Politics, et Cetera

A publication from The Political Forum, LLC

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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

They Said It:

I don’t do it for the money.  I’ve got enough, much more than I’ll ever need.  I do it to do it.  Deals are my art form.  Other people paint beautifully on canvas or write wonderful poetry.  I like making deals, preferably big deals.  That’s how I get my kicks.

Donald Trump, The Art of the Deal, 1987.



As a general rule, we think it is a mistake to pay too much attention to Trump supporters when assessing the President’s performance.  The Trump-true-believers tend to think that their guy is not merely brilliant in all that he does, but is so brilliant that others can’t possibly comprehend what he’s doing.  “Four-dimensional chess” has become the Trumpian trope of choice – as in “Trump is playing four-dimensional chess, while the rest of Washington is still playing checkers.”  This is cultish.  It presumes something supernatural about Donald Trump, something that is both untrue in the present and will remain equally untrue in the future.  For nearly a decade, we railed against and laughed at those who thought that Obama was a “light-bringer” who could “stop the rise of the oceans.”  They were ridiculous and delusional.  And so are the die-hard Trumpers, who should, therefore, be paid precisely the same attention as was paid to the Obamanauts.

At the same time, we have to acknowledge that Trump is not your ordinary politician.  He is, in some ways, less than a politician, but in other ways more.  He is both charismatic and bold, lacking much of the angst and trepidation that plague much of contemporary politics.  To his detractors, this is a frightening and disruptive defect.  But to his supporters it’s the most important and attractive thing about him.  And to those of us who try to remain somewhat neutral, we understand both the attraction and the disruption.  Change is necessary but it is also disconcerting – not just to us, but to countless others, at home and abroad.

Given Trump’s unusual political profile and his larger-than-life image, his presidency has raised expectations of success to a very high level among his supporters and intense fear of pending disaster to similarly high levels among his enemies.  He has brought an entirely new skill set to the world of politics.  He is a businessman, after all, and one specifically skilled in “the art of the deal.”  In many ways, this is revolutionary.  Certainly others businessmen and businesswoman have dabbled in politics before, some even running countries for various lengths at various times.  But Trump is different.  Before entering politics, he was one of the highest-profile, most recognizable businessmen in the world.  And unlike most successful businesspeople in politics, he has no intention of conforming to political norms.  He intends to use his skill set precisely as he always has.  That’s unusual, to put it mildly.  And it scares a great many people.  Donald Trump is a stranger in a strange land.

When Gulliver arrived at Lilliput, the Lilliputians put him in chains.  Over time, though, he convinced them that he could be their friend and could help them defeat their enemies.  It didn’t work, though.  In the end, his customs, his beliefs, his understanding of the world were too different from theirs.  They all worked hard to bridge their differences, but failed and eventually clashed.  The Lilliputians accused him of treason and sentenced him to death, but “mercifully” agreed merely to blind him, at which point he escaped.

Will this happen (metaphorically) to Trump?  Heaven only knows.  But it is worth noting that the last non-politician that ventured into the Washington swamp with good intentions was Herbert Hoover.  Hoover was an engineer, and it was widely believed at the time, especially among the progressives, that this was precisely the skill set required to be an effective president.  Faith in government was high at the time, and the American public wanted a leader who could make the government work better, who could “fine tune” it, which, they believed, would make their lives better.  They wanted a governmental engineer.  But since no such animal existed, they settled for a mining engineer.

This faith in the wisdom of the engineer was, in large part, the result of the enormous influence of Thorstein Veblen’s 1921 book The Engineers and the Price System, in which he envisioned a “Soviet of Technicians” who would replace the well-to-do “absentee owners” who, he said, currently ran the modern industrial society.  In his great classic, Modern Times, Paul Johnson described the enthusiasm with which the nation greeted this “Great Engineer” as follows:

To a very wide spectrum of educated American opinion, he was the leading American public man long before he got to the White House.  Hence, the general belief that Hoover, as President, would be a miracle-worker.  The Philadelphia Record called him “easily the most commanding figure in the modern science of ‘engineering statesmanship.’”  The Boston Globe said the nation knew they had at the White House one who believed in “the dynamics of mastery.”

Needless to say, it didn’t work.  Much has been written about why, but the bottom line is that the skillsets of an engineer not all that useful in the political arena.

