Wednesday, 17 May 2017

We are Approaching a Dangerous Moment in the Trump Presidency

Right now, Trump still has too many powerful defenders for him to face a political or legal reckoning, but he is getting seriously frustrated with the political crisis he has himself wrought, and wants desperately to ‘change the channel’ to distract attention from his manifest troubles.  And when he is on the defensive, Trump lashes out.

There has been an ongoing debate amongst Trumps critics about whether he is a dangerous, vengeful authoritarian or simply an incompetent narcissist.  As I and others have noted, this is a false dichotomy.  Trump has both authoritarian tendencies and is a politically inexperienced and inept, profoundly ignorant, arrogant and narcissistic, man.  So far, Trump’s character traits have worked against themselves to produce the chaotic and amateurish spectacle we have seen over the past few months.  His worst impulses (and those of his ideologues) have been contained, but lasting damage has also been done.

So far, his efforts to quash the investigations into his 2016 campaign and of his advisors, like Michael Flynn, have backfired and made Trump’s potential legal position worse.  Lashing-out further at the FBI or the US intelligence agencies would be even more counterproductive – although this is not to say Trump won’t do so, unless someone disables his Twitter account, he probably will.  But there are multiple reports about Trump’s sour mood and a Whitehouse staff too shocked to be able to function.

Trump is about to go on his first international trip as president.  He had reportedly wanted this trip to be a ‘reset’ in Washington after the Comey firing.  Now, after the intelligence sharing with Russia story, this trip will be overshadowed by those allegations, and that particular cloud will follow him around the world, made worse by the fact that US allies are now even more wary of a US president willing to give out intelligence to a main adversary on a whim.  Trump also promised to nominate a new FBI director by the end of this week.  If that nominee is not immediately acceptable to both the Democrats and Republicans – and a partisan political figure won’t be – there will be even more political backlash in Washington.

The bottom line, the next few days are not likely to get any better for a Whitehouse that feels under siege and overwhelmed.  Yet, we know that Trump’s real strength lies in his instinct for self-preservation (especially at the expense of others), usually by counter-attacking his adversaries in a moment of crisis – something he learned from his mentor, the McCarthyist lawyer Roy Cohn.  Consequently, Trump right now is even more highly susceptible to whatever crazy is suggested to him by his advisors.  

And a real distraction from the furore in Washington could be obtained using some of the tools at the disposal of an amoral, unhinged president.  He could pick a new domestic fight; or threaten a country with a trade war.  But an international crisis, more squarely within the president’s realm, especially if it involves military action, is guaranteed to provide the kind of national distraction Trump now desperately needs.  Trump learned the power of this kind of distraction when he ordered cruise missiles fired at an airbase in Syria.  That episode cost the lives of several Syrians.  A crisis big enough to distract from the current mess in Washington will undoubtedly cost a lot more lives.  Given Trump’s ineptness and ignorance, such a crisis could escalate rapidly into something much worse.  That prospect is horrifying. 

But equally terrifying, as a colleague and I discussed today, would be the prospect of a terror attack against a US target right now.  The potential of that for Trump and his Whitehouse to ‘change the channel’ and push a self-serving agenda would be enormous.  And it would be a potential disaster for the US and the world regardless of how successful the terrorists were in their efforts. 

In short, a ‘shock event,’ either contrived or coincidental, seems to me to be a real, and serious, danger over the coming few weeks.  And, unfortunately, I fear the odds that we will see such a shock event in this crucial period are better than evens.

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