People say Trump is inconsistent. That he doesn’t know what he’s doing. That he’s unfit to lead. Out of his depth. Criminally incompetent. That he doesn’t read. Or have principles. Or a basic understanding of the world. I mean, even Paul Ryan said we gotta cut the guy some slack. He’s new at this.
To these people, I say this:
What’s a “doctrine”? It’s basically a president’s thesis about how America should approach the world. The Bush Doctrine (W.) for instance, was, in short, “We reserve the right to attack anyone we perceive as a grave threat to the U.S., and we won’t hesitate to attack first either.” This is the reasoning behind the Iraq War. We saw where that got us, right? But more on that later.
The Obama Doctrine was more vague, kind of like, “We want to work with others and prefer to talk things out, but also, we’re not fucking around.” Sort of like soft talk, big stick, but all too often soft talk, no stick, or secret illegal drone killing.
So for those of you, including foreign policy experts, who think a “Trump doctrine” is taking shape: it isn’t. The Trump Doctrine emerged fully formed with Trump himself. It hasn’t changed, and it’s not going to. Here it is:
Trump’s policy reversals and “moderations” and “on-the-job education” aren’t new. He’s neither a realist nor an idealist. He’s a narcissist. When it comes to everything but himself, he’s a nihilist. There are no trends here, and there won’t be any outside of the staggering steps of a mentally ill man drunk on his own incompetence.
I mean, if you were surprised Trump reversed his policy on Syria in 24 hours and then switched it back and then back again; or if you’re a little foggy about what exactly we’re doing about North Korea, or who we’re doing it with, or why; or if you’re dizzied by the pivots towards and away and towards and away from Russia, NATO, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Afghanistan, and the Iran nuclear deal; if you don’t understand why Mexico both is and isn’t paying for the wall; if you’re mystified that Mr. Trump wants to protect those innocent “beautiful babies” in Syria but not welcome them to America; if you’re puzzled why he didn’t tear up NAFTA, “the worst deal ever,” on day one like he swore to us he would for over a year, but now wants to renegotiate, but still threatens to tear it up; if you’re confused about any of this stuff, you haven’t been paying attention to anything Donald Trump has ever said.
Or you didn’t care.
Look, Trump has lived a Trump Doctrine life—debt-spending and wheeler-dealing back and forth, committing to nothing by committing to everything. Except now it’s all headline news and people die.
This isn’t funny. I’m not making fun of the man. This is incredibly serious. We’re not in imminent danger now, but every president faces crisis. Trump creates them.
The problems Trump faces are of course complicated. But he’s making them much, much worse. And it all hinges on two promises throughout the campaign:
1. America First
2. A more powerful America
Put together, this is actually just one promise: An America that’s both independent and mighty.
This is impossible. It’s the promise of someone who has no idea what they’re talking about. It’s like giving up sugar and indulging in all the wonders of ice cream. Or, say, covering pre-existing conditions but getting rid of the individual mandate.
And this, in addition to Trump’s stupidity, and his appalling lack of curiosity, and his allergy to facts, is why Trump’s foreign policy has revealed, almost immediately, several glaring and schizophrenic flaws in several parts of the world all at once. It’s also why everyone—you, me, people in the administration, members of Congress, our own military, leaders around the world, and Trump himself—feels so disoriented: Donald Trump’s brain is a goddamn pinball game.
This is what we get for electing a president whose main qualification to be president was that he wasn’t qualified to be president. After five months of on-the-job learning, the man changed a decade-long position on a war. If that doesn’t terrify you, you are deluding yourself.
Let’s put Mr. Trump’s impossible worldview in context:
“Make America great again” ignores what made America great: it connected the world.
I don’t mean this in the sense of being culturally inclusive, though that is also true. After all, I’m talking about Mr. Trump here. America only became “great,” in the sense that Mr Trump means it, after World War II. Why? The developed world was shattered: all of Europe; all of Russia; all of China; all of Japan. The Ottoman Empire fell in WWI. America was, thanks mostly to geography, the only power left standing, and, thanks mostly to the war, our industrial economy had found its feet. We took advantage of this to shape the world in our image, and we created an international economic system that depended on, and benefitted, America.
And it only worked with economics. Major American military action since WWII has always come up short. Korea was (is) a stalemate; Vietnam a failure; Iraq I was a win, I guess, but limited to defensive action; and Iraq II… Holy shit. The only war we really won after WWII? The Cold War. And we didn’t fire a shot. Hell, the USSR had more nukes. We won with our larger global economy and by creating and backing international defense coalitions that worked in our interest.