For years and years, frustrated Americans have longed to see their clunky and awkward government “run like a business.”  And for years and years, they have been sorely disappointed.  Finally, we have one.  And a pretty successful one at that.   We he be Gulliver?  Or Hoover perhaps?  Who knows?

As we said earlier, Trump’s forte is negotiation.  His book is called The Art of the Deal, and he prides himself on being able to extract concessions from his negotiating partners.  He approaches the give-and-take of international relations with a different mindset than traditional politicians and traditional diplomats.  Moreover, he has hired a fellow businessman/negotiator in the person of Rex Tillerson to serve as his top liaison to the world.  All of this has contributed to the sense of foreboding with which many in politics view Trump presidency.

Trumps critics view every bargaining tactic he employs as a capitulation, a “sell-out” of some ostensibly core value articulated on the campaign trail.  The way they see it, Donald Trump’s vacillations are proof that he lacks any true core values, which, in turn, means that he will do or say anything necessary to remain popular.  His supporters are suckers, you see, and the man in whom they put their faith will double-cross them in a heart-beat as long as doing so will prop up his poll numbers.  Trump, they insist, is a hypocrite.  He is a soulless, shape-shifter in the mold of Bill Clinton, a cunning politician concerned only with his personal popularity.  Late last week, Jonah Goldberg, one of the President’s most consistent and vocal conservative critics, made the case that there is no such thing as “Trumpism.”  There is only Donald Trump and his enormous will:

Like a passenger on a sinking ship, the president has been throwing one longstanding position after another overboard like so much dead weight.  His closest advisers, biggest boosters, and some members of his family are at war with one another, in a pitched battle to steer the president in their preferred direction.  From balancing the budget to relations with Russia, each faction thinks it’s fighting for the president’s true convictions and the issues that got him elected . . . .

In the last week, Donald Trump has . . . defenestrated large chunks of the agenda that his biggest boosters insist got him elected.  As Ann Coulter, author of In Trump We Trust, tweeted after the Syria attack, “Those who wanted us meddling in the Middle East voted for other candidates.”

Trump has embraced NATO, praised Federal Reserve chairwoman Janet Yellen, scrapped his tax plan, backed off his vow to eliminate the debt, reversed his claim that China is a “currency manipulator,” come out in favor of the Export-Import Bank and lifted his freeze on federal hiring.  He also seems to have relegated his senior adviser and chief ideologist, Steve Bannon, to a bit player, describing him as “a guy who works for me.”

I welcome most of these reversals, but it’s hard not to sympathize with those who feel betrayed.  They made a simple mistake: They thought Trumpism was a coherent ideological program, akin to Reaganism.   Indeed, during the 2016 election cycle, a great number of prominent conservatives went to remarkable lengths to compare Trump to Reagan.  At times I feared the strain might give some of my friends hernias.

The problem is that Trumpism is real, but it’s not an ideology.  It’s a state of mind.  Or, to be more accurate, it’s a constantly changing state of mind.  Trump himself admits as much, saying that he won’t be bound by ideology or doctrine, preferring “flexibility” not just on means, but on ends.

To be fair, much of this is accurate.  Donald Trump was, until a few years ago, a Democrat.  He has no serious background in conservative politics or policy.  He is, in many ways, precisely the blank slate that Goldberg and other conservatives fear he is.  Moreover, he does seem to enjoy public adulation, which means that there is a risk that his policy positions will change along with the public mood.

Nevertheless, this isn’t the whole story, not by any means.  There is more to Trump’s “flip-flopping” than meets the eye, at least in certain instances.  Trump does indeed stake out positions that he believes will make him popular among his core voters, but what politician doesn’t?  What Trump also does, though, is adopt positions that he believes will be of value to him in the future.  Like we said, he’s a negotiator.  And like all negotiators, he is constantly on the hunt for leverage.

Take, for example, the current state of relations between the United States and China.  The conventional wisdom has it that Trump has “backtracked” on his tough-talk about China, thus selling out his supporters.   Among other things, he has signaled a willingness to provide flexible trade terms.  He has suggested that he will be rhetorically more delicate with the People’s Republic.  Trump’s critics see all of this as hypocrisy pure and simple, a willingness on the President’s part to stab his supporters in the back.  We think they’re wrong.

