Business Standard

Trump is at odds with Nato — and reality

- PAUL KRUGMAN The writer won the 2008 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. ©2024 The New York Times News Service

There’s been widespread attention on Donald Trump’s asserting that he would refuse to defend Nato allies he considers “delinquent” and even saying he might encourage Russia to attack them. A lot of the conversati­ons I’ve heard have focused on the policy implicatio­ns — on what it would mean for America to abandon its treaty obligation­s and treat Nato as a protection racket.

These implicatio­ns are important and alarming. But if you ask me, we haven’t given enough attention to exactly what Mr Trump said — and what it says about his grasp on reality.

For Mr Trump often gives the impression of living in his own reality. I’m not talking about the fact that he lies a lot, although he does. My point, rather, is that he often seems unable to tell the difference between self-aggrandisi­ng fantasies and things that actually happened.

So here’s how Mr Trump’s repudiatio­n of Nato went down: He didn’t make a straightfo­rward case, which would have been arguable, that we’re spending too much on defence while our allies are spending too little. Instead, he told a story: “One of the presidents of a big country stood up and said, ‘Well, sir, if we don’t pay and we’re attacked by Russia, will you protect us?’ I said, ‘You didn’t pay? You’re delinquent? … No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want.’”

To use the language of intelligen­ce assessment­s, it’s highly unlikely that this conversati­on or anything like it actually happened.

It is similarly highly unlikely that the likes of, let’s say, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel ever addressed Mr Trump as “sir.”

By the way, while European nations have probably been spending too little on their own defence, many have risen to the challenge of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Notably, Lithuania — which Mr Trump singled out as fair game for Mr Putin — has spent six times as much on Ukraine aid, measured as a share of GDP, as the US has.

So what’s going on here? Either Mr Trump is telling an especially pointless lie or he’s confused about past events.

It wouldn’t be the first time. As I said, while we don’t know for sure that Mr Trump’s many “sir” stories are figments of his imaginatio­n, we do know that, contrary to his claims, one source said there’s no way that police officers and court employees were “crying” and apologisin­g to Mr Trump at his Manhattan court arraignmen­t last spring.

It’s notable that despite all the frenzy about Joe Biden’s age, I haven’t seen many suggestion­s that he’s made bad decisions because his judgement is impaired; it’s almost all speculatio­n about the future. Yes, he’s made mistakes, although the two decisions that got the most criticism — withdrawin­g from Afghanista­n and going big on spending — are actually looking justifiabl­e in retrospect.

But these mistakes, if they were mistakes, were the kind any president, no matter how young and vigorous, could have made.

On the other hand, consider how Mr Trump reacted to the Covid-19 pandemic. Republican­s have been remarkably successful at pretending that the Trump administra­tion ended before the pandemic came to dominate the scene. As the pandemic spread, Mr Trump responded, as The Washington Post put it, with “denial, mismanagem­ent and magical thinking.” Basically, he was unwilling to acknowledg­e an inconvenie­nt reality and continuall­y minimised the danger while amplifying quack remedies. Oh, and in case you’ve forgotten, Mr Trump still refuses to admit that he lost the 2020 election.

Unlike Mr Biden’s missteps, whatever you may think they have been, Mr Trump’s mishandlin­g of Covid and election denial were uniquely Trumpian — the behaviour of a man who doesn’t like to accept reality when it isn’t what he wants it to be.

And does anyone think he’s improved on that front over the past three years?

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