[This is my fourth attempt at an article on the Trumpian ascendancy. I usually set an article aside for a day or two, then come back to it and see if it’s silly, prosaic or boring before publishing it. The first three “Trump” articles, seven thousand apparently pithy words, didn’t survive the sober second thought test. If you’re reading this, this one did. Of course, I could have followed the lead of The Donald: all of that stuff could have been shared over the last four weeks, in 140 character 3 AM bursts. But no.]
Let’s start with some basics. I believe in democracy, perhaps somewhat naively. I believe that the genius of the democratic model is that the “public” – many disparate people, some of them stupid and venal, some of them naïve, some of them apathetic – can collectively make wise decisions. Democracy is the epitome of the aphorism “Some of us are not as smart as all of us.”
Events like the latest American election put this belief to the test, and like many – particularly in Canada – I’m shaking my head at the result. However, I still believe in democracy, and as strongly as I disagree with this election result, the people have spoken, and they are right. (No. No buts. They are right. That’s how democracy works.)
The Election is Over
Of course, there is an issue – or maybe more than one – about what the people actually said when they spoke. Did they say Trump or Clinton?
Many people argue that, with a lead of more than two and half million votes, Clinton was the peoples’ choice, and should be President. That, they say, is real democracy at work.
There is a part of me that wants to agree, but I know in my heart that I can’t. The election took place according to certain rules. Those rules – and in particular the electoral college system – may be archaic. They may no longer reflect the growing urbanization of America. However, they are the rules. I hate to agree with Trump, but he’s right. Even Clinton probably agrees.
(Imagine. “The double fault is a stupid rule. That’s not real tennis. Tennis is hitting the ball back and forth across the net. If there were no double fault rule, I would have won.”)
So maybe the current electoral college structure now has a bias against urban voters, which implies an anti-minority bias. Maybe it should be fixed. (Or maybe not. Is it really right that the President of the United States should be selected by the voters in a handful of states?) Either way, that would be for next time. Right now it is the way this election was contested, and thus decided.
There have been, and are still, demonstrators in the streets of many US cities. While their chant is “Not my President”, in fact what they are protesting is how Donald Trump won. They are protesting xenophobia, and sexism, and victory by mudslinging.
I heard someone say that Trump won by cheating. Instead of playing the election by the Marquess of Queensberry rules, talking about the issues, he turned it into a cage-fight, where the normal rules don’t apply. I understand the sentiment, but it’s wrong. The analogy is not to cheating. He didn’t take performance-enhancing drugs. He didn’t rig the voting machines. (Well…I’ll get to that.)
The better sports analogy – at least for hockey fans – is the neutral zone trap. Perfectly legal for a long time, the neutral zone trap was a way of winning hockey games by disrupting opponents in the middle of the hockey rink (the neutral zone). It was used for years by weak teams to prevent offensively stronger teams from getting their plays started. For that reason, and because it makes for boring hockey (the fans hated it), it was banned a few years ago. Until then, it was a very successful approach that was well within the rules.
Donald Trump played within the rules, but he didn’t play the election game the way many people would like. He is weak on policy, so he used his own neutral zone trap, disrupting any talk of issues with enough name-calling and finger-pointing to make a five-year-old proud. He used demagoguery instead of reason to appeal to voters. He lied, and exaggerated, and obfuscated reality.
Like the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, you might not want to invite him to dinner. But he won, fair and square.
The third part of the “Who really won?” issue is the rigged election question. There are recounts going on, but they will almost certainly confirm rather than change the result. Still, like many I have a nagging feeling that there is something fishy going on here.
I know that there are statisticians and analysts saying that there is numerical evidence of something untoward, but that’s not really the genesis of my doubts. My doubts come from the personality of Donald Trump.
When Trump first said, during the campaign, that the election was rigged, my immediate thought was “He’s going to rig the election.” That’s not because I mis-heard. It’s because he has shown, over and over, a tendency to project his own bad characteristics and bad actions onto others, a defensive reflex that you often see in bullies. If he is corrupt – and he almost certainly is – then he calls Clinton “Corrupt Hillary”. If he is lying to get elected, he calls Ted Cruz “Lyin’ Ted”. If you go through his campaign, you see one example after another where he accuses his opponent of a flaw or impropriety that is, in reality, his own obvious failing.
(Remember “No puppet! No puppet! You’re the puppet!”?)
So, when Trump said the election was going to be rigged against him, I read that as an indication that he or the GOP was going to cheat to help Trump win. It’s brilliant, when you think of it. Get everyone on the other side swearing that American elections are sacrosanct, and they will be prevented from investigating your own cheating later.
There is still a part of me that wonders whether the fix was in, given both the polls and my sense of the campaign. However, the election is over, and so far there is no hard evidence of cheating. Some people, like a dog with a bone, will continue to investigate it for years, and maybe they will eventually find something. Until someone does find something, though, the election is over. Subject to the million to one recount shot, a new President has been chosen, and it is time to move on.
