Friday 11 November 2016

The Wolf Hall President

Donald Trump will be President of the United States.

I feel physically sick typing those words, but this is the new reality and we have to deal with it. The fact of Trump's victory is bad enough, but more sickening is the rush to normalise him.

Donald Trump.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The smooth-talking pundits and politicians tell us: We didn't expect to see him win, but really it's a natural response to the anger and alienation of the white working class. He said a number of unorthodox things during the campaign, but being a plain-speaking man is part of his appeal, and we have to respect his success in the business world. Isn't his policy on maternity leave interesting? Everything is all right, there's no need for any unseemly distress.

Even more so than usual, the pundits are wrong.

It is immoral to greet Trump's election with joy, indifference, or cynical amusement. The appropriate response is fear and loathing.

Trump is not safe. He is not normal, controllable, or reasonable. He is dangerous because of a toxic combination of cruelty and ignorance.

Trump was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan. He boasted about committing sexual assault. He said a judge's Mexican ancestry made him unfit to hear Trump's case. He denigrated the grieving family of a soldier who was killed in action, and the sacrifice of prisoners of war. He has cheerfully endorsed torture and war crimes. These are just a few of countless examples. He has shown no remorse for any of them.

Trump's acts of cruelty are not "gaffes", not "locker-room talk", not endearing quirks of character. They are expressions of contempt for his fellow citizens. They are not to be forgotten or forgiven.

Trump's ignorance is unprecedented. No one accused Reagan or George W Bush of being an intellectual giant; but they had a basic understanding of how government works. They were able to function as an administrator and head of state.

Trump doesn't understand law or governance, nor does he care to. In the second debate, he berated Clinton for not single-handedly reforming the tax code when she was junior senator from New York. The US Constitution doesn't allow a single senator to wield that kind of power, but Trump plainly doesn't know that. Yesterday on Twitter, Trump berated protestors against his election as "unfair", when this is the very definition of political speech protected by the First Amendment.

He is not capable of giving a coherent answer to any question of substance. In the debate transcripts, his replies are meaningless jumbles of words. He isn't advocating bad policies; he is failing to articulate policies at all. When he does adopt a position on some matter, he blithely contradicts it from one day to the next.

In a sane word, these qualities would render Trump unable to get elected as town dogcatcher; and yet here we are.

What does a Trump presidency mean? The fact is, nobody knows, maybe not even Trump himself. He is so ignorant and inconsistent, there is no way of predicting what he will do.

Here are three scenarios which I think are plausible.

One: Zaphod Beeblebrox

This is the most optimistic scenario. In the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Zaphod was President of the Galaxy:

The President is always a controversial choice, always an infuriating but fascinating character. His job is not to wield power but to draw attention away from it.

Maybe, having won the Presidency, Trump will devote himself to enjoying it. The White House offers any number of perks and distractions. He might busy himself constructing the Trump Wall, the Trump Monument, the Trump Pyramid, Mount Trumpmore, and so on. He might send a mission to Mars with instructions to build a giant statue of himself. He might try to amass personal wealth and help his children build up the family business empire.

He might prove to be crass, vulgar, horrifying, but in and of himself, mostly harmless. Even those of us who despise and fear him might grudgingly come to appreciate his showmanship.

Maybe the USA is too big and complex for one man to affect that much, for good or ill.

There could still be profound harm done on Trump's watch. Someone has to govern, and this would most likely fall to the ascendant hardliners in the Republican Party. People like Paul Ryan, Mike Pence, Rudy Giuliani, and Newt Gingrich would gleefully demolish the rights of women and minorities, slash taxes and services, and upend America's foreign policy.

At least Republican wreckers would not have Trump's active assistance. They might overreach themselves, and suffer at the polls. They would have to contend with the business community, public opinion, the law courts, Democrats in Congress, and the sprawling federal bureaucracy, not to mention their own internal divisions. Eventually the wheel would turn, and future Democratic majorities would undo most of the damage they wreak.

