Incurious Donald: The Woeful Trump Presidency

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Look at what I signed!

W.J. Astore

President Donald Trump is incurious, ignorant, and ill-informed.  He hides this with rudeness, bluster, and lies.  As an anonymous German Foreign Ministry official said during Chancellor Merkel’s visit, Trump “uses rudeness to compensate for his weakness.”

Trump couldn’t hold his own with a brilliant woman of substance like Angela Merkel, so he changed the narrative.  He accused Germany of not paying up with NATO; he said Obama wiretapped Merkel, just like he tapped Trump tower; he whined about unfair trade with Germany.  In public, Trump showed little substance and no sophistication.

It’s not that Trump can’t learn; he doesn’t want to.  He’s happy watching Fox News or movies like “Finding Dory,” golfing at his expensive resorts, signing executive orders and holding them aloft like a proud second-grader (Look Ma!  I can sign my name!), and holding rabble-rousing rallies (“Lock her up!”) and basking in applause.

Trump operates in the shallows.  His experience is in high-priced real-estate and media.  He’s best at hyping a certain image of himself.  He’s a bull-shitter, and he’s had lots of practice.

A big part of the presidency is ceremonial: the U.S. president is king and prime minister all in one.  Trump is failing at both jobs.  As a symbol of America, he’s boorish, boastful, and bullying.  As a prime minister, he’s incurious, ignorant, and vain.

Five examples: Candidate Trump knew nothing about America’s nuclear triad.  He didn’t know it consists of SLBMs (on Trident submarines), ICBMs (land-based), and “air-breathing” bombers.  All he “knew” is that allegedly the U.S. nuclear arsenal is obsolete and inferior to the Russian arsenal.  But actually the U.S. arsenal is more accurate, more survivable, and far superior to that of any other country, including Russia.

Second example.  According to Trump, before he came along, nobody knew how complicated health care could be.  We owe that stunning insight to Trump.  Third example.  According to Trump, Germany owes vast sums of money to the U.S. for defense costs, a false claim rejected by the Germans.

Fourth example: Based on a false Fox News report, Trump accused the previous president of committing a felony by tapping his phones during the campaign season, a charge for which there is no evidence whatsoever.  Yet Trump refuses to rescind the charge, despite its repudiation by the FBI, NSA, British intelligence, and his own party.

Fifth example: Trump refuses to admit his Muslim ban is, well, a Muslim ban.  Yet the ban refuses to target the one country that supplied 15 out of the 19 hijackers on 9/11: Saudi Arabia.  Most experts agree that Trump’s ban is unconstitutional and counterproductive in the war on terror.

Being Trump means never having to say you’re sorry.  In his unapologetic blustering, Trump echoes the foreign leader he seems to admire most: Vladimir Putin.  In Putin’s Russia, with its history of Tsars and other strong leaders, uncompromising firmness and unyielding certitude are expected if not always applauded.  In democratic America, an ability to compromise and a willingness to yield on matters of fact are generally seen as signs of adult leadership by statesmen who serve the people rather than themselves.

Trump’s behavior is better suited to that of Tsars and other anti-democratic strongmen.  Trump the incurious has surrounded himself with loyalists, family members like his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner, and commissars who watch over his cabinet appointees to ensure their loyalty.  Pettiness, paranoia, and score-settling characterize the Executive branch.

Trump often harkens back to World War II and the likes of Generals Patton and MacArthur.  How does he compare to the president back then?  Franklin D. Roosevelt had a global view of the world while exhibiting a mastery of detail. (So too did Winston Churchill.)  Self-confident, FDR looked for no-men, not yes-men.  He and his administration took pains to be inclusive and bipartisan.  And FDR, with help from Allies like Churchill and Stalin, won World War II.

By comparison, Trump has a parochial view of the world and can’t even master himself (witness those temper-driven tweets).  He hires yes-men and demonizes Democrats and indeed anyone he sees as against him.  Alienating allies like Britain, Australia, and Germany, Trump seems least critical of Russia.

Some leaders surprise: they grow in office.  But Trump’s smugness, his unwillingness to admit when he’s wrong, his showboating to hide uncomfortable truths, are stunting him.  Effective at selling himself and entertaining as a blowhard on (un)reality TV, Trump is failing as a statesman.

Rather than grow, it’s likely Trump will wither in office.  The problem is he won’t be alone in his decline and fall.

Update: To state the obvious, Trumpcare is not a health care plan: it’s a massive tax cut for the rich combined with a cut in services for the working classes and poor.  Under this “plan,” the CBO estimates that 14 million will initially lose coverage, rising by another 10 million in the next decade.  How is this a health care plan?  Add cynicism and broken promises to Trump’s qualities.

