BY Chris - Dec 31, 2016
It’s very difficult to get away from the fact that Donald Trump is basically a fool. In this context, I’m using the word ‘fool’ in its mediaeval sense – a clown. For reasons which appear to be a combination of pragmatism and narcissism, Trump has spent most of his public life being a buffoon, presumably to attract our attention – to ‘raise his profile’, to use the euphemistic parlance of the professional vanity vendors of public relations.
While this may be deeply distasteful, it isn’t really problematic – one can always choose to ignore a fool – until that fool becomes POTUS. The inescapable fact of presidential office is that statements emanating from it have immediate and complex agency, being capable of generating effects via not just their overt meanings, but also through their various implications and substrata of meaning. In other words, stuff the president says matters, because stuff he says makes other stuff happen.
Here, in all its glory, is the single biggest threat represented by Trump, namely, that he might almost have been purpose built to accidentally bring about the end of the world as we know it. I haven’t done the maths, but I suspect that the scope for unintended consequences grows exponentially the less clear one’s actual intentions are. And I think it’s fair to say that nobody has any real idea of what Trump actually intends to do.
There’s a few possible reasons for this. I don’t intend to argue one of the things I suspect – that Trump’s inscrutability is at least partially due to the fact the has no clear idea of his own intentions beyond the barely coherent aspirational slogans he’s been bandying, qualifying and withdrawing. I’m leaving that one alone simply because I neither know the man nor possess the gift of telepathy. But one reason above all stands out as clear cause for the world’s current mystification when it comes to the president elect’s intentions: the fact that it’s basically impossible to derive precise meaning from anything he says.
I acknowledge that much of the media has not so much failed to understand Trump as they have refused to (viz. the ‘bigly’ controversy), either through distaste, disgust or just plain snobbery. I think, however, that this has only been a small part of the problem. The biggest problem with the way Trump talks is that a life spent fulfilling the dual roles of cameo clown and snake-oil merchant means that he has spent most of his time on Earth using language to obscure rather than elucidate meaning. This is especially dangerous given that, in the Machiavellian world of statecraft, it is a truism to state that uncertainty is a catalyst for violence.
Let’s take the Middle East as a prime example. This is a complex and explosive set of situations, and the outlook for a Trump presidency is not encouraging given the zen-like, mutually contradictory positions which the president elect has proclaimed on Twitter. A careful analysis of his simultaneous wish to disengage US troops from foreign conflicts and resolve the Middle East (which he apparently views as a monolithic or unitary single situation) through overwhelming force yields exactly bupkis. Nobody has any idea what he is going to do. And given that the US is militarily capable of anything up to and including ending all civilisation as we know it, the stakes are high, and it is less than helpful to create a situation in which the players are competing blindfolded.
Trump is an uncertainty factory. In business, it’s sometimes a very good idea to obscure your motives and intentions. One of the few moments of clarity we’ve had so far is the realisation that this is very much the game he is playing with China – he wishes to keep China off-balance by obscuring his true position on ‘One China’, which is clearly a negotiating gambit. This model of proceeding may be excellent for the boardroom, but its implications for the summit table are potentially disastrous. State and non-state actors, when presented with a combination of existential threat and deep uncertainty, tend to react with spectacular force. And when statements coming out of the president’s mouth are not only mutually but internally contradictory, it’s difficult to imagine a situation imbued with greater uncertainty.
There’s also the fact that his administration picks don’t follow any discernible pattern. While it’s generally seen as a positive to build an administration with diverse viewpoints, it’s not usual to build one with individuals whose views are mutually and absolutely irreconcilable. This makes the drift and trend of the future administration impossible to predict or even satisfactorily analyse. This might be fine for the punters, who don’t necessarily value decisions produced by actual thought, but it’s potentially catastrophic at a higher level, where most decisions are made by strategic thinkers of one sort or another.
This, in my opinion, is the real threat. There’s not much irreversible harm any POTUS can intentionally do in four or eight years – such is the robustness of the US system. But the scope for accidental harm is literally apocalyptic. The single biggest danger, to my mind, is that the world won’t end with a whimper, but with an accidental bang caused by an inarticulate, incompetent buffoon tapping away at his smartphone at two in the morning.