July 18, 2017
Famous for the Art of the Deal even before reality shows became a big thing, Donald J. Trump has demonstrated this week that he does not even know how to play the game in Washington DC. Legislation is not the same as a political campaign. “Repeal and Replace” Obamacare was a great slogan for mobilizing those who didn’t really understand the complexity of health care (as this president himself admitted) but who hated that last guy in the White House. But without an alternative to Obamacare, this is not even a good con, as the failure in the Senate illustrates. We might then rework Trump’s sole literary claim into something more appropriate: perhaps the Art of the Fool?
Trump, however, is no fool, at least not in the tradition of the venerated Fool.
The Fool can say the critical thing because their jest can protect them. Indeed, there is a tradition in Russia of “holy foolishness” that burrows deep in the Byzantine tradition where not only mockery can carry on but spiritual truths can be revealed. I am no expert in this scholarship, but it does not seem like we can find such insight in Trump’s behavior.
Trump’s political foolishness is not meant to clarify a problem; it is designed to mark enemies so that his supporters can enjoy a righteousness regardless of evidence to the contrary. When he declares that we should “let Obamacare fail,” he appeals to that base. That is cruel disingenuity, however. With his levers of state, he can make it fail. And he will, in mean disregard for those who are his base. This is, as Senator Corey Booker calls it, cynical and sinister.
Fool is not the right word to describe Trump. I have an affection for fools whose outrageousness illuminates, not for those whose ridiculousness hurts everyday folks.
I searched for synonyms. Imbecile. Idiot. Moron. Ass. Blockhead. Dolt. Cretin. Dullard. Clod. I had to go archaic to find the right ring: “a person who is duped”. We normally laugh at such people, but Trump is no laughingstock. Nobody chuckles anymore at his behavior, except perhaps Putin. The only conclusion I can draw is that Trump is Putin’s dupe. We might even call him the Tsar’s Dupe.
The Tsar’s Dupe
Of course Putin is no tsar, but some experts like to remind us that Putin’s Ubermensch behavior is rooted in a Russian tradition of autocracy. Geoffrey Hosking argues that Putin has embraced a tsarist view of geopolitics, in which “all great nations achieve security through the creation and assertion of raw power” where “economy, culture, the media, science and technology are all regarded as belonging to the state, to be deployed in this rivalry between great powers.” And when this is combined with a certain traditionalism and hostility for the multiculturalist left, we can see why some on the American right, especially its alt-right, admire what Putin has done. This grates on traditional conservatism, of course, and on the professional US intelligence community which has defined its mission largely in opposition to Russian state power.
Of course intelligence is not Trump’s friend, in both senses of the term. Now, however, we can focus on how Trump continues to resist the idea that the Russian authorities deliberately attacked our 2016 presidential election. America’s intelligence agencies came to that conclusion, but Trump foolishly resists the notion, implying wrongfully that there is dissent among intelligence professionals and that the Kremlin was only one consequential hacker among others. Those American agencies’ intelligence only grows with each day, however. Now we have a story of collusion to complement the coincidences.
Donald Trump Jr. receives an email from Rob Goldstone, a friend and business associate (who is himself derided by Trump defenders) saying that he could arrange a meeting that would provide Jr. with “some official documents and information (from the Russian government) that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.” That meeting occurs and includes Jr’s brother-in-law Jared Kushner, Trump Campaign Manager Paul Manafort, a Russian small time lawyer named Nataliya Veselnitskaya, and Rinat Akhmetshin, whom the New York Times dubbed, “the Master of the Dark Arts,” along with a Veslnitskaya’s translator. Drip Drip Drip. Days later we learn that there was still another in the meeting, one Ike Kaveladze, someone expert in how Russians move money around the world.
Jr. completely bungled laying out this story by failing, among other things, to mention Akhmetshin and Kaveladze. Jared failed to report this meeting in his search for security clearances. There is substantial discussion now as to whether any laws were broken by these Trump family members plus Manafort. Regardless of legalities, this is chaos. And this makes Putin smile for the father is not the only dupe in the house. Trump may be Captain Chaos, but his eldest son may wish to be his Boy Wonder, his Kid Chaos. (I do love how we can treat a 39 year old man like a little boy making silly mistakes. Aleksandra Petri is right to call out this grotesquerie of privilege.)
For those trained in intelligence, this tale is a familiar plot: “It bears all the hallmarks of a professionally planned, carefully orchestrated intelligence soft pitch designed to gauge receptivity, while leaving room for plausible deniability in case the approach is rejected.” But the dupe is less apparent in their taking the meeting than in their failure to report it to the FBI. By concealing this meeting, the Russians know that a) Trump’s team is willing to exchange favors; and b) these Americans are subject to blackmail. Americans now can add a new word to their Russian vocabulary: Kompromat.
