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History’s Most Incompetent Demagogue

A competent Trump could have done lots more damage. His Europe trip was a full-blown political disaster

President Donald Trump, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hand at the beginning of a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland. (Photo: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

President Donald Trump, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hand at the beginning of a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland. (Photo: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) 

No one likes us
I don't know why
We may not be perfect
But heaven knows we try
But all around
Even our old friends put us down
Let's drop the big one
And see what happens

—Randy Newman, “Political Science,” 1972

Singer, songwriter, and satirist Randy Newman, almost half a century ago, was channeling the know-nothing sentiments that eventually produced a President Trump—a figure who didn’t know much about history or geography, but who knew only that the rest of the world was failing to respect the United States. Trump’s famously thin skin reflects what psychiatrists call a narcissistic wound, a deep sense of rage that is triggered by anything that seems like a slight.

Trump in turn channels Americans who feel slighted, disrespected, or disdained as citizens and as patriots—by the turn that the economy and has taken and by the globalists in charge. He turns their sense of grudge into a general assertion that America is being slighted.

Thus the indiscriminate lashing out over trade issues at longstanding allies in Europe, most of which in fact have markets as open as our own. Thus the absurd demand that NATO double its military spending, and the claim that Europe is taking advantage of America’s military shield.

Consider: The U.S. spends around 3.5 percent of GDP on the military. Europe spends between 1 and 2 percent, and has agreed to raise its target to 2. But the United States, in its desire to be global military hegemon, spends sums far beyond the money devoted to NATO. So it is illogical and insane to demand that Europe, which has no desire to police the world, match America’s military outlays.

As Russophile Trump asked in a different mood, “Who needs NATO?” If Vladimir Putin is truly not just Donald Trump’s personal pal but America’s friend, why pour more money into an alliance that was created to defend Europe against Russian expansion?

Trump’s antics at the NATO summit and his visit to Britain displayed all of the reasons why his act is wearing thin. It’s just not believable, even on Fox News, to dump all over NATO one day and then claim the next day that NATO is just great thanks to your leadership, when nothing changed between the two days.

Beyond the boorishness and the affront to diplomatic norms, it’s just not credible to endorse British Prime Minister Theresa’s rival, the clownish Boris Johnson, on one day in a recorded interview, and then claim the next day that May is terrific and that the interview was fake news.

We can thank our lucky stars that Donald Trump has to be possibly the most incompetent demagogue in the history of the world. He has an intuitive feel for how to articulate grievance and keep his critics off balance. But his capacity to deliver is so impaired and incoherent that it precludes results. (It was the Republican Congress that delivered a tax cut, not Trump, and the tax act is already backfiring politically because its benefits are so skewed to the top.)

For the first 18 months of his presidency, Trump has managed to paper over a bizarre coalition between social conservatives angry about their economic condition and corporate plutocrats eager to grab even more. Globalist elites have closed their eyes to the ultra-nationalism as long as Trump was delivering tax cuts, deregulation, and the rest of the corporate agenda. Downhome Tea Party militants ignored the fact that the economic gains went mainly to the top as long as Trump delivered on the social issues.

But this cynical recipe, quite a straddle in its own right, did not require America becoming Russia’s toady; and that reality is alarming both camps. In the most recent Fox News poll, conducted July 9-11, just 5 percent think he has been too tough on Putin and 53 percent say he has not been tough enough.

The long awaited indictment of Russian agents for the hacking and leaking of the emails of leading Democrats cast a shadow on Trump’s much-hyped meeting with Putin. It made clear that Trump, in his insistence that the Kremlin had nothing to do with the leaks, was either a fool or a tool (and more likely a willing tool) of the Russians.

What could possibly motivate an American president, who lashes out at Canada (Canada!) for a minor slight, to display such credulity when it comes to Russia? 

At the Helsinki summit, Trump, astonishingly, placed more faith in the denials of Putin than the work of all the U.S. intelligence agencies. What could possibly motivate an American president, who lashes out at Canada (Canada!) for a minor slight, to display such credulity when it comes to Russia?

What, indeed? We will soon find out, as the details of Robert Mueller’s investigation continue to unfold.

This is hardly Trump’s finest moment. When it comes to Kremlin efforts to destabilize American democracy, Trump is not only at odds with the sentiments of most Americans; he is at odds with the rest of his administration and most of the Republican Party. And if ever there were a time when he could plausibly demonize and possibly fire special counsel Mueller, that time has long passed.

The defense articulated by his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, was pitiful. “The Russians are nailed. No Americans are involved. Time for Mueller to end this pursuit of the President and say President Trump is completely innocent.” Dream on, Rudy.

All of this is evidence for why I remain optimistic that Trump is on the ropes politically. Most polls show the Democrats in a very strong position to take control of the House in November, and Trump’s approval rating sinking in key swing states. As Mueller produces more indictments and more evidence of plain treason, the impeachable crimes and misdemeanors that have been hidden in plain view since early 2017 will likely turn into a real impeachment.

Only one thing keeps me up nights. Unless the generals have added some kind of fail safe measure, a truly desperate Trump could begin flirting with nuclear delusions.

As Randy Newman presciently closed his song:

They all hate us anyhow
So let’s drop the big one now.

An earlier version of this article appeared at The Huffington Post.

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Robert Kuttner

Robert Kuttner

Robert Kuttner is co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect magazine, as well as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the think tank Demos. He was a longtime columnist for Business Week, and continues to write columns in the Boston Globe and Huffington Post. He is the author of A Presidency in Peril: The Inside Story of Obama's Promise, Wall Street's Power, and the Struggle to Control our Economic Future, Obama's Challenge, and other books.

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