Donald Trump offends me on multiple levels.
First, I don’t like bullies. Of course bullies have followers and they can be ingratiating when they chose. They specialize in cruelty mixed with doses of kindness. As an adult I recognize that bullies usually have their own deep wounds and undoubtedly the Donald has them. Part of me pities him, but mostly I don’t care.
Then there are his ridiculous qualifications. One could take a look at the Donald’s career and ask just how sharp he’s been. Becoming a billionaire when you start with $40 million and an in with NYC real estate is not an inordinate achievement (careful investments would have gotten him there anyway.) I can respect a billionaire — Steve Jobs did cool stuff that no one had ever done. Or how about Edison or Carnegie (who were equivalent to billionaires in their day.) The Donald built some buildings in NYC (because nothing could get built in one of the hottest real estate markets in they world without Trump), ran casinos (a trashy industry of dubious value) that failed, and now he develops golf courses. Big fucking deal!
Of course there are Trump’s loathesome politics. I have a certain soft spot for Latino immigrants. Claiming the Latin American immigrants are criminals from the bottom of the barrel is just wrong. They may not have much education, but they have shown tremendous resourcefulness and are willing to take big risks to get here (like Trump’s grandfather). That’s exactly the kind of people we want. (And yes, they do make me think of my own great-grandparents who were wise enough to get the hell out of Russia!) From other parts of the world the U.S. consistently gets the best and brightest. Immigration is a source of strength for the United States. That being said, I understand the opposite point of view, arguing that immigration imposes costs on our society that we cannot afford. I get the argument that we are doing a lousy job assimilating immigrants. I also get that this argument gets heated and is expressed in emotional terms. Fine. But Trump is just obnoxious.
We are led by very, very stupid people But that isn’t what really bothers me. Trump announced regarding the Iran deal, “We are led by very, very stupid people.” That pissed me off. I studied political leaders. My dissertation was on the Vice President, but to a great extent this was an opportunity to look at the president and top-level decision-making in general. I did not agree with every action taken by the people I studied. But they were NOT stupid. Based on where they sat and the information they had, they made the best decision they could. I came away from my studies humbled.
I’m not endorsing the Iran deal, but the idea that the U.S. negotiators are simply idiots — people who have worked on non-proliferation and arms control for the bulk of their professional lives — is offensive. They weighed the situation and made a call as to the best way forward. Would Trump have magically achieved an instant, permanent freeze of Iran’s nuclear program without making any concessions? Equally ludicrious is the idea the U.S. trade negotiators just simply have no idea how to handle relations with China or Mexico. What magic concession would Trump wring from the Chinese — and concessions are not achieved for nothing. What would he give up? Perhaps Trump could get the Chinese to revalue their currency in a manner favorable to the United States. Wonderful, would he have given them a free hand in the South China Sea in exchange? Let’s pretend President Trump could wring vast concessions from Mexico or China. Then what? Such concessions might lead to huge instability. State collapse would not be out of the question, how would that serve U.S. interests? The Republican candidates have been pretty critical of Obama. This is to be expected, and the administration has certainly had its share of missteps. But they do not call the President stupid, because — as fellow politicians — they know just how difficult all of this is. They promise to do better, of course. Politicians have to balance a vast range of competing priorities, compromising on some while holding fast on others. I like to call it The Whole Equation (from an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel). The renowned Robert Putnam, in his classic essay, Diplomacy and domestic politics: the logic of two-level games, puts it even better, writing:
The politics of many international negotiations can usefully be conceived as a two-level game….Each national leader appears at both boards. Across the international table sit his foreign counterparts…Around the domestic table behind him sit parliamentary figures, spokespersons for domestics agencies, representatives of key interest groups…The unusual complexity of this two-level game is that moves that are rational for a player at one board…may be impolitic for that same player at the other board….
The political complexities for the players in this two-level game are staggering. Any key player at the international table who is dissatisfied with the outcome may upset the game board, and conversely, any leader who fails to satisfy his fellow players at the domestic table risks being evicted from his seat. On occasion, however, clever playesr will spot a move on one board that will trigger realignments on other boards, enabing them to achieve otherwise unattainable objectives.
Scott Walker just left the race. One does not have to love or agree with Scott Walker — or think he would be a good president. But while Trump was building golf courses and getting paid to put his name on buildings other people built, Walker was balancing a whole set constituencies and priorities to make the state budget. Same with Kasich, Jeb, and the other state governors. Or how about Marco Rubio who, at 34 years old was elected Speaker of the Florida State House of Representatives — a politician’s politician. Trump may call himself the master of the art of the deal, but the truth is that his deals were chump change compared to the doings of the governor of even medium-sized states. And as I just noted, that is minor league compared to international negotiations. But at least it is the same game. Trump is occupying an outsized role in the campaign, but in truth he is the smallest man on the field.
Originally published at veepcritique.blogspot.com on September 22, 2015.