On my desk lies a copy of Trump and Me, penned by the American journalist Mark Singer. As an extended pamphlet, it is an extremely concise but well-researched and persuasive text that proposes a simple concept:
“Deep down, he [Donald Trump] wants to be Madonna.” In other words, to ask how the gods could have permitted Trump’s resurrection is to mistake profound superficiality for profundity, performance art for serious drama. [Emphasis added.]
When I first read these lines, a suspicious chuckle rumbled within. I was immediately overwhelmed by guilt for having laughed so, before requiring a deep breath to calm those churning nerves. I told myself emphatically and repeatedly for days afterward: Why so serious?
Those concerns are as follows: Donald J. Trump — a malignant narcissist and confabulatory liar — continues to grace the White House. As Commander-in-Chief, he presides over the consequential actions of a superpower. And he, in a wide-ranging interview conducted by the independent news outlet Reuters, solipsistically intimated that he had underestimated the responsibilities inherited from Barack H. Obama, whose shadow dissipates with each passing day and with every action taken.
Should any theme emerge from the recent foreign policy behaviour of the Trump Administration, it is surely opaque and dim-witted. Yet forecasters may well prove to have been premature and reactionary in their bleak prognosis, since the international system established and consolidated after 1945 continues to function (as it ever did, no doubt). The media momentarily retracted their scathing critique, some going so far as to congratulate the Administration on its bold, decisive manoeuvres abroad; those diplomatic and military overtures made in Arabia and Asia conform to the foreign policy status quo: the routine defence of liberal values as universal human rights—
“Conciliate China, contain Russia. NATO good, North Korea bad. We like Angela, we don’t like Assad. Please refrain from posting inflammatory Tweets, Mr. President. No, you cannot eat that—it is not literally a biscuit. The lunatics have not taken over the asylum. The grownups are in charge.”
What period of American retrenchment beginning with Mr. Obama may escalate under the command of Mr. Trump; it is indeed possible that the latter’s tenure may yet present an opportunity to reform U.S. foreign policy. But to suggest that the incumbent Administration can aptly adjust to the challenges of the present era is surely misguided for much the same reason that praise of American action within the first 100 days is blissfully (and ignorantly) optimistic: it fails to acknowledge history. Might it help strategists in Washington, D.C., for instance, to recall the multilateralism of the early twentieth century, wherein Britain dominated international politics by obsessively oscillating between two emerging military camps? Her imperial foreign policy was bad because there was no strategy. Clarity is vital; opacity is suicidal.
As the modern ‘Weary Titan’, the U.S. must similarly contend with emerging challenges, notably the pressure exerted from Moscow and Beijing in her east and west (respectively); the former looking to revise the status quo, whilst the latter attempts to dominate the international institutions. And the U.S. seems unsure of how to best proceed when she must contend with the rejuvenation of her battered international reputation. Is there any reason to believe that this relatively uncertain period of diplomacy would require overt reliance upon the judgments and insights of a philistine ignoramus? Trumpianism seems not to exhibit any real method other than the spontaneity commonly associated with madness.
Consider Syria. In the sixth year of a ferocious and bloody internecine civil war fought along explicitly religious and nationalist impulses, Mr. Trump insists that the removal of Mr. Assad is of low priority—why not simply leave him in power so we can bomb the shit out of Daesh? (‘It would put us in good stead with the Russians. Never mind that Russia is currently aligned in a de-facto alliance with the Islamic Republic of Iran, that the Trump Administration has identified as a prominent state-sponsor of terrorism.’)
Detached from the real horror of war, Mr. Trump receives intelligence of the use of chemical weapons just days later, watching the deaths of dozens of innocents—of men, women, and children. His response? He orders for the limited negation of the Syrian air capacity. American foreign policy, in other words, achieves a remarkable u-turn within three days—all because he was acting from gut instinct.
The political fall-out is astonishing. Britain and the U.S. blame Syria; Turkey blames Syria; Syria blames the jihadists; Russia blames no one. The British Foreign Secretary cancels his scheduled diplomatic sojourn to Moscow, in turn dismissing the annulling as the behaviour a poodle might exhibit if it were to frantically please a boastful American hound dog. Such accusation bear fruition when the American Secretary of State orders British diplomats to work with the G7 partners so as to present an ultimatum of attrition to Russia: ‘get on the right side of history.’ Moscow and Tehran rattle their sabres as they condone the outbreak of warfare should the G7 states seek to inhibit their patronage of Mr. Assad. The ultimatum falls through, and Russia and the United States endure an embarrassingly awkward exchange, whilst their Foreign Ministers acknowledge that the relationship is in a bad state.
American intervention in Syria heightens the risk of war. Real war. And Mr. Trump reacts my simply shrugging off the incident, instead boasting of his dismally-low approval ratings before professing all ignorance by flexing American military power vis-à-vis North Korea: an evil and tempestuous theocracy, exigent for power that its aggressive foreign policy must be confronted before the cost of blood and treasure exacts tragedy upon the peninsula and the wider region.
The concern is not that Mr. Trump should confront the problems of the world, but that he would do so unthinkingly and on-the-hoof. Why so serious? Because he is a dangerous clown who has hijacked the presidency. We are hostage to his thoughtlessness and ignorance.
All of this, and because he wants to ‘be like Madonna.’