfectly within his strong-arm foreign policy approach as they deny any corrupt intent on Trump’s part.

All he said to Zelensky was “I’m right and you’re wrong, I’m big and you’re small, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” What’s the problem? That’s what America now says to every nation in the world. That’s the way it should be. They want to impeach him for that?

It seems that they do, because there is a problem:

In the broader debate over Trump’s foreign policy, there have been repeated clashes over both the short- and long-term implications for the United States. While proponents of Trump’s coercive style say it has produced results, critics contend that it has hurt American leadership in the world and cost the United States some trust and goodwill among friends.

Trump rankled allies last year when he attempted to extract billions of dollars from them through a formula he coined “cost plus 50 percent,” meaning that countries should pay the cost of stationing American troops on their territory plus 50 percent more.

The formula alarmed European officials, most acutely in Germany, where the Pentagon has more than 33,000 troops. After the backlash, defense officials said the formula only pertained to U.S. allies in Asia.

Okay, white folks are off the hook on this, but this is still dangerous:

Veteran diplomats and analysts argue that Trump shows a dangerous lack of understanding about why U.S. troops are in allied countries – noting the main point is to protect American interests and project power.

“President Trump fails to understand why America has allies in the first place,” said Harry Kazianis, an Asia specialist at the Center for the National Interest. “He treats allies more like mafia partners in crime who need to kiss up to America for protection.”

Trump says he is using the skills of a real estate magnate to get better deals for Americans whose global generosity he says has been abused.

But that might be the wrong model:

“Every day we learn more about the tactics this administration uses to further its goals, and every day we see that they are no more sophisticated than the tactics of gangsters,” said Dana Shell Smith, a former ambassador to Qatar who quit in protest of Trump policies.

Fred P. Hochberg, who headed the Export-Import Bank under Obama, said Trump is “always itching for a fight” and prioritizes short-term payoffs to the detriment of the country.

“The United States has prospered by working with others and taking a longer-term view; good relations yield better and more sustainable results for the American people,” said Hochberg, author of the new book “Trade is Not a Four Letter Word.” “It appears the current thinking is, ‘Get what you can now, and don’t worry about longer-term consequences,'” Hochberg said.

Perhaps it is about getting what you can, because Saletan notes this too:

Trump views the military as a mercenary force he can send around the world for hire. A Very Stable Genius, the new book by Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig of the Washington Post, describes a White House meeting at which Trump said American troop deployments should yield a profit. Trump told Fox News’ Laura Ingraham he’s doing exactly that: “We’re sending more [troops] to Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia’s paying us for it.” He recounted his business pitch to the Saudis: “You want more troops? I’m going to send them to you, but you’ve got to pay us.” And he proudly reported that the Saudis had accepted the deal. “They’re paying us,” he told Ingraham. “They’ve already deposited $1 billion in the bank.”

No one can find any proof of that, but it seems that in that meeting described in the book, Trump is shouting out one question over and over at the Joint Chiefs and Tillerson and all the others – “Why aren’t we making MONEY at this!” That’s when Tillerson called him “a fucking moron” on his way out the door.

Ah well, he had called the Joint Chiefs babies and fools and cowards – total ridicule – maximum pressure – to motivate them or make them admire him or something. That’s what he does because he seems to think that that’s how the world works.

Jackson Diehl reinforces that:

Much of this president’s international engagement has been a hodgepodge of impulsive and contradictory actions. But to the extent there is a Trump doctrine, it amounts to this: Use tariffs, sanctions and other means of economic pressure to compel U.S. adversaries – and, as often, allies – to accede to White House demands.

The amount of this pressure has varied from China to South Korea and from Ukraine to Mexico. So have the results. But in three cases – North Korea, Iran and Venezuela – Trump’s explicit policy has been “maximum pressure.” And in those instances, the record at the moment is clear: maximum failure.

