OUR MAN IN AMERICA II: ‘BABIES, INNOCENT BABIES”

“`Written in late April, published in The Jackal this week.

Many years ago, in diffident preparation for an unenvisioned future, I drifted through graduate school. I took a course in Middle Eastern Politics with an accomplished professor who had recently helped President Carter pull off the Camp David accords. One day he gave us an project; several of us were assigned roles as nations, and we told to return the next week and conduct peace negotiations. I was cast as the Soviet Union, a plum role in what was still the Brezhnev era, and I might have done well, had I not completely forgotten about the task. Instead, I arrived at class on the day of the summit, blithely unprepared to represent the interests and designs of a nuclear superpower.

Fortunately, a classmate reminded me of what was about to happen, and in three minutes I scribbled down everything I could remember about Soviet policy. When the professor called on me to gave my introductory remarks, I took the podium and brazenly delivered a firm but small set of demands with what I hoped would be read as imperious disdain. That took about a minute, and then I sat down. The professor seemed shocked that a major diplomat could be so succinct, but in the end, he noted only that in real life, the USSR probably would have spent some time chatting with tis allies about what it was going to say.

I often remember this embarrassing experience as I watch President Trump vamp his way through the early months of his administration. He, too, seems to be making up his policies as he goes along. The Chinese are currency manipulators; the Chinese are not currency manipulators; maybe the United States should pull out of NATO; no, NATO is a force for good. It’s like watching President Bill Murray in Groundhog Day II: The Oval Office Years, where what happened yesterday just doesn’t matter. Need somebody to handle North Korea? Trump says make China do it, at least until he talks to Xi Jinping. “After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” Trump told The Wall Street Journal. “I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power [over North Korea]. But it’s not what you would think.” It never is.

The policy that made it most seem like Trump was a quick-stepping contestant on Dancing with the Stars involved Syria. For months Trump had proclaimed “America First!’’, and had ridiculed policies of intervention in that terrible war.. Even Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (the diplomatic virgin who had just told reporters “ I didn’t want this job. I didn’t seek this job. … My wife told me I’m supposed to do this’’) suggested that it was likely that in the end, Bashar al-Assad could remain in power. The craven Assad took this as a nod and wink that he could act as he pleased, which in his case meant dropping nerve gas on a rebel-held town, killing 74.

Trump was outraged—completely appropriately, somewhat surprisingly, and entirely cringe-inducingly. Said Trump, “That crosses many, many lines – beyond a red line, many, many lines.” What other lines? The I’m Warning You line? The I’ll Tell Your Mother line? The Use Sarin Gas and There’ll Be No Dessert line?

Then he delivered the real shockeroo: he denounced the attack because the gas had killed “innocent children, innocent babies – babies, little babies.’’

In invoking the innocent baby standard, Trump reversed centuries of governmental policy. If history teaches us anything, it’s that the first job of any government is to preserve itself. It’s been that way since Herod the Great executed all young male children around Bethlehem to prevent losing his throne to a newborn King of the Jews. Innocent little babies are incidental. If governments were supposed to protect them, they wouldn’t have time for anything else. Moreover, how could they explain it when they had to go out and kill babies, or deny them health care, or a decent education? That’s why for centuries we have gone to war for God or king or country or freedom, but never for babies. Until now. Trump’s daughter Ivanka saw video of the carnage and tugged at dad’s heart strings.

In other words, it was a chick thing. But by the time it came to strike back, Trump switched again. He bombed one air base, a single blow to a single target, delivered after Assad’s Russian pals had skedaddled.

A slap on the wrist. Still, it might be enough to deter future baby massacres.

Assuming that continues to be the policy.

THE SUMMER OF TRUMP

DonaldMany people were surprised that Donald Trump shot to the top of the Republican presidential polls (in an NBC poll today, he has 19% percent, to Scott Walker‘s 15% and Jeb Bush‘s 14%), but that’s only because they allowed their own tastes to prevent them from getting an accurate view of this gargantuan personality. Trump is large and comical figure–vain, blustery, selfish, self-indulgent, a bully, a baby–but he is also smart, articulate, rich, very good at calling attention to himself, at grandstanding, at making more out of whatever little or much he has accomplished. And he has accomplished a great deal–longevity, for one thing. He has been a front page of the tabloids public figure since the eighties, which is no mean feat; what few peers he has, like Madonna and Al Sharpton, are mostly jogging in place while he is riding high. He has written a bestseller, been the star of a highly rated television show, and built big buildings and casinos and golf courses. He knows how to dish it out and how to take it, and he is not afraid to mix things up. He knows, as Warren Zevon said, “the name of the game is to get hit and hit back.” Among his media spectacles, he has made a number of blatantly fraudulent runs at public office that all seemed to evaporate whenever he had to get serious.

This one might still get evaporate, although it has gone on longer and gone deeper and created more furor than any of his previous stillborn efforts. He has owned the summer. His outrageous comments about Mexicans and his nasty, ignorant comments about John McCain have done nothing but catapult him to the crowded, splintered, directionless herd of Republican contenders. More than anyone in that field, he has a real constituency, a real claim to a body of voters.

And they are a potent group. They are the Tea Party group, an angry, aggrieved bunch of mostly working class white people who don’t like what progress is looking like in the mid-early 21st century. They have been a formidable group. They have won a lot of local races, and ousted a lot of middle of the road Republican officials. Because they are decentralized and committed, they can have a disproportionately large influence in primary elections and caucuses. I have already predicted that Trump will go deep into the primary season; the truth is, I see no reason to believe that he cannot win the nomination. The longer he sticks around, the more credibility he will develop. The more people vote for him, the more other people will find him acceptable. He will pass through the membrane of legitimacy.

One of the problems is that there is no one in the field who seems to match up well against Trump. Jeb Bush still seems like a reluctant candidate; I have never seen a presidential candidate with less passion. He never seems to be enjoying himself. One could see Trump having a bit of a rough time with people like Rick Perry and John Kasich, meat and potato governors whose in the trenches experience contrasts with Trump’s glamorous gunslingerism. But they have not broken through. One can see people like Rand Paul and Lindsay Graham, like sharp-tongued picadors scoring points against him, but they can only bloody Trump, not beat him. There is no august personage who can flatten him, no Ronald Reagan who could just chuckle at him and make him irrelevant. Nor is there a high road that can work, nor a low road. Trump is the product of belief–a focus group of New Hampshire Republicans done by Bloomberg found them echoing Trump’s own line on himself: his presidency would be `successful” and “classy”; he “speaks his mind;” he is “one of us.” They are responding to his style, and like all things involving style–clothes, music, decor–you can’t persuade someone who likes it that it’s wrong. You can only wait for them to like something else. You can only run as hard and as smart as you can, and hope to be there when tastes change.