Once you accept that the new President will be Donald Trump, there are lots of subjects that come up.
He is undoubtedly the President who, in all of US history, is the most likely to fail to make it to the end of his first term: being assassinated (by one of America’s many well-armed nutbars), impeached (by a Congress that, while Republican, doesn’t really like him), or deposed (by generals or his Vice-President, stopping him from firing nuclear weapons in a fit of pique).
His cabinet is starting to emerge as something like a Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band parody, but at the bottom of that swamp he promised to drain.
He isn’t even President yet, but through his weak impulse control he is already drawing the US into significant geopolitical black holes, and with India and China no less.
Trump is nothing if not entertaining. You almost wonder if his election was engineered by the news media to ensure good ratings for the next few years. (Although if I have to listen to Kayleigh McEnany defending Trump much longer, CNN may have to give way to HGTV in my house.)
Despite all of these juicy subjects, I want to look instead at Vladimir Putin. What is his game in a Trump reality? How will the Strongman of Leningrad deal with the Rich Kid of Queens, and where does Putin hope to end up when it all plays out?
This, it seems to me, is the most interesting part of the whole thing, in terms of speculative outcomes. It could be incremental business as usual. Or, it could be a very, very big deal. It depends largely on whether Putin has the cojones he advertises.
There seem to be four possible Putin-Trump futures.
Brothers in Arms
First, and most obvious, they could be just two peas in a pod. Both bullies with serious insecurity issues, and both relentlessly narcissistic, Trump and Putin could be legitimate best buds because they are so much alike.
Now, two narcissists can’t be friends as you and I might understand the term. Friendship requires some level of selflessness and sharing, and clearly neither of those is going to happen here. On the other hand, they may intuitively understand (and fear) each other, and thus have a wary truce, dividing up geopolitical interests and influence in a cautious but collectively selfish way. If you’ve ever seen two bullies in a schoolyard, each with their own entourage and territory, but never facing off against each other, you may be able to picture this Trump-Putin world.
I don’t think this is going to happen, because Putin is obviously smarter and tougher than Trump. This future lacks a certain balance. Still, it has to be on the list. It is not crazy as a possible outcome. And, of course, it may be the least damaging outcome for everyone, all things considered.
Global Chess Match
Second, the future could be more like the past, an incremental chess match in which Russia and America match wits to expand, consolidate, or erode their respective spheres of influence in the world.
Putin, despite having once been named a chess grandmaster, is not a player of that game. Yes, there is the famous story that he played Garry Kasparov (and lost in 11 moves), but in real life he doesn’t have the patience for it. And Trump is not really the chess type. (Although I for one would pay to see him play chess: “Whaddya mean the king can’t ride the horsey. He’s the fuckin’ king. He can do whatever he likes.”)
That having been said, both will, by choice or by necessity, be playing chess on the global stage. Putin (trained as a lawyer, no surprise) is 64, and has been the de facto leader of Russia since August 1999, when he was not quite 47. He probably thinks he has another ten years or so, and he has certainly shown that he knows how to play the long game (remember the Medvedev interregnum?). No-one believes that Putin will walk away smiling at the end of his current term in 2020, but at this point he must be thinking legacy.
His strategy during the Trump years could be to invite mistakes by Trump, then capitalize on them in small ways. Not enough for a confrontation, but enough to expand Russian influence and get back to a situation of two global superpowers, rather than just one.
This is the safest route for Putin. If he’s careful, he won’t wake up the other powers in America (the Senate, for example), and will be able to parlay a series of small wins into a longer term success. He has the advantage that Trump doesn’t really listen to others, and – as we have already seen with his ham-handed approaches to Taiwan and China, and then Pakistan and India – will stumble into mistakes simply because of his lack of understanding. That behaviour is not going to get better any time soon. Each of these gaffes, and the many more to come, will be an opportunity for Russia to gain some ground.
In this scenario, Putin retires having brought Russia back to its former glory. More than that he doesn’t need.
This is clearly the likeliest future for Trump and Putin.
Russian Dominance Through Rope-A-Dope
Third, both of the first two options assume that Putin is not going to chase the brass ring: Russian dominance.
Fareed Zakaria noted recently, in case it wasn’t obvious, that America is currently the dominant power in the world: “We have less than five percent of the world’s population”, he said, “but the other ninety-five percent look to the US to be the leaders.” It is not out of the question that Putin sees in a Trump Presidency an opportunity to replace the US as the one dominant global superpower. “Why not us?”, Putin would say.
Could this happen? Most certainly it could.
Look at the centrepiece of the Trump “ideology”, if there is such a thing. He restated it the other day: “There is no global citizenship. There is no global flag. We are citizens of the United States of America, and the only flag we pledge allegiance to is the American flag.” This, along with his attacks on trade agreements and offshoring of jobs, presages an era of protectionism in the United States. America dominates the rest of the world through its economy. Close the borders, and that dominance is undermined.
