Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 16 February 2024


Trump’s crazy rhetoric is not simply hot air

The Times

Parsing Donald Trump is a uniquely difficult linguistic task, something like trying to translate Cockney rhyming slang into Romanian.

There are multiple layers of challenge. First, you can never have more than 50 per cent confidence that what he is saying is true. Second, much of what he says is intended to entertain, rather than inform or inspire. Third, and most confoundingly, the meaning of what he says is often quite different from the actual content.

In what must be the only feature of Trump’s ministry on earth that is like that of Jesus Christ’s, the former president speaks in parables. Unlike Christ’s, Trump’s stories are primarily designed to showcase his own greatness but, crucially, like the Son of Man’s, they also convey an important larger message. The task of parsing this is so complicated that much of the media doesn’t even try. As with Pavlov’s dog, Trump rings their bell and away they go, barking like mad about some terrifying new thing the man is threatening.

It’s understandable but in focusing just on the words — and frequently distorting them — to paint a picture of a deranged despot, they miss the meaning, the meta-story, if you like. That is a problem because it means they miss a critical part of understanding what is happening in America.

The truth about Trump and his enduring appeal to so many Americans is that, beyond the unsettling mix of Borscht-belt schtick and Munich-beerhall menace, beyond the verbal minefields of untruths, half-truths and narcissistic bombast, is a serious message channelling the reasonable fears and doubts of at least half the country.


So when the permanently unfinished Rubik’s cube of Trump’s mind last weekend produced another multisided Technicolor shocker of an outburst — this time on the subject of the US and Nato — the media as usual gave us the version they wanted us to hear: “Trump says he would encourage Russia to invade Nato countries who do not pay their bills,” says the headline on a story that is still on the BBC website. “I want Russia to invade Europe” in other words

The first thing to point out is that Trump didn’t say this. He was instead recounting a story from his presidency — telling a campaign audience that when he was pressing European governments to spend more on their own defence, he was asked by a Nato country leader if the US would still protect them from Russian invasion if they didn’t pay up.

“No, I would not. In fact I would encourage them to do whatever they hell they wanted,” he said.

As your reliable translator of Trumpspeak, I’ll say there are three key takeaways from this. First, it didn’t happen. Don’t you think we might have heard about this some time in the past five years if it did?

Second, the point of the story is primarily to emphasise Trump’s own negotiating prowess. This has always been central to his bloated self-image. From casino construction to global security, it’s always about his unique ability to get the deal done. The irony is that the point of Trump’s story was precisely the opposite of what’s been said about it — instead of representing the end of Nato, it is about how (in his own mind) Trump saved the alliance with an act of bravado that forced Europeans to action.

But the most important truth in this fictional story is that Trump understands better than anyone the dissatisfaction of Americans, their weariness with burdens.

Trump’s greatest political asset has always been an almost animal-like ability to sniff out public sentiment, and then, in hyperbolic manner, to articulate it; sentiments on immigration, crime or American self-identity that are unsayable, wilfully ignored by the established political class. One of these is the idea that the world Americans inhabit is dramatically changed. It is 75 years since the founding of Nato, more than 30 years since the end of the Cold War. It is remarkable how little the foreign policy establishment in the US, or America’s allies, understand the world as it appears to Americans themselves.

This is obviously true of the conspectus of global threats. In this century, first Islamist terrorism and then the rise of China have imposed themselves on the American consciousness. It’s true that Nato allies were reliable contributors to the war in Afghanistan. But that ended in disarray and disillusion — hardly an advertisement for the power of the alliance.


But more important than all that is Americans’ own, very new, sense of their own precariousness. This is not just about the changing global threats but their confidence in the success of their own country. For more than two decades, with very brief exceptions, the vast majority of Americans have told pollsters they think their country is on the wrong track. For the first time in history most Americans think their children will be worse off than they are.

In these circumstances Nato is increasingly seen not as a critical part of America’s own security but as a costly obligation to others. The statistics — a US that contributes well beyond its economic resources — tell only half the story. With a few exceptions, most European nations would be unable and even unwilling to stand up to an aggressor. Americans watch as Europeans have grown prosperous but dependent on US security and they resent the obligation, particularly from Europeans who seem to go out of their way to express disdain for America.

This isn’t 1930s isolationism, which reaped its own whirlwind in the 1940s. America then was an emerging superpower reluctant to get into another world war. Today Americans see themselves as a nation in decline, under siege from global forces — uncontrolled immigration streaming across their southern border, terrorists pledging to murder them at home and abroad, a rising nuclear-armed superpower across the Pacific. And they don’t see where Nato fits in.

Trump’s words are typically extreme. Don’t let the crazy blind you to the deeper message.

No comments:

Post a Comment