It doesn’t take a spymaster to figure out what Russians would want from Trump should he win the election, and they may get one part of that soon: two mansions Obama took away from them following Intelligence confirmation of their attack on our 2016 election. Of course there is more on which Trump could deliver: an end to the Magnitsky Act, more cooperation on Russian terms in Syria and Ukraine, and ultimately, NATO’s weakening. Were Trump a better politician, I would worry that whatever is behind this Kompromat would have led already to sellouts of allies and extorted gifts to adversaries. Thanks to Trump’s incompetence, the US is still holding up some end of the Western democratic bargain. We think.
Deepening Legitimation Crisis
I have previously discussed first the looming and more recently the impending legitimation crisis facing Trump. His attacks on immigrants and Muslims were not sources of that crisis; rather, they helped to buttress his authority among those publics that matter in his mind, and in his polls. (And he moves ahead regardless of institutional legitimacy. We learn just today that the Muslim Ban is proceeding through bureaucratic maneuver even while the judicial process was supposed to halt its worst aspects.)
Trump also helps to secure his position by generating conflict itself. As he infuriates a growing portion of the people living in this country into non-violent opposition and resistance, that protest can itself helps to ensure his rule. Indeed, the clarity with which the National Rifle Association now mobilizes against the left, against people of color, is truly incendiary. That is his base.
Two contradictions remain his Achilles Heels, however. Health care leads.
The failure of Mitch McConnell to pass a Senate replacement for Obamacare now leads Trump to say he is “deeply disappointed.” He should not be, for to enact a reform that would take away insurance from his base of support would have moved legitimation crisis into top gear. Trump stood back and refused to play the part of President, allowing McConnell to take the lead. If I thought Trump more prescient, I would have imagined that he put McConnell into that role so that a) McConnell could be the fall guy; and b) Trump could say that the failure of health care that he produces by withdrawing subsidies from the insurance industry is the fault of Democrats.
Fortunately there are responsible Republicans out there who will not sacrifice the health of their constituents to appease the megalomania of their president. They recognize that they do need to undertake some kind of bipartisan effort to save Obamacare from destruction in order to save their constituents from real mortal crisis, and the insurance industry from market failure. Those governors joined three female GOP senators to derail Trumpcare and now offer some hope that somehow healthcare might be saved. And with this defeat of Trumpcare, Trump, himself, might have just extended his lease on presidential life. Of course this happens despite his leadership, or lack thereof.
However, this failure only extends the chaos that is known as Trump’s presidential leadership.
I can’t trace this particular moment of chaos back to Putin, however. But that is not how Putin’s hybrid warfare works. Rather, it is designed to make democracy in practice look foolish, incompetent. It is designed to make the Ubermensch look necessary, inevitable, irreplaceable. It is a kind of escapism that puts faith in the putative solution rather than in the legislative work that can address the problem that is health care, that is the environmental crisis, that is American infrastructure, and so on and so on. And here is where Trump becomes The Dupe.
Trump is too incompetent to be a real Ubermensch. He is no Putin. He is not even an Orban. He is not consistent enough. He does not understand goverance well enough, especially when it goes beyond making enemies. He is not sufficiently in control of his emotions. His ego is too fragile; or rather it is a black hole that needs to be constantly stroked in order to avoid implosion. He is a disaster for democracy.
Is that what Putin wants? It’s hard to say. There is considerable debate about how good a strategist, rather than tactician, Putin is. No doubt he excels at the latter, and reflects his beloved sport well. Judo responds best to others’ mistakes. Judomasters know how to invite a foolish move that enables the conclusive throw. Some are doubting his martial arts acumen lately, however, but we should not fail to recognize at what Putin is outstanding. He is the Master of Disruption. We saw that when he invaded Ukraine. And we see it now in his support for Trump’s election, and his embrace of his farcical imitation. Putin has thrown America to the ground, and now we now struggle to figure out how to get out of his arm bar.
While we need a bipartisan approach to fixing Obamacare, it won’t break Putin’s grip. The only way we can escape that submission is to dig ever deeper into this real collusion that took place between the Russian government and the Trump campaign. The more Trump resists this probe, the more resilient the American people must be to get to the bottom of this scandal and clean house. The Trump family is not more important than the American nation, despite how Trump behaves. This corruption at the core of our executive branch cannot define the integrity of our nation. When it does, we are done.
Is Trump the tsar’s dupe or is he our president? I’m not sure that we can break that conjunction until we know everything about Trump’s relationship to Russia. And that begins with making public everything about his financial empire. Follow the money to find how the tsar’s dupe was made. In the process, we might figure out how we can unmake the tsar’s dupe.
Until then, watch how well Trump deflects responsibility by finding enemies everywhere but in Putin’s realm. But if Putin is Trump’s best friend, our president may as well begin counting the days until Kompromat does him in.
Michael D. Kennedy (@Prof_Kennedy) is professor of sociology and international and public affairs at Brown University. Throughout his career, Kennedy has addressed East European social movements, national identifications, and systemic change. For the last 15 years, he also has worked in the sociology of public knowledge, global transformations, and cultural politics, focusing most recently on social movements, universities, and solidarity within and across nations. His book, Globalizing Knowledge: Intellectuals, Universities and Publics in Transformation, is available at Stanford University Press.