Trumpsplainer

Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, was among the few who predicted Donald Trump’s election. Now, for many, he’s become the go-to Trump explainer.

More aficianado than fanboy, he’s a lot more plausible than the insiders like campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, White House spokesman Sean Spicer and Goebbels re-enactor Stephen Miller who are, for now, getting paid do the explaining. So let’s give him a listen.

Adams, in a February 16 blog post, places Trump in the same category as Apple’s Steve Jobs, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Virgin’s Richard Branson. Not company in which I would have instinctively placed The Donald, none seeming to contend with him for the title of world’s greatest flimflam artist.

What they and Trump do have in common, says the corporate organization man turned cartoonist, is that they are “systems” people rather than “goals” people. By that he means that none of them set out to be precisely where they are now but got there by systematically doing the things that made the journey and destination possible.

“Trump seems to be a systems thinker,” writes Adams. “I doubt he knew he would jump from real estate developer, to author, to reality TV star, to president. At least not in that order. Instead he systematically accumulated money, persuasion skills and personal connections until he had lots of options. Being president was one of them.”

Adams may be trying too hard to fit Trump into the template of his own how-to-succeed book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. But that would not have been a bad title for Trump’s Art of the Deal — or his many other ghosted works on the same theme. One of the things Trump is not is a writer. Nor is he a reader. But he has failed repeatedly and, to use his adverb, bigly. Airlines, casinos, professional sports teams all have gone belly up in his care, often because he did not know what he was doing. That doesn’t mean he didn’t learn anything in the process. Now he’s President.

Or, as Adams puts it, “now the world watches as as entrepreneurial systems-thinker with no government experience takes over the White House and tries to learn on the job. How did you expect that to go?”

Not well, to be honest. And Trump is living up, or down, to expectations. He claims to have achieved more in his first three weeks than any president before him. But more what? If the quantum is chaos, it would be hard to take issue with him.

To my eye, then untutored by Adams, the Trump who took questions from the press for 77 most unusual minutes last Thursday was no happy camper, as much as he seemed to enjoy the give and take even when caught in yet another misstatement of his margin of victory.

Braggadocio and confidence are not synonymous. The former often signals a serious deficit of the latter. Trump had the manic look a man who feared the wheels were coming off his presidency almost before it had begun

Permanent Washington was spewing leaks that depicted his White House in pandemonium and himself as wandering its halls wifeless and bewildered in a bathrobe, picking up the phone at 3 am to ask his national security adviser, General Mike Flynn, whether the dollar should be strong or weak.

An ill-conceived executive order to show he was serious about protecting the “homeland” from “radical Islamic terror” had blown up his face, blocked at least temporarily by the courts, at which he had reflexively lashed out, earning an open rebuke from his Supreme Count nominee Neil Gorsuch.

He had then had to give Flynn the heave-ho, nominally for lying to his vice president about conversations with Putin’s Washington ambassador. These touched on the sanctions President Obama had imposed to chastise the Kremlin for what US intelligence community had concluded was an effort to compromise Hillary Clinton’s chances of election. Would another shoe drop, proving collusion between Putin and the Trump campaign?

Be cool, says Adams. “If you are comparing the incoming Trump administration with the transfer of power that defines our modern history, that’s an irrational comparison. If the country wanted a smooth ride, it would have elected Hillary Clinton. Instead voters opted to “drain the swamp”. And you can’t drain the swamp without angering the alligators and getting some swamp water on your pants. That’s what we’re watching now.”

Trump has consistently surprised his detractors, the biggest surprise of all coming last November 8. Perhaps there will be another next Tuesday when he speaks to a joint session of Congress.

If the practice of his three most recent predecessors is any indicator, this should be the moment he transits from the theatre of being president to engaging with Congress on his specific priorities, how he wants to fund them and whether he is willing to fight his own party to get them. From his choices we should learn if and how he means to govern.

Advertisements

Historical Parallels

To judge from Amazon sales, America’s coastal chattering classes are running to George Orwell and Hannah Arendt for guidance and titivation in these disconcerting times.

