T.A. Frank

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In assessing what a Trump Presidency means for foreign policy, T.A. Frank of the excellent Vanity Fair vertical “Hive” suggests we apply a one-year test. If we’re not dead or dying by January 2018, if we’re not engaged in a needless and large-scale war or headed into such a conflict, the writer believes we’ll be okay for the term on the doom front. Oh, we’ll still get royally screwed financially and our democracy will be undermined at every turn, but perhaps our descent will be attended more by whimpering than banging, so to speak. 

It’s not that I expect war with China despite all the Shanghai-rattling that’s already begun, but it’s likely that enough about the ideals of the United States, domestically and internationally, will be degraded that we’ll no longer exactly be America, the nation still standing even as it gradually falls.

Unlike many other pundits, Frank raises the “c” word–as in crazy–while analyzing Trump, which is an important term to remember when handicapping the future actions of the new President, who seems bonkers enough to believe he can run the world the way John Gotti ran Queens.

From Frank:

Several people in Trump’s circle seem to be eager to pursue conflict with Iran. That could cost countless American and Iranian lives and wreck his presidency fast. But that possibility is merely scary. Like other conflicts since the Second World War (with the exception of the attacks of 9/11), it would take place far from our shores. If we ramp up tensions enough with China or Russia, however, the war could come to us. That’s what’s truly terrifying about Trump—the possibility, not high (but higher than normal), that life as we know it will end. Trump would never deliberately court such an outcome, but he seems likelier than any president we’ve ever had to blunder into it.

Little fear of Trump’s foreign policy has to do with his overall assessments of the world stage—including the strategic value of joining forces with Russia against ISIS—many of which could be sound, in theory. But everything in foreign affairs is about how others interpret what you’re saying or doing on a deeper level. People still debate whether Saddam Hussein felt he’d gotten a green light to invade Kuwait from ambiguous statements made by U.S. ambassador April Glaspie, but they didn’t help. Similarly, most people agree that the decision by Jimmy Carter to admit the recently deposed shah of Iran for treatment in the United States in 1979 came across to Iranian revolutionaries as proof of conspiracy and led them to invade the U.S. embassy in Tehran and take its staff hostage. Given Trump’s habit of tweeting before thinking, we could get a couple of Glaspies and shahs a day.

Writing in The Week, Michael Brendan Dougherty suggests that Trump is already showing overconfidence in his ability to make deals with Russia and carelessness in his talk about nuclear weapons. All of this suggests he’ll “create uncertainty in the capitals of America’s allies and in Moscow about how the United States will respond to Russia’s ambiguous actions along the border,” writes Dougherty, and tempt Putin “to take advantage by offending Trump’s sense of national pride or sense of manhood.” And that’s to say nothing about Trump’s pokes at China over Taiwan. Little does he seem to realize that China’s young people are ferociously nationalistic, far less reluctant to hit the battlefield than their overlords in the capital, and that stirring the pot on Taiwan may set off forces not even Beijing can control. The combination of delicate world arrangements and Trump’s impulsivity could be deadly. The only reason I’m willing to bet a large sum that world war won’t happen is that, if it does, no one will be left to collect.•

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  • Comparing the low-level insult comic Donald Trump to Don Rickles, as some have, is like saying an insane person who severed his tongue with a piece of broken glass is just like Harpo Marx.
  • I’m not a psychiatrist, so I can’t definitively say that Donald Trump is deeply mentally ill, but perhaps we can agree that he exhibits many of the behaviors of mentally ill people who’ve gone untreated, and if any of our friends or relatives acted like him, we would seek professional help for them.
  • Trump’s Simon Cowell-Mussolini mash-up may not strictly speaking play out as Fascism in the context of our laws and Constitution despite all his sound and the fury in that direction, but even without the support of his party, wouldn’t he as President be able to plunge us into an place as dark an any we’ve experienced since the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII?

Excerpts from two pieces follow: 1) David Remnick’s sharp analysis of the GOP nominee’s predictably disgusting response to the horrific Orlando massacre, and 2) T.A. Frank’s Vanity Fair “Hive” argument that the nightmarish realization of Trump winning the White House won’t result in full-on Fascism despite whatever damage will result.

From Remnick:

With every month, it has become clearer that Trump is a makeshift politician, whose rancid wit resides in his willingness to say whatever it takes to arouse the fears of a political base. He might have started his campaign with the idea of winning some votes and publicity, increasing his profile as a marketing whiz, and then dropping out. Good for business! But now that he has stunned the political world—and, likely, himself—he has shown little inclination (or, perhaps, capacity) to grow into his role, to modify his language, be it for the sake of the Republican establishment or of simple decency. He’ll have none of that. Whatever inflates his sense of self and prods the anxieties of the country—that’s what works for him.

It feels indecent on such a day to engage these comments of Trump’s at all. But their velocity, vapidity, and sheer ugliness reflect his character, his emptiness, and, most of all, the shape of the election campaign to come. Since Trump has ascended, it’s been clear that his demagogic instincts could be tested precisely by the sort of tragedy suffered in Orlando. And, when faced with the path of modesty and the path of dark opportunism, he has chosen the latter. That’s what he is about. It’s who he is.•

From Frank:

Luckily, when it comes to true dictatorship, Trump lacks many of the most ominous traits.

For all of his incendiary rhetoric, there’s limited evidence of any belief in racial superiority or hatred of other races. Suggesting that Mexican immigrants and rape go hand in hand may be heinous, but it is not the same thing as white supremacy, and Trump is less right-leaning on many matters of race than some traditional Republicans. Regarding affirmative action, a policy that many conservatives are working to eliminate, Trump has said, “I’m fine with it,” merely laying out that one day “there will be a time when you don’t need it.” As careless as Trump has been about distinguishing the vast majority of peaceful illegal immigrants from the small minority who commit crimes, and as sinister as a “deportation force” sounds, the candidate has mostly confined his demonizations to the powerful: politicians, high-ranking officials, the media, foreign governments.

The worst tyrants of the past century or two also presided over a lot of soldiers or paramilitary forces before they came to power. Benito Mussolini had hundreds of thousands of Black Shirts, and Hitler had hundreds of thousands of Brown Shirts. Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, Fidel Castro, and Robert Mugabe all headed large guerrilla forces. Many dictators came from the military, like Idi Amin, Muammar Qaddafi, and Juan Peron. Trump just went to military school.

Finally, and perhaps most important, Trump is entering politics too late to become a proper tyrant. The dictators of the past two centuries have had a commitment to political agitation from a young age: Saddam Hussein was a passionate Baathist in his 20s. Stalin was a revolutionary from the moment he was expelled from school. (Dictators who have come late to politics have cropped up in South America, with figures like Jorge Videla in Argentina and Augusto Pinochet in Chile, but they were senior military officials in countries with histories of military coups.) The quality that made these tyrants so brutal was not primarily thin-skinnedness or impulsivity but fanaticism. Trump is getting into politics late in life after a successful career doing other things. He’s volatile and impulsive, but he’s not fanatical.

In a best-case scenario, Trump would be less dangerous to civil liberties and democratic norms than someone like Marco Rubio, because his own party is willing to break ranks with him.•

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