National Column: Trump aping Nixon’s ‘madman theory’

by Thomas Walkom

Is Donald Trump crazy like a fox or just crazy? I pick the former. His abrupt reversals on policy and his Twitter rants probably reflect his personality. But they also seem deliberately designed to keep everyone guessing as to what he might do.

In this, he is aping another U.S. president, Richard Nixon, who deliberately cultivated his reputation as a maniac capable of pressing the nuclear button, on the theory that this would keep America’s enemies on edge.

Nixon called it the madman theory.

I’m not the first to draw the Trump-Nixon analogy. But I was reminded of it Thursday after Conrad Black, the former newspaper mogul, spoke via video to the Commons foreign affairs committee.

It’s hard to know if convicted fraudster Black still qualifies as a tycoon. But he certainly did once, which is how he knows Trump. And Black’s comments on the U.S. president’s alleged unpredictability ring true.

“He doesn’t change his views as much as one thinks, but he does alter the mood and the level of ambience,” Black said. “He has his techniques, but he’s not all over the map. He knows what he wants.”

In business, Black said, Trump would sometimes take outrageous positions as a bargaining tactic.

Black’s remarks were directed at Trump’s attitude toward Canada, which, rhetorically at least, has veered from love to severe criticism and back again to love.

DC

But the president’s use of seemingly crazed and inconsistent hyperbole applies across the board.

On the one hand, he warns North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un that he must abandon his nuclear ambitions or face dire consequences. On the other, he says he would be “honoured” to meet Kim, whom he called “a smart cookie.”

He has long suggested he’d like a friendlier relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But he has his officials, notably Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, publicly badmouth the Russian government.

He chastised his predecessor, Barack Obama, for even thinking of involving the U.S. in the Syrian civil war. And then he bombed a Syrian government airbase.

In trying to make sense of these apparent contradictions, two things should be kept in mind.

First, Trump should never be taken literally. Like a poet, he speaks in metaphors. Whether these metaphors are treated by his critics as lies doesn’t really matter. That’s just how he chooses to talk.

When he lauds Canada and says trade relations with Ottawa need only be “tweaked,” he doesn’t really mean it. Conversely, when he accuses Canada of hosing Wisconsin dairy farmers and tweets, “We will not stand for this,” he doesn’t necessarily mean that either.

What he is trying to do is keep the Canadian government confused as it prepares to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Washington and Mexico City.

In the end, will the fate of Wisconsin dairy farmers be a deal-breaker for Trump? Ottawa doesn’t know, which is the aim of the exercise.

The second thing that should be kept in mind is Trump does have an agenda, however inchoate – which in his words is to “make America great again.”

What this means in practice is unclear. Like many politicians, Trump is happy to conflate his interests with those of the nation. So at one level, making America great again requires making Trump look good. If, as in his continued efforts to repeal Obamacare, this requires sacrifices from the working people who elected Trump, then so be it.

At another level, however, making America great again is about the U.S. receiving what Trump regards as the respect it is due.

If this can be achieved by bombing a Syrian government airbase, then that base will be bombed. If it requires hectoring fellow NATO members to spend more on defence, then they will be hectored. If it requires a renewed NAFTA deal tilted dramatically in favour of the U.S., then that is what American negotiators will be told to bargain.

In the meantime, Trump will tweet, prevaricate and, from time to time, reverse himself. It will keep everyone uneasy. And that is the point.

Thomas Walkom appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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