That’s rather obvious:

Maximum pressure was supposed to induce the regime of Kim Jong-Un to surrender its entire arsenal of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Three years in, it is still building them – and it has now publicly sworn off any further negotiations with the Trump administration. Whether Kim will order a return to the testing of long-range missiles or nuclear warheads in the next few months, thereby provoking an election-year crisis for Trump, remains uncertain. What’s certain is that North Korea will end Trump’s first term with a dozen or so more nukes than it had when he took office.

And there’s this:

Maximum pressure was going to force Iran to renegotiate the curbs on its nuclear program – and maybe cause the regime to collapse. Instead, by the end of this year, the regime of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is likely to have enough enriched uranium to build a bomb, according to the latest Israeli intelligence assessment. The previous deal, which Trump shredded, ensured that Tehran would remain at least a year away.

That is, the Obama deal ensured that Tehran would remain always a year away from building the bomb, as long as the deal was in place, but there’s more to this:

Iran’s economy has contracted by 10 percent, many of its people are rebellious, and Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the architect of its foreign adventurism, is dead. But this regime, like Kim’s, has ruled out negotiations with Trump, and so far its willingness to ruthlessly gun down protesters has kept domestic dissent at bay. It, too, could cause Trump trouble between now and November – in this case, with attacks across the Middle East or on the Internet.

What won’t happen is a new nuclear deal.

Trump made that impossible, and there’s this:

The least noticed but most striking failure of maximum pressure has come in Venezuela, a country just three hours by air from Miami that for decades was deeply dependent on the United States for oil revenue. Trump cut off that income stream, confident it would cause the collapse of a socialist dictatorship already in economic and political free fall.

Instead, a year later, the regime of Nicolás Maduro appears to have stabilized. The lights are back on in Caracas, once-empty stores are full of goods, and the U.S.-backed opposition has been ousted – at least physically – from the National Assembly. Trump’s demand – that Maduro leave office and make way for fresh elections – won’t be realized anytime soon.

How did this happen? Diehl offers this:

First, Trump set wildly unrealistic goals. As numerous North Korea experts pointed out three years ago, Kim was never going to surrender his entire arsenal at a stroke; at best, he could have been coaxed into a step-by-step process. On Iran, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demanded a dozen major concessions that were inconceivable without a change of regime. And Venezuela policy supposed that Maduro’s criminal clique, which has nowhere to take refuge, would willingly surrender office – or be overthrown by equally corrupt generals.

And there’s this:

Trump’s next mistake was assuming that unilateral U.S. action was enough to succeed, and that he didn’t need the international cooperation obtained by previous presidents. He was wrong. China, whose aid Trump lost when he launched a trade war, has quietly helped North Korea survive sanctions. Russia has done the same for Venezuela, trafficking as much as 70 percent of its oil exports. U.S. allies in Europe have refused to go along with Trump’s voiding of the Iran nuclear deal and reimposition of sanctions. Even Middle East nations such as Saudi Arabia have quietly sought accommodation with Tehran.

And there’s this:

Trump’s biggest miscalculation was that economic weapons were enough to strong-arm the likes of Kim, Khamenei and Maduro. He supposed that prosperity is their priority; it’s not. He waxed lyrical about the beach developments that North Korea could have. But these dictators don’t care about glitzy resorts. Their only interests are their own survival and that of their extreme ideologies.

Economic pressure sometimes works, of course. Mexico has made concessions to Trump to dodge sanctions, as did China. But for the hardest cases, it’s a poor substitute for a multifaceted foreign policy. That’s why “maximum pressure” will be an emblem of Trump’s tenure: a crude, half-baked strategy that was destined to fail.

And of course the use of threats and insults and ridicule was destined to fail too. Is it possible to govern a nation and construct a new foreign policy based entirely on threats and insults and ridicule? That feels so good to so many Americans, but the answer is no. But nothing in our national character protects us from becoming a rapacious, authoritarian country. And that’s why Donald Trump is still our president.

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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