Recall that back in early December, as President-elect Trump was putting together his cabinet and lining up his strategy for the first 100 days, he received a phone call from the President of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-Wen.  According to initial reports, the call was congratulatory in nature and was brief but friendly.  Nevertheless, the Democrats and the mainstream press immediately melted-down.  Trump, you see, had violated decades of protocol.  By talking to the Taiwanese leader, he had flouted America’s tacit acceptance of the “one China” policy and had therefore provoked the People’s Republic.  He had screwed up everything that every president from Nixon on had worked for with respect to Sino-American relations.  His inexperience had caused instantaneous and irreparable damage.  He was a bumbling idiot who made a terrible, stupid mistake.

In time, of course, the rest of the world learned what Trump insiders already knew: the call was no accident and Trump hadn’t made any mistake.  He hadn’t “foolishly” bumbled into a diplomatic mess or unintentionally screwed up anything.  In fact, he had arranged the call himself, some six months prior to his election and did so with deliberate purpose.  As we noted in our final newsletter of last year:

Taiwan, as you likely know, is a sore spot with the Chinese Communists, which is why all American presidents have avoided any official contact with the island nation for the last nearly four decades.  Trump the negotiator knew that this sore spot could be used as leverage, but only if he openly and unapologetically broke with protocol and put the Chinese government on notice.  The “One China” policy was the People’s Republic’s invention.  And the American government maintained the policy out of deference.  Trump made it clear that he would not defer to the Chinese simply out tradition.  If they wanted his respect and his deference, they’d have to earn it – through reciprocity. And thus Trump set the tone for his dealings with China over the course of his presidency.

Two weeks ago, President Trump told the world that he’d had enough of Bashar al-Assad’s vicious and heinous murders of his own people.  Assad had promised Barack Obama that he would give up all of his chemical weapons and would no longer violate both the norms of civilization and countless international treaties by using gas as a weapon of war.  And then he proceeded to do so again – likely for the umpteenth time – expecting no repercussions, as usual.  But he was wrong.  This time, the American president responded.  Donald Trump kept the promise that Barack Obama made to the Syrian people but which he didn’t have the guts to keep himself.

Most observers – ourselves included – focused on the repercussions of Trump’s Syria attack specifically in terms of the Middle East.  How would this affect the Syrian civil war?  How would it affect Assad’s patrons in Tehran and Moscow?  How would it affect the broader Islamic internecine war, pitting Sunni and Shiite?  Such analysis made and makes considerable sense, of course.  But even so, we should be careful not to forget that the most important aspect of Trump’s attack on the Assad regime was its timing.  As luck would have it, the missiles flew just as the President was sitting down to dinner with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, whom he was meeting for the first time.  A fortunate coincidence, we’d say.

A week later, as tensions with North Korea were rising and as American military assets were being deployed to East Asia, the U.S. military somehow managed to receive presidential permission to drop the world’s largest non-nuclear explosive on a remote corner of Afghanistan.  Apparently, ISIS fighters had developed a system of underground caves and tunnels to keep them safe and hidden from view.  And apparently American military commanders believed it was imperative to destroy that underground hideout immediately and with extreme prejudice.  Or perhaps they – and their Commander-in-Chief – believed it was important to demonstrate that such an underground hideout could be destroyed.

Not long after the U.S. Military dropped the MOAB (Mother of all bombs) in Afghanistan, the mainstream press, demonstrated, as usual, that it doesn’t have even the vaguest idea what the military does or why.  CNBC asked if its viewers/twitter followers agreed with ISIS that “the U.S. is being run by an idiot.”  The Los Angeles Times tweeted that it was “Not immediately clear why Pentagon used 11-ton bomb against group that uses suicide bombers and AK-47s.”  The simple answer to the Times’ question is “to kill as many of the bad guys as possible.”  The more complicated answer, of course, is to kill as many of the bad guys as possible while also sending a message.  Most observers thought that that message was sent to Pyongyang and Tehran.  We tend to believe, rather, that it was sent to Beijing.  Another fortunate coincidence.

Yesterday, the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal did once again what it has done countless times over the years, which is to say that it used its mind-reading device to steal our story before we even got it all down in 1s and 0s, much less published it.  In an editorial titled “Trump’s Art of the China Deal,” the Journal noted that Trump was “reversing some of his foreign-policy positions” because he approaches the presidency the same way he approaches everything else, “as a transactional deal maker who wants agreements that he can sell as a security or economic success.”  The Journal’s editors were referring specifically to Trump’s statement he would not call “call China a currency manipulator when they are working with us on the North Korean problem.”  Trump admitted, in other words, that he was using economic leverage to convince the Chinese to help fix the problem in their own backyard.