I don't really believe in this scenario; but for now it's what passes for a happy thought.

Two: Armageddon

If Trump so chooses, the damage he could do is beyond comprehension.

He will have the awesome power of the national security state at his command: CIA, FBI, NSA, and Pentagon. He could use it to crush dissent. Those he perceives as disrespecting him could be harassed into bankruptcy, prison or exile, or simply killed.

Trump will control the most powerful war machine in the history of the world. He could start a war, or several. He could commit crimes against humanity, torture, massacres of civilians. He could use nuclear weapons, and provoke a response in kind. He could encourage nuclear proliferation, intentionally or otherwise, raising the spectre of yet more nuclear war.

If there is some crisis, a major terrorist attack or financial crash, Trump could bring us all to utter ruin. Bush's responses to 9/11 and the 2008 crash left a great deal to be desired, but they could have been so very much worse.

America could become a "managed democracy", a mirror image of Putin's Russia, in which meaningful dissent is quelled and the ruling party enjoys a permanent grip on power. Women and minorities could face ever more brutal discrimination.

Yes, Trump could be impeached; but even if Congress could muster the spine to do so, this is no easy solution. Imagine Trump wanting a distraction, any distraction, to stave off a humiliating removal from office. Under similar circumstances, Bill Clinton spent a few days bombing Iraq, and he is far more intelligent and responsible than Trump. A desperate and cornered Trump would be at his most dangerous.

Trump's bigotry and ineptitude could destroy the United States itself. Enough war, oppression, and thievery, and institutions we take for granted might crumble. History tells us of many empires, who believed themselves to be eternal and indestructible, and in fact were anything but:

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Three: Wolf Hall

Consider Trump's personal qualities. He is:
  • Uninterested in the detail of government
  • Contemptuous of democracy and pluralism
  • A sexual predator
  • Eager for personal glory and pleasure
  • Childishly fascinated by war and weapons
  • Indifferent to tradition and institutions
  • A man raised in immense wealth and privilege
  • A petty and vengeful bully
Which historic head of state does this describe? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: King Henry VIII of England.

I'm perfectly serious about this.

Trump is like no democratic politician of the modern era. Even Silvio Berlusconi had a better grasp of policy than Trump does. For comparisons, we have to look further back into history.

Henry VIII had little interest in administration or finance, leaving those matters to subordinates. Their duty was to ensure money was available for whatever projects took Henry's interest. He was not an absolute ruler; but he wielded great power, and had no respect for laws or customs which stood in his way. He was given to theatrics, sensitive to slights, and ruthless in dispatching courtiers who displeased him. The resemblance to Trump is strong indeed.

In attempting to satisfy his whims, Trump may blunder into changes which he cannot begin to understand. He may squander lives and money on pointless wars. He may tear down hallowed institutions, with no knowing what will replace them. In this scenario, the one certainty is that his government will be fundamentally dysfunctional.

The court of Trump will be consumed by scheming, backbiting, and paranoia, as its members compete for the President's fickle attention and approval. The people who actually know what they are doing will push their own agendas, and Trump will be incapable of setting a clear direction. Policy decisions will be contradictory, destructive, or flat-out stupid.

Even by the standards of Tudor England, Henry VIII was hardly an efficient ruler -- being comprehensively outdone by his father Henry VII, and daughter Elizabeth I. In the far more complex and powerful government of the modern United States, placing Trump at the controls is an act of shocking irresponsibility.

Unfortunately, that is what the American electorate has chosen. The next four years will be interesting in all the wrong ways.


  1. Intrigued by I fear that Dunning-Kruger may prevent him acknowledging he is simply out of his depth

    1. What worries me is that if Trump feels inadequate and intimidated, he's likely to overcompensate by shouting and breaking things to show everyone he's in charge, and POTUS has a lot of power to break things. From a wider perspective, happy delusional Trump may be preferable to anxious Trump.