Update (3/25): As Heather Digby Parton puts it, Trump “truly believes that he’s never ever been wrong about anything and when he lies he’s actually telling the future. He said it over and over again in that astonishing interview [for Time Magazine].”

Matt Taibbi, in his inimitable style, captured Trump during the election season: “On the primary trail we had never seen anything like him: impulsive, lewd, grandiose, disgusting, horrible, narcissistic and dangerous, but also usually unscripted and 10 seconds ahead of the news cycle … maybe he was on the level, birthing a weird new rightist/populist movement, a cross of Huey Long, Pinochet and David Hasselhoff.  He was probably a monster, but whatever he was, he was original.” (Insane Clown President, pg. 221)

Trump: A Worrisome Commander-in-Chief

Trump holds a rally with supporters at the Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi, Michigan, U.S.
He doesn’t speak softly, even as he now inherits a very big U.S. military stick. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

W.J. Astore

I’d never watched a U.S. presidential candidate who scared me – truly scared me – until the Republican debate on March 3, 2016.  This candidate literally gave me the creeps.  As a historian and as a retired U.S. military officer, his answer to a question on torture and the potential illegality of his orders if he became the military’s civilian commander-in-chief horrified me.  The next day, I wrote a short blog post in which I argued that this candidate had disqualified himself as a candidate for the presidency.  That candidate’s name was Donald Trump.

What did candidate Trump say that so horrified me?  He said this: They [U.S. military leaders] won’t refuse [my illegal orders]. They’re not going to refuse me. Believe me.  After again calling for waterboarding and more extreme forms of (illegal) torture, as well as not denying he’d target terrorists’ families in murderous reprisal raids, candidate Trump then said this: I’m a leader. I’m a leader. I’ve always been a leader. I’ve never had any problem leading people. If I say do it, they’re going to do it. That’s what leadership is all about.

As I wrote at the time, “Our military does not follow blindly orders issued by ‘The Leader.’ Our military swears an oath to the Constitution.  We swear to uphold the law of the land. We don’t swear allegiance to a single man (or woman) as president.”

“Trump’s performance … reminded me of Richard Nixon’s infamous answer to David Frost about Watergate: ‘When the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.’ No, no, a thousand times no.  The president has to obey the law of the land, just as everyone else has to.  No person is above the law, an American ideal that Trump seems neither to understand nor to embrace.”

“And that disqualifies him to be president and commander-in-chief.”

Yes, I wrote those words just before the Ides of March.  And yet here we are, with Trump as our president-elect and, come January 2017 the U.S. military’s next commander-in-chief.  What the hell?

Confronted with criticism of his remarks that the U.S. military would follow his orders irrespective of their legality, Donald Trump soon walked them back.  But for me his dictatorial instincts, his imperiousness, and, worst of all, his ignorance of or indifference to the U.S. Constitution, stood revealed in horrifyingly stark relief.  Little that Trump said or did after this major, to my mind disqualifying, gaffe convinced me that he was fit to serve as commander-in-chief.

Here’s what I wrote back in March about the prospect of Trump serving as commander-in-chief:

Donald Trump: Lacks an understanding of the U.S. Constitution and his role and responsibilities as commander-in-chief.  Though he has shown a willingness to depart from orthodoxies, e.g. by criticizing the Iraq War and the idea of nation-building, Trump’s temperament is highly suspect.  His bombast amplified by his ignorance could make for a deadly combination.  Hysterical calls for medieval-like torture practices are especially disturbing.

Another disturbing tack he took was to suggest that he’d clean house among the military’s senior ranks — apparently, America today doesn’t have enough men like George Patton and Douglas MacArthur, Trump’s all-time favorite generals.  Patton was a notorious hothead, and MacArthur was vainglorious, egotistical, and insubordinate.  Leaving that aside, Trump doesn’t seem to understand that the president is not a dictator who can purge the military officer corps. Officers are appointed by Congress, not by the president, and they serve at the will of the American people, not at the whim of the president.

Combine Trump’s ignorance of the U.S. Constitution with his cavalier attitude toward nuclear weapons and you truly have a combustible formula.  Clearly, Trump had no idea what America’s nuclear triad was during the Republican primary debates, but few people in the media seemed to care.  (Gary Johnson, meanwhile, was pilloried by the press for not knowing about Aleppo.)  Trump gave statements that seemed to favor nuclear proliferation, and seemed to suggest he saw nuclear weapons as little different from conventional ones.  He also repeated that hoary chestnut, vintage 1960, that some sort of “missile gap” existed between the U.S. and Russia: the lie that Russia was modernizing its nuclear forces and the USA was falling hopelessly behind.  Again, there was little push back from the press on Trump’s ignorance and lies: they were enjoying the spectacle and profits too much.