The Journal’s editors were skeptical that Trump’s efforts would have much impact.  “There is little evidence,” they lamented, “that China is changing its policy toward Pyongyang.”  Moreover, they continued, “China is expert at offering cosmetic concessions while adhering to what it considers its long-term national interests.”

Maybe it’s just us, but this last bit strikes us as precisely the point.

Far be it from us to lecture the editorial board of the Journal about patience.  But it is worth remembering, that Trump has been president for three months now, which is hardly enough time to accomplish much, particularly when you’re trying to change the entire culture of foreign relations.  Deals aren’t negotiated overnight, and it’s maybe a bit unfair to expect that a deal the President has been working on for only a couple of months would have been consummated already.  The goal is not to convince the Chinese that America is under new and different management – or at least that isn’t the only goal.  The larger goal is to convince the Chinese that cooperation with the United States – on North Korea, on Syria, on a whole host of issue – is what is in their long-term national interests.

Long-time readers will note that we view Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert cartoon, as one of the cybersphere’s most adept interpreters of all things Trump.  He has an established model of behavior that precedes Trump’s rise to power and which he applies consistently to explain Trump’s actions.  He said this about Trump’s North Korea machinations.

Prior U.S. presidents framed the North Korean nuclear program as a problem between the United States and North Korea, with China as an unhelpful third party with its own interests.  That framing was weak and useless.  North Korea did whatever it wanted to do.  President Trump recently changed the frame.  Now it’s not so much a problem between the United States and North Korea as it is a branding battle between China and the U.S., with North Korea being the less-important part of the equation.  President Trump has said clearly and repeatedly that if China doesn’t fix the problem in its own backyard, the USA will step in to do what China couldn’t get done.

See the power in that framing? China doesn’t want a weak ”brand.” . . .

This is the sort of thing I was hoping to see when the Master Persuader took office.  His reframing on North Korea is pitch-perfect.  We’ve never seen anything like this.

Some of you will be tempted to argue that nothing has really changed.  But I think the face-to-face meeting between Xi and Trump, and the movement of North Korea to a branding competition between superpowers is a big, big deal.  It would be hard, if not politically impossible, for Xi to go easy on North Korea from this point on.

We would not phrase the argument in precisely the same terms that Adams does, but we do agree wholeheartedly that the point of all of this is to convince the leaders in Beijing that their long-term interests align reasonably well with those of the United States.  Indeed, we’d actually take this whole argument a step further than Adams or the Wall Street Journal or anyone else does and suggest that Trump is playing a long game here.  Yes, he wants China to handle North Korea so that he doesn’t have to, but that’s just the start of it.  He wants China to handle a great deal more, and to handle it not because of American pressure but because they view doing so as essential to their national interest.

Last week, you may recall, we ended our piece by reiterating our “out-of-left-field” fearless forecast for Trumpian progress in the Middle East.  In order to “win” the battle of Syria And thus to end the current regional war between the Sunnis and Shiites, Trump has no choice, we argued, except to convince Vladimir Putin that it is in his best interests to side with the Americans and either to abandon the Iranian mullahs or to handle them himself.  This, we said, is the only real option for dealing with the multifaceted, multilateral mess that is the Middle East today.

But maybe we were wrong.

The more we think about it, the more it seems to us that there is another option – and not just for dealing with Syria, but for dealing with other large and pressing problems, including, for example, North Korea.  Rather than convince Putin that his short-term interest is allied with America’s interests in the Middle East, Trump’s task in this scenario is, as we noted above, to convince the Chinese to get in line with the United States.

On the surface, this might seem like an impossible task, and we’ll concede that it won’t be easy.  Still, it amounts to little more than tough negotiation, serious rebranding, and explicit explication of economic realities.  Two factors will, we think, weigh heavily on the Trump-China negotiations, both of which will, we think favor the American.

First, Russia is for losers.  The Chinese government maintains an informal and unstructured alliance with Moscow, in part out of historical comfort and in part out of necessity.  China is not strong enough to challenge the United States on its own, and so finding common ground with Russia suits its immediate purposes.  But those purposes are limited.  Vladimir Putin is, obviously, a gangster.  And he will, in time, meet a gangster’s end.  And whenever that end comes, the state he leaves will all but collapse for lack his cult of personality.  The economic and social disaster that is contemporary Russia will become even more disastrous, if that’s imaginable.

