Donald Trump is neither the best nor the worst president in US history. Neither an angel nor the devil incarnate. Neither an intellectual pygmy nor a giant. Neither an unqualified reprobate nor the paragon of morality. Neither a saviour of the West nor its nemesis.
Any reasonable, dispassionate analysis will probably place him somewhere between any of those extremes. In each case, his exact placement would call for serious discussion.
However, when following the media coverage of the president, especially in the US, one notices that he hardly ever gets the benefit of reasonable, dispassionate analysis, nor indeed of serious discussion.
He’s denied his rightful place somewhere – anywhere – in the middle ground, even if closer to one extreme or the other. All he’s getting is either hysterical attacks or equally hysterical adulation.
When Trump comes into a conversation, reason leaves in a huff. Wings are flapped, voices are raised, spittle is sputtered – and I’m talking about otherwise intelligent people, if usually without much excess intelligence to spare.
This calls for an explanation, especially since Trump himself sounds fairly rational. This isn’t to say that one always agrees with his thinking, but think he does.
The president has a clear view of the world and America’s place in it. Again, my view of America and especially the world is rather different from his, but I can still discern a reasonable pattern to his thoughts and actions.
Reasonable doesn’t necessarily mean correct, and, for example, Trump should suppress or at least moderate his isolationist instincts. His demands that America’s allies take more responsibility for their own defence are perfectly justifiable, but perhaps he should ponder not only the minuses of global paternalism, but also the pluses.
Ever since the US set out to supplant the British Empire as the West’s father figure, the country has been cultivating numerous quasi-vassalages around the world. Since time immemorial, such a quest has involved trading protection for allegiance, and providing protection costs money.
But the allegiance attracted thereby makes the exercise worthwhile. Being the military Leader of the Free World makes it so much easier to be the economic leader as well.
I’d say that simply having the dollar as the world’s reserve currency (in which, incidentally, the US debt is denominated, taking some of the sting out) greatly offsets whatever defence costs the US has to incur – and we haven’t yet even touched on the trade benefits.
There has of course always been a strain of thought in the US that opposes the country’s global role and resents having to pay the cost, both in money and the blood of American soldiers.
In theory, I’m broadly sympathetic with this view and those who espouse it, such as Pat Buchanan and any number of prominent Republicans before him.
However, abandoning world leadership runs against the grain not only of the country’s foreign policy but of her whole history over the past century at least.
And America’s refusal to provide much of the the West’s military muscle is tantamount to forfeiting leadership. Moreover, such an about-face, especially if done quickly, would make the West, including the US, geopolitically vulnerable.
I’m not sure that Trump’s thinking, trained by a life-long veneration of the bottom line, goes quite so far. He seems to want the best of both worlds: America enjoying her disproportionately prominent position while refusing to pay the disproportionately high cost.
Best of luck to him, but I don’t think this is either doable or, given the global situation as it is, rather than as we may like it to be, advisable. However, coming down on either side of this argument shouldn’t be accompanied by, nor met with, hysterical rants and wild personal invective or, for that matter, encomiums.
‘On either side’ are the operative words: Trump admirers are as frenzied as his detractors. Yesterday’s fervent globalists become isolationists overnight and scream about it loudly enough to compete with the opposing din.
This is happening not only with Trump’s foreign policy but with everything he says or does. None of it is cause for rational analysis; all of it is cause for irrational frenzy.
If Trump moves the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, he’s accused of pro-Israeli Islamophobia, a charge made even more frenetic by his stated intent to reduce Muslim immigration.
The same people, mostly those of the neocon persuasion, who 15 years ago preached a virtual crusade against much of the Islamic world, during which perhaps a million Muslims died, now insist, against all scriptural, historical or current evidence, that Islam is a religion of peace.
One gets the impression that, should Trump adopt that line, they’d again agitate for carrying democracy to the Middle East on the sharp end of American bayonets.
If Trump withdraws the tripwire force of 2,000 US soldiers from the Middle East, he instantly becomes an enemy of Israel, the West and everything that’s good in the world.
If Trump cuts taxes, the same people who used to describe themselves as conservatives (usually with little justification) now accuse him of sacrificing the poor to please the rich.
Many of them now claim to be ‘fiscal conservatives but social liberals’, which presumably means they love the indigent, but hate to give them any money.
The poor souls don’t even seem to realise that social liberalism, aka welfarism, and fiscal conservatism are mutually exclusive. But it wouldn’t matter even if they did: they’d call themselves anything as long Trump calls himself something else.
There have been divisive presidents before, but in my, alas rather long, memory I can’t remember anything like this. Nor do I recall any political figure, other than perhaps Nixon c. 1974, whose personality draws more attacks than his policies.
Trump is revolting, scream the haters – and, though I am not one, I tend to agree. But is he more disgusting than, say, Bill Clinton, of the cigar fame?
He’s playing lickspittle to Putin, others blurt, and they have a point. Yet those same people voted for Hillary Clinton with her subversively idiotic ‘reset button’. (If the Mueller investigation produces prima facie evidence of collusion, I’ll repeat my usual proviso: Trump in that case should be not just impeached but tried for treason.)
He’s ignorant and illiterate, the haters insist, has never read a book, his degrees were bought with Daddy’s money. Fair enough, a president who can’t string a grammatical sentence together and manifestly has no sense of style doesn’t add lustre to America’s reputation.
But which of the post-war US presidents was an elegant, erudite stylist? Eisenhower? Ford? Carter? Or even the sainted Reagan?
I don’t know how many serious books Reagan read and how deeply he could delve into the ills of the world. He was an infinitely nicer and more sensible man than Trump, readier to listen to good advice (one of his advisers, William F. Buckley, even applied in jest for the job of ventriloquist), but a major intellect he wasn’t.
Granted, Reagan’s Daddy didn’t buy his degree, but then there was no need: Eureka College isn’t Wharton. Reagan’s presentation was much smoother than Trump’s, but then he was an actor, not a property-developing chancer.
Though Reagan was disliked by many and liked by more, neither emotion ever reached the fervour pitch one observes with Trump. He’s unique in that respect.
The reason may be that, though Trump is neither the best nor the worst president the US has ever had, he’s certainly the most unusual one. Because he’s the first rank outsider to move into the White House, he takes most commentators out of their comfort zone.
Not only is he not a member of the cross-party apparat that has governed America for ever, but he’s openly contemptuous of it. Alas, most commentators hate to be yanked out of the warm confines of their intellectual households.
For too long they haven’t had to think for themselves. A couple of trusted stencils were always close at hand – apply them to any issue, cut away whatever little sticks out, and the job’s done. With Trump, however, the stencils are useless, and so are their nimble but limited intellects.
Passion has to take in the slack thus formed, and in such matters that’s a poor substitute for reason. Trump is in a way the litmus test of political commentators, and most are demonstrably failing it.
P.S. Newspapers often enrage me too. Yet my experience this morning was truly shocking even by comparison to most news items.
One of the clues in the general knowledge crossword of today’s Times was ‘Be (5)’, to which the answer was ‘Exist’. If the crossword compilers are unaware of the basic difference between being and existence, they should read up on their Aristotle or, better still, Aquinas. Don’t those people know anything? Or are they deliberately trying to mislead me?