When it comes to nuclear war, ignorance and lies are not bliss.  Can Trump grow up?  Can he become an adequate commander-in-chief? America’s future, indeed the world’s, may hinge on this question.

On Nuclear Weapons, Trump is Nightmarishly Scary

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An Ohio-class nuclear submarine

W.J. Astore

Much of the post-debate analysis I’ve read from last night’s presidential debate has focused on Donald Trump’s crudeness, his threat to prosecute and jail his political opponent, the way in which he stalked her on the stage, looming in the background and crowding her, and finally his non-apology apology about “locker room banter.”  Yes: Trump is most definitely lewd, crude, and socially unacceptable, but that’s hardly the worst of his qualities.

His worst quality?  His sweeping ignorance to the point of recklessness when it comes to matters of national defense, and specifically America’s nuclear arsenal.

This is what Trump had to say last night about the U.S. nuclear deterrent:

But our nuclear program has fallen way behind, and they’ve gone wild with their nuclear program. Not good. Our government shouldn’t have allowed that to happen. Russia is new in terms of nuclear. We are old. We’re tired. We’re exhausted in terms of nuclear. A very bad thing.

This is utter nonsense.  First off, nuclear weapons are not people.  They don’t get “tired” or “exhausted” or “old.”  Second, the U.S. nuclear program has not “fallen way behind” the programs of other nations, certainly not Russia’s.  Third, even if portions of Russia’s nuclear program are “new” (whatever that means), that’s not necessarily a bad thing for the United States.  “New” in this case may mean safer and more reliable systems that are less prone to catastrophic error.

Here’s an undeniable fact: The U.S. nuclear arsenal is by far the world’s most powerful and advanced.  The key aspect to nuclear capability is survivability, and nothing is more survivable than America’s force of Trident nuclear submarines.  Virtually impossible to detect, America’s Trident force is essentially capable of destroying the world.  One submarine carries enough missiles and warheads to devastate every major city in Russia (or any other country, for that matter).  What more is needed as a deterrent?

Specifically, an Ohio-class Trident submarine can carry up to 24 nuclear missiles, each with up to eight nuclear warheads, each warhead equivalent to roughly six Hiroshima bombs.  That represents a potential for hitting 192 targets, each with six times the impact of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 (which killed up to 200,000 people). That’s 1152 Hiroshimas from one submarine — a rough calculus, I know, but accurate enough to show the awesome might represented by a small portion of America’s nuclear force.

The Trident missiles are also incredibly accurate, with a circular error probability of less than 150 meters.  And the U.S. has 14 of these submarines.  (Not all are on patrol at any one time.) These highly sophisticated and ultra-powerful submarines are further augmented by land-based ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) and bomber planes (the “air-breathing” element), forming the other two legs of the American nuclear triad. Again, when it comes to redundancy, accuracy, and survivability, no other country comes close to America’s nuclear capability.

This awesome nuclear force is not a sign the U.S. is “old” and “tired” and “exhausted.” It’s a sign that the U.S. is incredibly powerful, and, if you’re a foreign leader, incredibly dangerous, especially if America’s next commander-in-chief is undisciplined, thin-skinned, and in possession of a scattershot knowledge of military matters.

Back in March of this year, Trump boasted at a debate that the U.S. military would follow his orders irrespective of their legality.  In this latest debate, he yet again revealed that he has no real knowledge of America’s nuclear capability and how modern and powerful (and scary) it truly is.

Sure, Trump is crude, lewd, and sexist, but those qualities won’t destroy the world as we know it.  Ignorance about nuclear weapons, combined with impetuosity and an avowed affection for he-man wild-card generals like George S. Patton and Douglas MacArthur, is a recipe for utter disaster.

Ignorance and Dishonesty: Trump, Hillary, and Nuclear Genocide

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Some honesty, please!

W.J. Astore

Should the United States reject the “first use” of nuclear weapons?  That question was put to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump during their first debate.  Colonel (retired) Andrew Bacevich asks us to take their answers seriously in his latest insightful essay at TomDispatch.com, which I urge you to read here in full.

Trump was asked to respond first, and his rambling answer, I thought, showed the evidence of someone who had crammed for a test.  He was desperate to show he knew something – anything – about America’s nuclear forces (here some may recall how Trump obviously knew little about America’s nuclear triad during the Republican primary debates).  So Trump rambled on about obsolete B-52s flown by the sons and grandsons of previous pilots, a non sequitur since the B-52 has been continuously upgraded with new engines, advanced avionics, the latest in high-tech weaponry, and despite their age they’re still more than capable of doing the job.  But somebody must have told Trump to use the B-52’s age as a talking point, and he was determined to get it in.

