One thing one learns going through life is that time flies even when you’re not having fun.
Another is that, when seven decades of time have flown by, people won’t change their ways. This brings us to Donald Trump – most things do these days, now that yet another Damocles sword of impeachment is hanging over his head.
Here I’d venture a guess that many people, both his strident fans and equally strident detractors, misunderstand Trump. The former extol his virtues, the latter lambast his vices, and both ignore the spots he couldn’t change even if he tried.
A misconception exists among Trump’s core supporters that a business background provides an ideal training ground for holding a high public office. This betokens misunderstanding of both business and politics.
Commercial activity knows no abstractions, even though, hoping to keep the taxman at bay, some businessmen like to talk about business ethics. In reality they live by a simple moral philosophy: if you can get away with it, it’s legal; and if it’s legal, it’s moral. Business may or may not be immoral, but it’s amoral by definition.
It deals with nothing but concrete, material realities expressible in concrete, material units of currency. Since morality or high principles don’t fall into that category, they are dismissed.
Politics is, or rather ought to be, fundamentally different. Like a businessman, a statesman has to solve practical problems every day. Unlike a businessman, he solves those problems not for the sake of palpable commercial gain, but to serve some ends that may have no fiscal, or any other material, equivalent.
Since metaphysical concepts are more involved than anything material, they are harder to grasp. Therefore, a politician’s remit isn’t just different from that of a businessman, but diametrically opposite to it.
The demands imposed on the practitioners of the two fields are also different. A statesman doesn’t have to be a moral philosopher, historian or political scholar, but neither can he be ignorant of such disciplines.
Words like freedom, liberty, human rights, justice have to convey hard realities for a politician. For a businessman, they are lexical parasites.
Statesmen, even great ones, have been known to do rotten things in both private and public capacities. They can be immoral, but they can’t be amoral – like Christians, they may commit sins, but they can never regard sin as irrelevant.
Hence career businessmen and politicians develop diametrically opposite behavioural patterns. These can change from one to the other when the person is still young. But for someone who, like Trump, switches to a new field after having operated in another for half a century, such a metamorphosis is well-nigh impossible.
It’s placing unrealistic expectations on human nature to expect that, in his new job, Trump can act as anything other than the variably shady property developer he has been his whole life.
In the modus operandi implanted into his viscera, things are done on the basis of reciprocal personal relationships. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours; one hand washes the other – that sort of thing.
Hence it would be silly to expect Trump to see the seminal difference between negotiating a contract for building a Mafioso casino in Atlantic City and negotiating, say, a treaty with Iran.
Sitting down with Mario the Finger or with President Zelensky would push exactly the same buttons in Trump’s psyche. “Listen, Mario, you meet me halfway on this and I’ll meet you halfway on that” is in principle no different to him than “Listen, Volodymyr, you give me some dirt on Biden, I’ll give you Javelin anti-tank missiles”.
That’s why I’m sure Trump is sincere when he says he doesn’t understand what the noise is all about. He does something for Volodymyr, Volodymyr does something for him, so what’s the problem? Isn’t that how things are done?
Well, not quite. A man who rules a business empire can reduce all strategic moves to a personal relationship with other businessmen. If they help his cause, he’ll help theirs. If they don’t, he’ll look for ways to punish them.
Western politicians, good, bad or indifferent, can’t function that way. They have to operate within an intricate interlacing of power sharing, accountability, international relations and defence alliances.
That’s why Trump can barely conceal his impatience when dealing with his Western counterparts. And that’s why, one suspects, he admires Putin as much as he clearly does.
That Putin has some kompromat on Trump is beyond question. A man who brings a travelling brothel to Moscow and tries to strike deals with gangsters, especially if that man is as ready as Trump is to “grab a woman by the pussy”, is bound to leave behind reams of photographic evidence for KGB snoops – and every significant Westerner was at that time under close surveillance in Moscow.
It’s possible that Trump’s consistently pro-Putin pronouncements and, when he can get away with it, actions are rooted in old-fashioned blackmail. Yet, in the absence of any prima facie evidence of Trump being the Manchurian candidate, one has to discount that possibility.
In any case, it’s more likely that Trump genuinely admires the way Putin does things: like Trump, Putin turns a buck every which way he can; like Trump, he uses offshore havens and every conceivable loophole to keep his dealings away from prying eyes; like Trump, he projects an alpha image of a pussy-grabbing male (if with less justification, if rumours are to be believed).
To understand why Putin’s regime is evil, one has to invoke abstract concepts to which no price tag can be attached, and that’s not what Trump’s experience has taught him to do.
His friend Vlad wants to help himself to a chunk of Ukrainian real estate, so more power to him. When the Russians stole the Crimea in 2014, Trump’s reaction was to say they were entitled to it because everyone in the Crimea spoke Russian.
Had he given that matter a moment’s thought, he would have realised he was talking rubbish: using the same logic, Spain could reclaim possession of most of South America, or Germany occupy the biggest Swiss canton.
But he isn’t conditioned to give such matters serious thought: his relationship with his friend Vlad matters more to him than such nebulous things as Ukrainian sovereignty or independence.
If anything, he’s more likely to see Russia’s threat to the Ukraine as leverage in his dealings with Zelensky, along the lines of “you take care of Biden for me, I’ll look after you – and I’ll even tell Vlad to take it easy on you…”
Using the same mentality, Trump was doubtless grateful to Vlad for his help with the presidential election – even if he neither asked for it nor promised a quid pro quo. But rest assured that, even if words like “I owe you one, Vlad” were never uttered, they crossed Trump’s mind.
I hope you don’t take this as an attack on Trump. Yes, he’s manifestly unfit to be the leader of the free world, or indeed to get his mind around the concept. Neither is he capable of understanding that, in today’s world, if “America first” gets to mean “America, and devil take everybody else”, then it’s not only everybody else, but also America that’ll suffer.
However, looking at both his predecessor and his possible successors, one has to see Trump as the best of an awful lot. Surely anyone free of ideological bias has to prefer him to the obvious nincompoop Biden or the practically communist Warren and Sanders?
The evil of two lessers is the pun I like to repeat in such circumstances. It may be silly, but it’s accurate.
P.S. This morning I saw a van saying POLISH REMOVAL on its side. It took me a few seconds to realise that this was removal by, rather then of, Poles. And there I was, thinking Brexit has come.