The Most Incompetent Demagogue In History

Prime Minister Theresa May and U.S. President Donald Trump hold a joint press conference at Chequers on July 13, 2018 in Ayle
Prime Minister Theresa May and U.S. President Donald Trump hold a joint press conference at Chequers on July 13, 2018 in Aylesbury, England.

No one likes us
I don’t know why
We may not be perfect
But heaven knows we try
But all around
Even our old friends put us down
Let’s drop the big one
And see what happens…

- Randy Newman, “Political Science,” 1972

Singer, songwriter and satirist Randy Newman, almost half a century ago, was channeling the know-nothing sentiments that eventually produced a President Trump — a figure who didn’t know much about history or geography, but who knew only that the rest of the world was failing to respect the United States. Trump’s famously thin skin reflects what psychiatrists call a narcissistic wound, a deep sense of rage that is triggered by anything that seems like a slight.

Trump, in turn, channels Americans who feel slighted, disrespected or disdained ― by the turn that the economy has taken and by the globalists in charge. He turns their sense of grudge into a general assertion that America is being slighted.

Thus the indiscriminate lashing out over trade issues at longstanding allies in Europe, most of which in fact have markets as open as our own. Thus the absurd demand that NATO members double their military spending and the claim that Europe is taking advantage of America’s military shield. 

Consider: The U.S. spends around 3.5 percent of GDP on the military. Most other NATO nations spend between 1 and 2 percent and have agreed to meet a target of 2 percent. But the United States, in its desire for global military hegemony, spends sums far beyond the money devoted to NATO. So it is illogical and insane to demand that the Europeans, who have no desire to police the world, match America’s military outlays.

Trump’s antics at the NATO summit and his visit to Britain displayed all of the reasons why his act is wearing thin. It’s just not believable, even on Fox News, to dump all over NATO one day and then claim the next day that NATO is just great thanks to your leadership, when nothing changed in the interim. And, beyond the boorishness and the affront to diplomatic norms, it’s not credible to endorse British Prime Minister Theresa’s rival, the clownish Boris Johnson, on one day in a recorded interview and then claim the next day that May is terrific and that the interview was fake news.

We can thank our lucky stars that Donald Trump has to be the most incompetent demagogue in the history of the world. He has an intuitive feel for how to articulate grievance and keep his critics off balance. But his capacity to deliver is so impaired and incoherent that it precludes results. (It was the Republican Congress that delivered a tax cut, not Trump, and the tax act is already backfiring politically because its benefits are so skewed to the top.)

For the 18 months of his presidency, Trump has managed to paper over a bizarre coalition between social conservatives angry about their economic condition and corporate plutocrats eager to grab even more. Globalist elites closed their eyes to the ultra-nationalism as long as Trump was delivering tax cuts, deregulation and the rest of the corporate agenda. Tea Party militants ignored the fact that the economic gains went mainly to the top as long as Trump delivered on the social issues.

But this cynical recipe, quite a straddle in its own right, did not require America becoming Russia’s toady; and that reality is alarming both camps. In a recent Fox News poll, just 5 percent of respondents said Trump has been too tough on Putin while 53 percent said he has not been tough enough.

U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced indictments against 12 Russian intelligence agents for hacking computer
U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced indictments against 12 Russian intelligence agents for hacking computers used by the Democratic National Committee, the Hillary Clinton campaign, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and other organizations.

Now, the long-awaited indictment of Russian agents for the hacking and leaking of the emails of leading Democrats casts a shadow on Trump’s much-hyped meeting with Putin. It makes clear that Trump, in his insistence that the Kremlin had nothing to do with the leaks, was either a fool or a tool (and more likely a willing tool) of the Russians.

As Trump has said repeatedly, he takes Putin’s denials at face value. After their meeting in Vietnam last November, Trump declared, “Every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that.’ And I really believe that.”

What could possibly motivate an American president, who lashes out at Canada (Canada!) for a minor slight, to display such credulity when it comes to Russia? What, indeed.

So as the two meet again in Finland, will Trump continue his warm embrace of Putin? Will he go through the motions of chiding Putin and asking him please to refrain from mucking around in our democracy, or what’s left of it? If Trump’s prologue at NATO and in Britain are any guide, he will probably do both things, on alternate days. This is hardly Trump’s finest moment.

When it comes to Kremlin efforts to destabilize American democracy, Trump is not only at odds with the sentiments of most Americans; he is at odds with the rest of his administration and most of the Republican Party. And if ever there were a time when he could plausibly demonize and possibly fire special counsel Robert Mueller, that time has passed.

Trump’s defense, pathetically, is that the Russian hacking happened while Obama was president. And the defense articulated by his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, was even more pitiful. “The Russians are nailed. No Americans are involved. Time for Mueller to end this pursuit of the President and say President Trump is completely innocent.”

Dream on, Rudy.

All of this is evidence for why I remain optimistic that Trump is on the ropes politically. Most polls show the Democrats in a very strong position to take control of the House in November and Trump’s approval rating sinking in key swing states. As Mueller produces more indictments and more evidence of plain treason, the impeachable crimes and misdemeanors that have been hidden in plain view since early 2017 will likely turn into a real impeachment.

Only one thing keeps me up at night. Unless the generals have added some kind of fail-safe measure, a truly desperate Trump could begin flirting with nuclear delusions.

As Randy Newman presciently closed his song:

They all hate us anyhow
So let’s drop the big one now.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. His new book is Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism? Follow him on Twitter at @rkuttnerwrites.