As confused and incoherent as Trump’s reply was (read more about this at TomDispatch.com), at least he tried to grapple with the issue.  Trump did reject First Strike.  He did refer to the terror of nuclear war, even as he got lost in other talking points about North Korea, Iran, and allegations about how weak on national security Obama is.

By comparison, Clinton’s response was classic Hillary.  Avoid and evade.  Try to be all things to all voters.  Bloviate, in other words, as Warren G. Harding did in 1920.  In essence, Hillary ducked the question.  She refused to address the issue of first use of nuclear weapons; indeed, she didn’t address nuclear strategy and policy at all.  Instead, she drew a contrast between her experience and predictability versus Trump’s inexperience and unpredictability.  Her message was clear: I’m not talking about nuclear weapons or policy, except to say you shouldn’t trust Trump with the nuclear launch codes.

Who won on this question?  Bacevich is right to say neither candidate won, but it’s clear who lost: the American people.  And the world.

It’s shameful that this country hasn’t rejected the first use of nuclear weapons.  It’s also shameful that instead of working to eliminate nuclear weapons, the U.S. is actually planning to spend nearly a trillion dollars over the next 30 years to upgrade that arsenal.  For what possible strategic purpose, one must ask?  America’s current nuclear deterrent is the most powerful and survivable in the world.  No other country comes close.  There’s no rational reason to invest more money in nuclear weapons, unless you count the jobs and money related to building new nuclear submarines, weaponry, bombs, and all the other infrastructure related to America’s nuclear triad of Trident submarines, land-based bombers, and fixed missile silos.

Neither Trump nor Hillary addressed this issue.  Trump was simply ignorant.  Hillary was simply disingenuous.  Which candidate was worse?  When you’re talking about nuclear genocidal death, it surely does matter.  Ignorance is not bliss, nor is a lack of forthrightness and honesty.

Next time, Mr. Trump and Secretary Clinton, let’s have some rigor, some honesty, and some wisdom on the issue of nuclear weapons.  Not only America deserves it – the world does.

The Nuclear Triad Is Not the Holy Trinity

An Ohio-Class Submarine, armed with Trident nuclear missiles
An Ohio-Class Submarine, armed with Trident nuclear missiles

W.J. Astore

America’s nuclear triad of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), sub-launched ballistic missiles (Ohio-class nuclear submarines), and nuclear-capable bombers is a relic of the Cold War.  The triad may have made some sense in a MAD (as in mutually assured destruction) way in the 1960s and 1970s, at the height of the Cold War with the USSR.  But it makes no strategic or financial (or moral) sense today.  Nevertheless, the U.S. is investing $10 billion over the next six years to update land-based ICBMs, missiles that should be decommissioned rather than updated precisely because they are both outdated and redundant.

The most survivable leg of the nuclear triad remains the U.S. Navy’s nuclear submarines, which carry Trident II missiles with multiple warheads.  These submarines are virtually impossible for any potential American foe to locate and sink in any timely fashion, therefore ensuring a survivable nuclear deterrent that is more than sufficient in any conceivable crisis.

Indeed, it’s arguable whether the U.S. needs any nuclear deterrent, given the size of the U.S. military and the power of its conventional military forces.  Even old Cold War warriors like Henry Kissinger have come out in favor of eliminating nuclear weapons from the earth, as did Barack Obama when he first ran for president in 2008.

But morality and common sense quickly disappear when politics and fear-mongering intervene.  States where nuclear missiles are currently based, such as North Dakota and Wyoming, want to keep them in their silos so that federal dollars continue to flow into local and state economies.  Fearful “hawks” point to the existence of nuclear missiles in China or Russia (or even Pakistan!) as the reason why the U.S. needs to maintain nuclear superiority, even though no country comes close to the power and survivability of the U.S. Navy’s Trident submarines.

And let’s not, of course, forget morality.  With Christmas coming, I recall something about “Thou Shall Not Kill” and loving thy neighbor.  Spending scores of billions (maybe even a trillion dollars!) to update America’s nuclear arsenal, an arsenal that has the capacity to unleash genocide against multiple enemies while plunging the planet into nuclear winter, seems more than a little contrary to the Christian spirit, whether at Christmas or indeed any time of the year.

The decision to “invest” in outdated and redundant land-based ICBMs says much about the American moment.  It’s almost as if our government believes the nuclear triad really is the Holy Trinity.  Heck — why else did our country choose to anoint genocidal nuclear missiles as “Peacekeepers“?

It should sadden us all that some American leader of the future may yet utter the line, “We had to destroy the planet to save it.”  Such is the horrifying potential and maddening logic of our nuclear forces.