by Gallagher & Schleicher
Consider the words of Niccolò Machiavelli, the 16th century Italian diplomat who argued, among other things, that it’s wise sometimes for princes and heads of state to “simulate a little madness” to keep adversaries guessing what may be policy and what may be bluff.
This “madman” theory of negotiations has ebbed more than flowed over time as a go-to diplomatic stance, perhaps because with the rise of industrialized warfare the stakes are simply too high. But even in modern times leaders have rolled the dice with the pretense of unpredictability to keep opponents on their toes. Richard Nixon’s presidency, for example, rather brazenly projected an image of (insane) nuclear flexibility to deter communist states from overtly aggressive moves. It didn’t work in Vietnam, or to counter congressional intentions to impeach him, but maybe it was a factor elsewhere.
And now, a fifth of the way through the 21st century, the theory is applied in practice. U.S. President Donald J. (“Jenius”) Trump is presenting historians and political scientists with a real-time, live-fire experiment to test the theory with multiple in situ settings, the leader of the world’s most powerful nation projecting no fewer than four personas to the wider world, each (at least in theory) tailored to rock a global counterpart to their heels.
There’s the “true love” identity he has cultivated with North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un, complete with letters of affection and an apparently bottomless pit of devotion and forgiveness. There’s the “accommodator” personality he displays for Turkish strongman Recep Erdogan: What’s a genocide here or there, and the Kurds? Barely knew them. And there’s the “secret admirer” persona he adopts for Russian President Vladimir Putin. OK, “secret” is a stretch, and “admiration” an understatement, but this is a family newspaper and we may have underage readers, so we’ll stop there.
Finally, there’s the “pit bull” character he nurtured for the assassination of Iranian general and generally-agreed-bad-guy Qasem Soleimani, a hit popular with the president’s base and, literally, the epitome of mad-man unpredictability. World leaders — allies and adversaries alike — are left wondering which Trump they will encounter and on which terms. Machiavellian doctrine on steroids.
There is of course another interpretation of this masterful illusion of wildly variable psychosis: Maybe he’s not faking. Trump, AKA “Sniffy McAdderall,” trended on Twitter for nearly 24 hours after his address to the nation following the latest skirmish with Iran, and not without reason. He snorted and spluffed his way through a short TelePrompTer speech, contradicting earlier reports on the rationale behind the hit in remarks laced with half-truths and outright lies about the history and situation on the ground.
The best way to portray a country as having a madman in office is to put a madman in office. Polls show that most Americans feel less safe after the Soleimani kill than before. We’re not regional security experts, but we can recognize the instability such a move brings to the region, and anyone can see we’re now closer to Iran producing nuclear weapons than before our withdrawal from that agreement and the subsequent escalation of hostilities. If a second assassination of an Iranian official planned for the same time had succeeded, we might be writing you from an underground bunker. Or not writing you at all because the Internet in the United States was taken down by Iran.
One way to respond to a crazy adversary, even one you think may be bluffing, is to walk away. Another is to assume you have nothing to lose and double down on your own bluffs. Which puts us back to square one: ground zero or opening bets. What’s the best strategy to pursue when all players are ready to pretend to be crazy enough to do anything or actually are crazy enough to leave all options on the table?
Again, back to Machiavelli, who also said “the ends justify the means” or Italian words to that effect. This is about as madman as it gets, because some ends are truly crazy, and the means to achieve them even nuttier. If you’re aiming to bring about the biblical end times, as some Trump enthusiasts seemingly are, another war in the Mideast, this time with a far more competent adversary, is a good bet. Likewise, if you’re a hardline Iranian ayatollah.
“A Very Stable Genius,” a new book by Washington Post reporters Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig, suggests Trump is neither: from paranoia (seeing insufficient loyalty everywhere he turns), to narcissism (considering whether to award himself the Medal of Freedom), to ignorance so profound it startles foreign leaders (causing the eyes of India’s Modi to bulge in surprise). All this suggests that in Trump’s role as the modern madman, he may be simply revealing his true self, not earning an Academy Award.
Some things we can say are likely to result from a president being psychotic, or pretending to be: (1) our allies will be less likely to assist us come the next “episode”; (2) economic growth at some point will take a hit, as investors wonder if an incoming or outgoing bomb will interrupt their plans; (3) Rudy G. will be kept on the team, as the only guy sure to make the Donald look sane; and (4) voters who don’t enjoy the dread and butterflies that accompany nearing World War III will continue to pray for a reasonable alternative.
David Gallagher is a transplanted Texan, living and working in London and tweeting at @TBoneGallagher. David Schleicher is an attorney splitting his time between Waco and D.C., blogging at ContranymTimes.com. This piece originally appeared in the Saturday, January 18, 2020 Waco Tribune-Herald, where the Davids (labelled by their critics as “The Deep State Duo”) are on the Board of Contributors.