Further, America is still seen by many in the world as the place where the streets are (figuratively speaking) paved with gold. Even those who will never be able to move to the US think of it as the place to which they aspire. If America decides it no longer wants immigrants, the “American dream” may, for many around the world, simply become a thing of the past.
Clearly at some point in the future America will no longer be the dominant power. (See below.) There are only really four current candidates to replace America in that position – countries with size, and resources, and aspirations. Those are the BRIC countries: Brazil, Russia, India and China. Brazil is not quite there yet, and it has more limited resources. India will not be a serious candidate for dominance until they solve their population problem, which is not any time soon. That leaves China and Russia. Russia has more physical resources, but a small population and a language issue. China has more people, but more limited resources, and its own issues with xenophobia. Both have significant markets close by. Both have growing business and educational sectors.
In this scenario, Putin pushes Trump to make mistakes, particularly mistakes that hurt China. It is, in effect, geopolitical “rope-a-dope”, in which Putin, a judo expert, allows or encourages Trump to flail about, while Putin takes advantage of Trump’s lack of discipline. In the best future (for Putin), Trump ends up in a confrontation with China. Meanwhile, Putin plays the adult in the room with the Middle East, Europe, and South America, i.e. tough, but the only one with his head on straight. If he really wants to become dominant, he also opens up Russia to immigration to solve his under-population problem, and expands his reach through “acquisition” of the Baltic States and Finland.
Do I think this is going to happen? That is really a two part question. Do I think Putin will try this? I think it is a reasonable possibility. Never underestimate the patriotic fervour of Russians, or the personal ambition of Vladimir Putin. On the other hand, do I think Putin can succeed at this strategy? Not really likely. That would be to underestimate the ability of America, and its diverse political institutions, to re-orient a White House that has veered off course. The US will one day decline. That is inevitable. However, it will not go easily.
The Fall of the American Empire
Fourth, and even more extreme, Putin could seek to push America over the cliff.
Now, before you scoff, start by accepting some obvious truths. America is an empire, and all empires ultimately fail. The world has become smaller, which means that the evolution of world power is moving faster. US dominance has been driven in large part by its own economic growth (fed mainly by immigration and trade), but growth cannot continue forever. I could go on.
Perhaps more important, most empires fail because of internal conflicts, and America has the early signs of a similar future.
Someone said to me this morning, in all seriousness, that there is going to be a race war in America. While unlikely, is that completely out of the question? Not at all. The USA struggles to handle a racial divide that has almost destroyed the country more than once. This election brought that divide back up to the surface (we are seeing it already in the aftermath). In fact, the election also highlighted a significant urban-rural chasm that is only partly based on race and ethnicity.
More than that, though, the election put a spotlight on a large segment of the US public that is dissatisfied, and looking for someone to blame. In a heavily armed country, this personalization of economic dissatisfaction into good people and bad people is very dangerous, on both sides, yet it is in fact how Donald Trump got elected.
The interesting thing is that, for this risk to be realized, it doesn’t really matter whether Donald Trump does all the things he said he would do.
If he does, the US will become isolated from the rest of the world, the economy will stagnate, the wealthy will appear to be protecting/enriching themselves, minorities will feel threatened (and justified in defending themselves), and middle America will still be suffering. Trump will be a one-term President, but at a cost, and with a serious risk of conflict along the way.
If he doesn’t follow through on his promises, on the other hand, his working class base will once more feel betrayed. Their need to “drain the swamp” could become acute, leading to even more extreme winners in the mid-term elections, and again the risk of conflict.
Sooner or later, someone has to actually provide real, sustainable solutions to the systemic problems of middle America. It certainly isn’t going to be Trump, either way. Without solutions, the polarization in American society isn’t going to get better by itself.
From Putin’s point of view, the question is whether he can, with the right kind of nudge, get the US over the precipice. Is America sufficiently vulnerable right now that supporting dissidents (on both sides), attacking America’s internet security, seeding external threats from radical jihadists, and challenging the US internationally, can push a tense political and social conflict across the line to become a true civil conflict. That’s what Putin has to assess.
Once more, do I think this will happen? Not really, but it is no more crazy than the “best buds” scenario. Putin is perfectly capable of seeing this as an opportunity to sink the US, and equally capable of going for it. Trump and his advisors are certainly capable of screwing up, domestically and internationally, in egregious enough ways that the cliff will be tantalizingly near. And, the USA may in any case be closer today to actual internal conflict than it has been since the Sixties. The table has certainly been set.
Amidst the angst (or, in some cases, exuberance) of the Trump victory, and now his pitiful victory lap, we are not always focusing on how others around the world will respond to a Trump Presidency.
For some countries, and their leaders, Trump in the White House will simply be a problem to be managed. For others, however, it will be an opportunity to be exploited.
Those are the countries, and leaders, that pose the real threat.
– Jay Shepherd, December 3, 2016