We need to build on and reform this system as it develops. It’s far from perfect, and there are losers, many of them here. But we can’t do it on our own. We have internationalism to thank for making America great. Yet this is the system Mr. Trump and his supporters said they want to withdraw from to make America great again.
Now Mr. Trump, as mentioned above, is reversing his position on every single foreign policy promise he’s made, with the exception of pulling out of the TTP.
Syria: Reversed his entire policy in two days because he saw some pictures. Hey, Mr. 71-year-old President, guess what? War is fucking awful. Here are some other horrifying images from the Syrian war, and they have nothing to do with chemical weapons. Syrian children, the ones Mr. Trump literally said he would look in the face and tell them they can’t come into the United States, have been getting their bodies blown apart for years.
Want to go after another dictator? Here are some from Sudan. Hell, here’s a whole gallery of stock Getty images called “Sudan Famine Boy.”
North Korea: He said we’d work with China; or make China do it; or go it alone; and most recently that China “tried” but failed; and that we wouldn’t intervene militarily, which would be a disaster, but also all options are on the table; a position perfectly represented when Sean Spicer said that an aircraft carrier was simultaneously headed to North Korea and headed in the opposite direction.
Russia: He reversed his position on the Ukraine invasion twice; he reversed his position on sanctions (twice now); he reversed his position that we’d work with Russia against ISIS to that we wouldn’t; then he tells the Foreign Minister and Ambassador top secret information about ISIS, in the Oval Office, in front of Russian state media; he said he’s shoring up NATO against Russian aggression, then abandons that idea, then embraces it, sort of; and he promised to increase our cyber defenses after Russia’s hacks on the election, but he still hasn’t set up his cyber defense initiative and won’t even blame Russia, let alone punish them.
Saudi Arabia: Blasted them for years for sponsoring terrorism and abusing human rights; then signed a $110 BILLION weapons deal and is cutting them in on another cool $40 billion with his yet-to-be-drafted infrastructure initiative in the United States.
NATO: He decreed NATO is no longer obsolete; and he told the AP that before he was president he didn’t know anything about NATO; then he wouldn’t commit to NATO.
The Iran nuclear deal: He called it “the worst deal in history” and said he’d rip it up immediately; now he says it’s doing just fine, but we’ll also maybe rip it up.
The Wall: It’s not going up, not even starting; it’s not going to be complete; Mexico isn’t paying for it; but they’ll pay for it “in some form, eventually,” perhaps with solar panels.
Mexico: He still hasn’t hit them with tariffs because he suddenly realized they’re our second-largest trading partner, and responsible for supporting a ton of American manufacturing jobs.
NAFTA: He said he’d rip it up, day one; he hasn’t, because he realizes we benefit from international agreements, too; he also hasn’t even begun serious negotiations.
Tariffs: He promised to drop huge import taxes on American companies that send jobs overseas: he’s done nothing about this because the international economics are too difficult to do it without hurting us.
Trade deficits: He’s kept his rhetoric but reversed his position; trade deficits can be a good thing.
China: He said he’d officially label China a currency manipulator and force them to make better deals that way; he said he hasn’t done this because he needs China to help us with North Korea; plus they gave him trademarks; plus they’re helping out the Kushners. But now he’s abandoning China’s help on North Korea, so look to see him label them a currency manipulator again.
Do you see where we’re headed, Trumpers? More of the same! Your strongman is getting bent by the world. He’s getting hammered. You haven’t been conned. You willingly put your faith in incompetence, and here you are: no man’s land.
So let’s revise this. If Trump changes his position on anything, ever, he isn’t “moderating”: he’s confused.
He’s so unprepared that he can’t think critically about any argument an expert presents him with. Like the aircraft carrier that was both going towards and away from North Korea, he’s going every which way at once, depending who last spoke with him. Maybe you think this averages out. But no, if it were a graph, it wouldn’t be a slow drift to the center; it’d be a scatter plot with no correlation.
The problems of the world have hundreds of reasonable-sounding solutions. World leaders, and White House advisers, and Congress, will play presidential pinball with his brain. His 71-year-old brain. Bouncin’ around in there. The Pinball President. Like the U.S.S. Carl Vinson, steaming everywhere at once: full tilt.
Except you know what? Trump has had one chance to give us both independence and strength. Because one really great way to get Assad back for that chemical attack—without attacking another Middle Eastern nation and possibly committing ourselves to war with Russia—would have been to give the families that Assad wants to kill a chance to live in the greatest country in the world.