By Mitchell Blatt*
A new president is taking office after a winning a modest majority in the Electoral College but losing the popular vote. Though criticized for being inexperienced and lacking knowledge of policy, his opponent was uncharismatic and dogged by association with a certain controversial ex-president.
During the campaign he claimed he would pursue a modest foreign policy. But he puts great importance on talking tough and sounding like an unblinking leader. He doesn’t question his convictions, and he rarely admits mistakes.
We don’t know yet what kind of unexpected crisis the Trump administration might face, or how it will respond, but it’s easy to imagine it might look something like the last Republican administration. President Trump appears to have many similarities to the brother of the candidate he knocked out in the primaries, Jeb Bush.
As all comparisons go, this one is also limited. President George W. Bush projected a much more upstanding image. He conducted himself respectfully. He went out of his way not to publicly criticize President Barack Obama in the years since he left office. He took criticism gracefully. As unqualified and intellectually uncurious as his critics painted Bush, who had served two terms as governor of Texas, he was many times more qualified than Trump.
Which is all the more reason for concern that Trump could overreact and jump into an irresponsible foreign entanglement without considering the consequences.
Trump has shown no interest in learning anything or heeding the wisdom or those who know. He doesn’t know anything about foreign policy (or domestic policy). He doesn’t even know basic information. He has expressed ignorance of the nuclear triad, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Iranian Quds Force, and even the leader of ISIS. Yet he thinks he knows more than military leaders.
He doesn’t take intelligence seriously. Although briefed personally that Russia hacked the DNC servers, he said he didn’t think in Russia did it. Intelligence briefers described him as easily distracted and prone to hostile interruptions, the same way his own campaign strategists described his attitude towards debate prep.
His demeanor brings to mind the reported intel briefing Bush received at his Crawford, Tex. ranch in [Month[ 2001 when, after hearing a cursory description of intel about al-Qaeda, Bush told the man, “You got that checked off.”
Trump’s arrogance knows no bounds. Once set upon an action, he would give even less consideration to critics than Bush did to critics of the Iraq War. He’s certainly not one who would consider the differences between Sunnis and Shias or how a foreign country will respond to defend their interests. He doesn’t even distinguish between American citizens are Hispanic heritage and Mexicans.
He thinks the way to gain power and respect is to project “strength” through visceral attacks. “Hit back ten times as hard.” He has said he’s the “most militaristic” candidate running. He even wants to “bomb the shit” out of Syria, kill families of terrorists, steal Iraq’s oil, and use torture techniques “worse than waterboarding.” He’s Bush on steroids.
The reverence conservatives showed for the government in the aftermath of 9/11 is close to that demanded by Trump. Criticisms and protests during the Bush years were viewed as “unpatriotic.” Americans had to “unite” because of 9/11 and then the Iraq War. If you opposed the war or pointed out that it wasn’t accomplishing its objectives, then you weren’t “supporting the troops.”
One can only imagine how bad the political correctness will be under Trump, famous obsessively for “counterpunching” at the slightest hint of provocation, with Hannity or whatever hack he picks as his communications director. Already Trump conservatives are outraged that anti-Trump protesters took to the streets in response to his Electoral College win.
Sure, there were some radical responses to Bush. The 9/11 Truther movement alleged that Bush caused 9/11. Some protesters depicted Bush’s face in crosshairs. Criticism of Bush by liberal media figures could be fierce–Keith Olbermann attacked him every night and once called him a fascist.
Such language is sure to see a resurgence under Trump, which will cause some conservatives to rally around Trump. But it’s no different than the hate some conservatives launched at Obama or Clinton. Obama was depicted on protest signs as a witch doctor. He was going to “bring back slavery.” Clinton was accused of murdering a number of people. The 2016 Republican nominee for president even suggested Obama was a secret Muslim and that he wasn’t born in America.
You’re either with him or against him. His critics are threatened with lawsuits and tax investigations. He even attacked Republicans who supported him but refused to “endorse” him and Republicans who neither supported nor opposed him.
There’s been no 9/11 since 9/11 (“Obama kept us safe!!!”), but now terrorist attacks that kill a handful of people are treated by the president-elect as reason to ban Muslims. If another large scale attack (to say nothing of more small attacks) happens, Trump’s response would be unpredictable. Make threats against random countries? Launch missiles erratically? He won’t want to make a “weak” response where he actually takes time to consider who was responsible and how it could have been prevented.
About the author:
*Mitchell Blatt moved to China in 2012, and since then he has traveled and written about politics and culture throughout Asia. A writer and journalist, based in China, he is the lead author of Panda Guides Hong Kong guidebook and a contributor to outlets including The Federalist, China.org.cn, The Daily Caller, and Vagabond Journey. Fluent in Chinese, he has lived and traveled in Asia for three years, blogging about his travels at ChinaTravelWriter.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @MitchBlatt.