In terms of economics, Russia offers China almost nothing.  Russia has cheap oil to provide Beijing, but then, who doesn’t these days?  Russia’s economic model is no different from Saudi Arabia’s or Venezuela’s.  It is corrupt and it is decrepit.  It is highly dependent on the vicissitudes of the global marketplace, even as the global marketplace can be easily manipulated by any of a dozen actors, including the United States.  In short, Russia is a disaster waiting to happen – or happening even as we write, to be more accurate.

Second, and more to the point, China NEEDS the United States a great deal more than the United States needs China.  Yes, we know that China holds a great deal of American debt.  And yes, we know that China is the world’s second largest economy and the United States’ second largest trading partner.  And yes, we know that China is the world’s largest consumer of natural resources, much of which is imported from the United States.  And that is all well and good.  But it doesn’t change the fact that as important as China is in the global economy, the United States is more so, and economic problems between the two nations would hurt China disproportionately.  Yesterday, while part of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial staff was reading our thoughts, another part of it was publishing an op-ed by Columbia business school professor Charles Calomiris, which makes this point explicitly:

[A] combination of slower growth, debt defaults and inflation will continue to weaken the yuan and reduce capital inflows.  Foreign reserves, which grew for decades, have declined since 2014. The Chinese elite are cognizant of these problems, hence their increasingly desperate attempts to smuggle wealth out of the country.

In this environment, the Chinese regime could fracture or lose popularity. That is a scary prospect for Beijing, which already faces other major challenges, such as an aging population, a lack of pension funding to support the elderly, and life-threatening levels of pollution. Despite the regime’s autocratic nature, protests directed at its shortcomings are becoming common. The government is not immune to public pressures.

Negotiations between China and the U.S., which are now beginning in earnest after the uneventful retreat at Mar-a-Lago, may actually bear fruit. Chinese leaders cannot afford a significant drop in exports to the U.S., which would be interpreted at home and abroad as evidence that the bellicose American president got the better of them.

Mr. Trump has been dealt a stronger hand than he could have asked for on trade with China, which has more incentive to negotiate than ever. He should walk away with a better deal from Beijing than any of his predecessors were able to extract. Mr. Trump may even be able to make progress on geopolitical issues, such as limiting China’s military adventures in international waters and securing its help on North Korea.

Trump has indeed been dealt a stronger hand than any of his predecessors, but he is also the best positioned of all them to take advantage of that strong hand.  He is, as we said, a negotiator at heart.  And he will, we think, use his position of strength not simply to pressure China, but to convince it that its interests are better served by ensuring that America’s interest are well served.

For the past couple of decades, the United States and newly ascendant China have tried without much luck to define their relationship.  George W. Bush famously concluded that the two were and would remain “strategic competitors.”  Donald Trump has the chance to change that and to redefine the connection as a “strategic partnership.”

That’s not to say that he can, will, or should endorse the Chinese social, economic or government models.  Long-time readers know that we have long detested the Butchers of Beijing and believe that their authoritarianism is a major economic and moral stumbling block.  This remains the case.  What we are suggesting, though, is not that Trump will validate the Chinese model, but that he will try to convince the Chinese to validate the American model and to recognize that it is, by far, the superior vehicle for economic progress. If he can do that, then even we’ll concede that he’s playing four-dimensional chess.

Finally, we return to the question of whether Trump can survive as a businessman in the swamp that is Washington politics.  Obviously, we don’t the answer.  But there is an old country song that haunts us when we consider this question.  Written and sung by Jerry Reed, it is about a mean-as-a-snake Cajun man named Amos Moses, who lived in a swamp and hunted alligators.   One verse goes like this:

Well the sheriff caught wind that Amos was in the swamp trapping alligator skin

So he snuck in the swamp gonna get the boy

But he never come out again

Well I wonder where the Louisiana sheriff went to

Well you can sure get lost in the Louisiana bayou.

Copyright 2017. The Political Forum. 3350 Longview Ct., Lincoln NE  68506, tel. 402-261-3175, fax 402-261-3175. All rights reserved. Information contained herein is based on data obtained from recognized services, issuer reports or communications, or other sources believed to be reliable. However, such information has not been verified by us, and we do not make any representations as to its accuracy or completeness, and we are not responsible for typographical errors. Any statements nonfactual in nature constitute only current opinions which are subject to change without notice.