Trump changes sides
Of all the time Donald Trump has been president, this last week has revealed him more to us than all the midnights we have already struggled through with him.
First was the conference of the G-7 in Quebec. All those poor twerps! Emmanuel, Theresa, Angela. But he told them, in no uncertain terms, who was who. Didn’t have to say a word, really — just arrived late and left early, then attacked Justin Trudeau brutally on the way out. (What a hoot.)
Because, you see, they were weak and he was such a dominating force of nature, with his sun-kissed hair like a Greek god’s, that he could call for a return of Russia to that group of ditherers. There was, as his trade adviser later put it, surely a “special place in hell for Justin Trudeau.” Trump himself called the Canadian “very dishonest and weak.” (What fun.)
“A thug,” they called Vladimir Putin — and so what? The Donald has known a lot of thugs in his life, and they got along just fine. The Mafia in New York, to get cement to build his buildings. The inimitable Roy Cohn, infamous from the McCarthy hearings. Paul Manafort, now under indictment by the Mueller investigation. Hey, they at least treated him respectfully.
As someone who knew Trump best in his early years, Lloyd Grove, then a New York journalist, wrote last fall in the Columbia Journalism Review: “Donald’s father, Fred, while wealthy, was never considered a peer by such powerful Manhattan real estate families as the Zeckendorfs, Dursts and Rudins.” And the Trumps, like father like son, never got over it — but could that possibly have led to Donald’s present-day politics of resentment?
Perhaps that was why Fred Trump, Donald’s only real hero, always told his children there were two kinds of people: “losers” and “killers.” (You get the picture.)
And now it’s on to Singapore, leaving all those enlightened losers in Quebec. On to a real man, Kim Jong Un, a strong man, a guy who doesn’t reason or mediate — threatening one moment to annihilate San Francisco, then blowing his favorite general into tiny pieces with an artillery piece. The two of them, meeting incongruously in one of the most mannered places on Earth.
The above reflections are, of course, the musings of this humble interlocutor, speculating somewhere between reality and the strange inner world of Donald J. Trump. But if these thoughts seem at first a little absurd, think again. Ask instead: Are we perhaps at an important new moment?
Coincidentally, this week, I attended a lecture where professor William Taubman, the respected author of “Gorbachev: His Life and Times,” credited the friendship, or at least liking, between Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan as a reason for their success together in ending the Cold War.
“They liked each other, they treated each other politely,” Taubman said. Then he quoted a top aide to Reagan as saying they were “like two fellows who ran into each other at a club and decided they had a lot in common.”
It may seem overly simple, perhaps even childish, to dwell on personal feelings in foreign affairs. But in fact, they can be definitive and decisive, just as bad personal feelings can and surely will result from Trump’s ignoble insults of Canada.
Move on next to globalization, that largely liberal idea that the world is one and should be open, safe and free. President Trump has pretended that he hates globalization, but he hates only the globalization of those twerpy losers he left in the dust in Quebec.
No, the harder truth we are seeing acted out is that Trump is a leader in globalization, but not that deliberative, rules-based community of nations led by the U.S. and the West since World War II. It’s a new, decisive globalization of authoritarians, with no rules, no manners and no limits.
Trump relaxes with Putin; he smiles, laughs and jokes with the authoritarians of Turkey, the Philippines, Hungary and Saudi Arabia because they are his club — and if he has his way, it will be OUR club.
Of course, there is much more to the American president’s evident affection for these guys. In the end, I bet we’ll find Trump, a man who calls bankruptcy his brother, dangerously in financial hock to the Russian oligarchs and Mafia. But that’s a story for another day.
Meanwhile, the clock is running out. Americans owe it to their history and to their honor to decide whether they really want their president to realign the iconic American experiment in self-governance and human equality with the morally and politically worst societies on Earth. Is a new anti-Western axis taking form before our very eyes?