Friday, February 3, 2017

The Problem with Trump

Some time ago I decided I would limit this blog to general principles and avoid contemporary issues. However, in this case, as a few other times, I have felt the need to mention a contemporary event, simply because it was too important not to discuss. In this case, I feel the need to point out what has recently struck me as the biggest threat of the Trump administration.

I have complained about a number of aspects of the Trump administration. How he has changed the GOP from a (at least nominally) small government, free market, federalist party into a national socialist, nativist, protectionist party. How his actions have restored the old association of racism, nationalism and nativism with conservatism, after that myth had been at least partly destroyed*. How he continually feels the need to threaten, berate and bully anyone he sees as a foe, domestically and internationally, without thought of the proper role of his office or the consequences. How he will likely destroy the economy with protectionist measures and crony capitalism. And so on. But above all, I have come to see one aspect of Trump as a greater threat than any other.

And that is Trump's habit of speaking without thought or reflection.

Actually, I must clarify, Trump's problem is a mixture of simple thoughtless comments, combined with a desire to appease too many conflicting positions, resulting in frequent trial balloons which he needs to "clarify" or "walk back", as well as espousing multiple contradictory positions simultaneously. Though these represent a variety of different activities, and a number of different motives, in the end, they produce the same outcome, a president whose words cannot be relied upon, and whose statements give no indication of what he plans to do.

Which is what worries me most about Trump.

Many of his defenders say they are "just words", but a president's words are never "just words". That is why presidents have traditionally spoken only in formal settings, after their words have been carefully reviewed, and answer questions with, as much as possible, prepared answers, or at least very restrained responses. The words of a president move markets, they start and stop armies, they drive business plans, they make friends and enemies around the world. In short, the words of a president are seen as guidance about the future direction of the nation.

Which is why Trump is such a threat. When he has  3 AM twittertantrums, or speaks off the cuff, when he floats a trial balloon as if the decision were already made, or when he makes any of his off the cuff comments, people around the world expect those words to be sincere, expect that he is presenting an honest picture of where the country is headed. So, when he reverses course an hour or a day or a week later, he shatters all the plans made based upon those initial comments, making people around the world suddenly change course.

Worse still, after a while, as people come to believe Trump's words are unreliable guides, they will stop listening, and Trump will have no means to interact with the world. People will not trust him, and he will be unable to indicate what he hopes to accomplish. In short, eventually he is going to neuter himself, leaving him unable to drive action by words, and at the same time turn the US into an enigma, with both citizens and foreign powers unable to determine what course it shall adopt. And that is a recipe for chaos.