ITHACA, NEW YORK – The Trump administration introduced itself to the United States and the world with a bellicose roar of “America First” and the dissemination of some rather petty falsehoods, establishing a strident, truculent tone.
All administrations lie, spin and deceive, but judging from early indications, the new team is off the charts.
Welcome to the Trump era where the interchangeability of opinion and fact, rudeness and in-your-face indiscretion is the new normal.
It’s hard to imagine two leaders more different than Trump and his predecessor, and maybe that’s the point. Just as Barack Obama coasted into power on a flood of pent-up antipathy for George W. Bush, so too Donald Trump tries to shoot the curl, riding high on an anti-Obama wave.
Such transitions are stark, but within certain norms it is normal. The sudden change in tone and style is not an existential issue; it’s a valence shift. It is part and parcel of the partisan game of musical chairs that has created the semblance of stability, and a rotating oligarchy, at the heart of U.S. politics.
It begets corruption but not beyond redemption; it allows for an abrupt change every electoral cycle or two, swinging back and forth like a pendulum.
The yin-yang of U.S. politics proceeds apace.
Although Trump plays fast and loose with the meaning of words, he wasn’t being entirely ingenuous when he cried “drain the swamp!” He is going to drain the swamp — the Obama swamp — and replace it with a Trump swamp.
What is new about Trump, and not unrelated to his appeal among politically neglected social groups, including the “basket of deplorables” who deep-sixed Hillary Clinton’s chance to keep the genteel elite game going, is his seeming unwillingness to play by the house rules.
The Trump revolution, if the installation of a Cabinet of billionaires working on behalf of a corny entertainer and real estate magnate can be considered a revolution, lies not in a vision of social equality, but in the ability to manipulate popular sentiment while acting unpredictability.
Whether it be the media — CNN, NBC, CBS, ABC or intelligence agencies such as the CIA, FBI, NSA or the myriad globalist organizations and pacts such as NATO, TPP, NAFTA, EU, U.N., Trump has indicated a willingness to take on all the big acronyms in a series of unexpected moves reminiscent of his guest stint as a pro wrestler. He taunts globalist powerbrokers, secretive agencies and smug media Goliaths to the wow and delight of his rank-and-file fans.
But one only need to look at two Trump speeches side by side, or any two Trump tweets for that matter, to see a man at odds with himself.
His inaugural address, while full of strongman talk, was leavened with some of the ideological piquancy and rhetorical flair associated with his adviser Steve Bannon, while the cantankerous spiel he made the next day at the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency was pure Donald of tabloid fame foaming at the bit.
One speech talks about repurposing America and points to stars in the sky, while the other frets about crowd counts and TV coverage; one lays out a chilling vision of a righteous paternalistic leader calling the shots, the other sounds like a crybaby in a schoolyard (he effectively blamed CNN for ruining his friendship with the CIA).
Trump’s trash talk and petty tweets may make him a persona non grata in the mind of more refined observers, especially in the media and academia where his overly assertive, grammar-challenged sentences provoke both head-scratching disbelief and dismal glee, but the same crude speech patterns placate those in his base who relate to what he’s saying and assume, rightly or not, that his wrath will never be directed at them.
The “America First” rhetoric is a shot across the bow of the globalist system. Whether the coarsening of diplomacy will aggravate friends or intimidate enemies, it’s too soon to say, but how it is responded to matters a great deal.
Inasmuch as it takes one to know one, Trump will be granted a certain amount of diplomatic space from other populist leaders with xenophobic tendencies.
Brexit supporters and anti-immigrant politicians in Europe believe they have a friend in Trump, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu is emboldened and Philippine strongman Rodrigo Duterte, too, thinks he has found a kindred spirit there.
A kind of tactical solidarity may yet blossom between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, unless as-yet unproven allegations connecting Trump to the Kremlin are demonstrably proven and bring about an early end to his presidency.
One can safely assume that East Asian power relations with Trump will rise and fall on the time-honored altar of self-interest, not ideology, mawkish bluster or eccentric style.
While most Americans find Trump an anomaly, if not an outright embarrassment, foreign leaders need only to look through the lens of self-interest, which is what Trump expects from others as much as he demands it for himself.
One diplomatic model for dealing with Trump is his vice president, Mike Pence. Pence showed pure cool under pressure in his debate against the hyped up, fiery Democratic vice president nominee Tim Kaine, but that’s nothing compared to getting along well with his boss.
In fact, one might say that Pence, by gallantly biting his tongue during a trying campaign in which sexual scandal, conflict of business interests and dodgy tax issues came to the fore not only managed to stay in the good graces of the intemperate Trump but has elucidated the path by which he might succeed him.
When it comes to negotiating with an egomaniac, diffident but confident self-presentation creates less cognitive dissonance than being zealous and forthright.
The self-styled master of “the art of the deal” is such a good bluffer that one cannot be sure when he’s bluffing, but history shows he’s full of bluffs.
International counterparts who know how to hold their cards and keep a poker face in the face of provocation may find they can play Trump as well, or better, than he can play them.
Philip J. Cunningham is a media researcher and consultant.