Government as theatre

The Trump administration doesn’t make sense as government. He has no coherent foreign or domestic policies. He fires trusted advisors regularly. White House staff wake up each morning and check their Twitter feeds to find out what bizarre direction the country is now going in.

    image: NPR

However, the Trump administration does make sense as theatre. Not exactly Shakespeare, although there may be comic elements. More like professional wrestling says Naomi Klein:

“It’s hard to overstate Trump’s fascination with wrestling (Harper’s magazine, Sept., 2017).”

He has performed at least eight times in World Wrestling Entertainment, enough to earn a place in the W.W.E. Hall of Fame. In the “Battle of the Billionaires,” he pretended to beat wrestling champ Vince McMahon and shaved McMahon’s head in front of the cheering throng.

Trump honed his infotainment skills in front of live audiences. As president, whenever he wants a feel-good moment he assembles crowds of supporters and whips up the crowd with the standard rhetoric of wrestling.

His campaign followed the and true wrestling script: invent heroes and villains. Mock the villains with insulting nicknames like “Little Marco”, “Lyin’ Ted.” Stir up the crowd with over-the-top insults and chants like “Killary,” and “Lock her up.” Direct the crowd’s rage at the designated villains: journalists and demonstrators.

“Outsiders would emerge from these events shaken, not sure what had just happened,” says Klein, “What had happened was a cross between a pro-wrestling match and a white-supremacist rally.”

President Trump’s plans to meet with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, if it ever happens, will have the circus-like feel of a wrestling match. Each leaders boasts of having a bigger rocket than the other. They trade insults, Trump calling Jong-un a “little rocket man.” Jong-un calling Trump a “Mentally deranged dotard (senile old man).”

Trump will promote the match as having high stakes. If Trump wins –and in wrestling, the hero always wins- Kim will have to eat humble pie. Trump will symbolically shave Kim Jong-un’s head.

That’s how Trump will spin the meeting. The reality is a bit different. Trump is not bargaining from a position of strength. While he does have the potential to bomb North Korea out of existence, that would also destroy much of South Korea. Kim Jong-un’s stature is elevated to that of a world leader as a result of the proposed meeting with Trump.

Trump is not bothered at all about the political reality, his concern is ratings. Klein explains:

“So Trump sees himself less as a president than as the executive producer of his country, with an eye always on the ratings. Responding to the suggestion that he fire his press secretary, he reportedly said, ‘I’m not firing Sean Spicer. That guy gets great ratings. Everyone tunes in.’”

It’s a mistake to think of Trump as a politician. He ran for office as reality show host and won because he isn’t a politician. He is skilled at attracting attention to himself with crude, audacious, contradictory, untrue and insulting remarks.

It works. In a world that’s increasingly narcissistic, Trump is skilled at drawing attention to himself with his clever wrestling shtick.

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Trump tweets while Afghanistan burns

President Trump seems only dimly aware the turmoil in Afghanistan. Or maybe he has foreign policy related on the country and is simply unable to articulate it in 140 characters. Most likely, and more disquieting, his contradictory and unintentionally humorous tweets truly reflect his confused views.

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On July 23, 2016, two suicide bombers struck Kabul, Afghanistan, killing 80 and injuring 250 in the recent conflict’s most deadly attack. An average of 50 Afghan soldiers are killed a day, another 180 are lost to injuries and desertion. More than 10,000 soldiers died as well as thousands of civilians.

Advisor to the President of Afghanistan, Scott Guggenheim, hopes the new administration can achieve what the Democrats couldn’t:

“It breaks my heart to have to say this, but the Republican government is going to be better than the Democrats for Afghanistan,” he told May Jeong in her investigative report for Harper’s magazine (February, 2017).

“The Republicans will say ‘These guys are fighting radicals; we have to stay engaged with them.’”

The Taliban has an opposing view. A spokesman told Jeong:

“He should withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and unlike other U.S. rulers, he should neither seek any more titles of ignominy for himself and American generals nor worsen American prestige, economy, and military by engaging in this futile war.”

The fog created by Trump’s lack of clarity has created an opportunity for Russia.  Vladimir Putin has reason to cheer the selection of Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who is CEO of ExxonMobil and has met with Putin. Russia is investing in housing and factories in Afghanistan and recently sent ten thousand automatic rifles to Kabul in hopes of strengthening ties. An exit by the U.S. would aid Putin’s grasp for regional dominance.

Trump seems unaware of what his own military has to say. A Republican-led investigation determined that troops will remain at 8,400. The top commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, says: “We have adequate resources.”

While the Republican’s views might be clear, Trump’s foreign policy for Afghanistan remains impenetrable. On one hand is his principle of “America first” which suggests isolation. On the other, he speaks aggressively of the Islamic State: “Their days are numbered.”

Stephen Biddle, adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations told Jeong:

“His policies on the campaign trail were so mutually contradictory and changeable that he much harder to predict than an orthodox president would be.” “He talks about Afghanistan only when he’s cornered, and when cornered, he has said he simply wants to get out.”

Trump has more power than either Presidents George W. Bush or Barack Obama to bring peace to Afghanistan. He has the support of a Republican Congress and expanded executive powers.

But Trump’s war remains at home. He is paralyzed with his war against the media and his decrees by tweet only thicken the fog on foreign policy.

Jeong lives in Kabul and is fatalistic:

“The survivors of the conflict, awaiting the next chapter of diplomacy, have no choice but to be patient.”

Afghans live with hope and patience. That’s all they have with this president in power.