There is also renewed interest in Huey Long, the demagogic Louisiana governor who, had he not been assassinated, might have unseated President Franklin Roosevelt in 1936; and in President Andrew Jackson, America’s seventh chief executive, who ran on a distinctly populist, America First-ish platform and was roundly reviled by the establishment he defeated in 1828 as uncouth and illegitimate.

So a seemingly dyslexic President Trump is getting people thinking and reading. Who can complain about him on that score? But to see parallels with 1984 is unnecessarily alarmist. Trump’s America is not Oceania. Indeed, his supporters would exercise their Second Amendment rights to shoot Thought Police on sight.

Besides, to the extent Trump has any truly totalitarian tendencies, he will quickly find himself checked and balanced. Indeed the courts have already stymied his cack handed executive order to close the border to various, mainly Muslim, immigrants.

With Jackson and Long the echoes are stronger. Long campaigned as champion of the “forgotten man”, put his name on a lot of new infrastructure and rode rough shod over anyone who got in his way. Unlike child-of-privilege Trump, he clawed his way up from hardscrabble poverty and had a genuine affection for his base.

Willie Stark, the protagonist of Robert Penn Warren’s novel “All the King’s Men”, is an extreme version of Long. In the 1949 film, there is an exchange that resonates today. It is between Jack Burden, a character analogous to SA-born Joel Pollak, the Breitbart editor mentioned as Trump’s pick for ambassador to Pretoria, and Adam Stanton, a doctor Stark wants to run his shiny new state hospital but who is appalled by Stark’s thuggery.

Burden: I really believe that Stark wants to do good. You do too. It’s a matter of method. Many times out of evil comes good. Pain is evil. As a doctor you should know that.

Stanton: Pain is an evil. It is not evil in itself. Stark is evil.

Burden: The people of this state don’t think so.

Stanton: How would they know? The first thing Stark did was to take over the newspapers and the radio stations. Why be so afraid of criticism? If Stark is interested in doing good he should also be interested in the truth. I don’t see how you can separate the two.

Trump’s people don’t think their man is evil either, even though he has a relationship with the truth as strained as Stark’s and no less acute a fear of criticism. Would Trump like to take over the media? He often tweets as if he’d love to see new owners at the New York Times. But that is bluster and he knows it. He’s throwing red meat to his base which loathes, but does not consume, “elite” media.

Trump’s own preference is to be set alongside Jackson whose portrait he has had hung in the Oval Office.

Both extremely colourful in their own way, the two men are hard to compare as individuals. Jackson grew up poor and anything but pampered. He lost both parents early and, as a teenager, experienced the full brutality of British arms in the War of Independence. By the time he reached the White House, he had served in both the House if Representatives and Senate, won acclaim for his generalship in slaughtering Indians and British redcoats, and had killed a man (and taken a bullet) in a duel to defend the honour of his wife. Though fallists would denounce him as genocidal, he was as much man of substance in his time as Trump is not in ours.

Still, both won by appealing to a similar nexus of beliefs and fears. Trump voters, argues scholar Walter Russell Mead in the current Foreign Affairs, pulled off a “Jacksonian Revolt”.

“For Jacksonians — who formed the core of Trump’s passionately supportive base — the United States…is the nation-state of the American people…The role of the US government, (they) believe, is to fulfill the country’s destiny by looking after the physical security and economic well-being of the American people in their national home…while interfering as little as possible with the individual freedom that makes the country unique…

“As for immigration…most non-Jacksonians misread the source and nature of Jacksonian concern. There has been much discussion about the impact of immigration on the wages of low-skilled workers and some talk about xenophobia and Islamophobia. But Jacksonians in 2016 saw immigration as part of a deliberate and conscious attempt to marginalize them in their own country…They see an elite out to banish them from power — politically, culturally, demographically.”

This rings true. What does it mean for where America is headed over the next four years? Very hard to say. But it would make more sense to engage with the discontents who gave us Trump than to sit around swapping quotes from Orwell and Arendt.