I have recently received a copy of Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” about the chaotic first year in the White House of the US president, as well as the election campaign which brought him to the presidency. The book has some funny paragraphs, like Ivanka Trump’s description of his father’s hairstyle: indescribable; the fear of being poisoned by Trump, as if he were a Roman emperor, so that of he always prefers cheese burger above all; or, the reaction Trump had when he met Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who in a meeting approached the president and said: “You are a unique personality, capable of doing the impossible”. Trump replied him: “I love your shoes. Man, those shoes! Man…” Apart from these funny moments, the book is boringly slow, is full of morbid gossip, contributes little to the daily news that the press reveals about the erratic figure of the American president and it has focused to a large extent on the different power struggles within the White House.
But behind all these, it lies a major political event, one that explains the late mismatch between President Trump and his former chief strategist, Stephen Bannon: In addition to President Trump disliking the careless appearance of Bannon, Bannon on the other hand, was very irritated about the president, who seems to have abandoned populism. For the Trump candidate, his star topic was immigration, on which he promised a hard and inflexible line, including a border wall and massive deportations. His ‘contract with the American Voter’ was full of populist measures, from hard actions against China to a public infrastructure program worth a trillion dollars. Their economic plans focused on the benefits for the middle classes, from a tax cut of 35% for middle class families to deductions for children and care for the elderly. He called for severe restrictions on lobbying activities and limits on the number of mandates of members of Congress. Trump originally had a hodgepodge of political ideas that did not point in any particular direction. But he began to attend radio programs and address conservative audiences and realized that it was not economic issues but social and cultural ones like immigration that inflamed the masses and Bannon played a key role there.
Bannon told the author of the already famous book, Michael Wolff, that the Trump era would be like the United States in the 1930s, with a massive program of public works which would once again take low-skilled workers to shipyards, mills and mines. Bannon is alt-right, a Tea Party representative but deeply Keynesian. Instead, it seems that US policy has returned to the 1920s, a time of unrestricted capitalism, to the power of markets, a reduced state and an inequality which is growing dramatically. Is that why the Ohio steel worker voted? Early in the 21st century, we have reached a stage in which the latest technology enables the offshoring of many of the manufacturing jobs that had previously been the mainstay of the middle class, or automates them out of existence. And we witness newly extreme concentrations of economic power, which are again making our politics less genuinely democratic.
The same is happening in international politics. Donald Trump has repeatedly emphasized the value of being “unpredictable,” and has established a pattern of firing off ill-conceived threats that do make him appear slightly unhinged. His apparent hope is that this sort of behaviour will persuade both allies and adversaries will do his bidding, for fear that this irrational and impulsive man will fly off the handle and do something terrible. In other words, Trump appears to subscribe to the so-called madman theory of diplomacy. The best-known articulation of this idea was by former president Richard Nixon in the context of the Vietnam War, or that of president Lyndon B. Johnson, before full American involvement, admitting that the Vietnam War could not be won. Johnson’s dilemma is one that presidents fear to face … and to which Trump seems to be heading on his own initiative … in North Korea.
Trump seems to conceive the international relations as he himself reaches agreements in his business: He has to win. But there is a huge difference. In international politics, the other person has also responsibility in national politics. He or she can not appear as defeated either. Trump acts like if he is carrying out a two persons negotiation, believing that it is only him and the other guy, two important figures reaching an agreement. For an international negotiation to be successful, there must be some win-win element for all. Otherwise, the other party will simply be unable to sell the agreement internally in his/her country. Trump seems to believe above all that he must win and the other must lose.
In Mexico, the president was aware that NAFTA had to be renegotiated. To do that, Trump would have to allow the Mexicans to proclaim some kind of victory as well, to receive some concessions. Instead, he started humiliating and making impossible for President Peña Nieto to reach an agreement. After all, no Mexican government could be seen as simply surrendering to Washington. Trump’s way of negotiating may have worked during his previous life, although there, too, many assure that it was not the way to build a great reputation. But he is no longer making real estate deals. The scenario is different, the conditions are much more complex, and the risks are higher.
The Madmen fail because they usually aren’t good at designing effective long-term strategies or managing the large organizations that make up a modern state. Madmen thrive on chaos, internal divisions, intrigue, and other performance-killing pathologies. Comparing the George H.W. Bush White House, a model of disciplined policymaking, with the weird combination of soap opera and court intrigue existing in the Trump administration, it is disturbing to see the handicaps that unpredictable leaders impose. The bottom line is clear: Being unpredictable may make sense in sports or poker, or even on a battlefield, but it’s a losing strategy for a great nation’s foreign policy. All we need to do now is convince the president. Good luck with that!