Stephen Walt: Trump Has Already Blown It – Foreign Policy

What these modern-day Jacobins don’t realize, alas, is that destroying institutions is easier than building them. If their assault on our core political traditions and institutions is successful, the United States will at best end up weaker and poorer. At worst, it will cease to be a meaningful democracy. The fact that the generally conservative Economist Intelligence Unit recently downgraded America — that’s right, the “Land of the Free” — from a “full” to a “flawed” democracy tells you just how serious this problem is. Based on the early evidence, Trump and Bannon want to accelerate that trend.

Some of Trump’s supporters may have flocked to him because they were tired of the failed strategy of liberal hegemony and worried that Hillary Clinton and her team were going to repeat the same mistakes that Obama, Bush, or her husband made. If so, it’s increasingly clear they aren’t going to get the smart and more restrained approach to the world they were hoping for. By that standard, in short, Donald J. Trump is already a failure. Didn’t take him long. I would say it was “Sad!” but it’s not. It’s tragic.

18 comments on “Stephen Walt: Trump Has Already Blown It – Foreign Policy

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  1. Normally I let the casual use of “tragic” pass without comment. But here, and I suspect increasingly, what we mean by “tragic” when we say “tragic” matters.

    Is it the Oedipal, earnest pursuit of doing the right thing only to have the disaster we sought to avoid be the result? Or is it an expression of the soteriological distaste of bad things happening to good people?

    Walt guesses that that fellow has no endgame in mind, relying on esoteric plans that have no exoteric correlate. That fellow says he will save us all, we need only to believe.

    If so it seems to not even have the good faith of hubris. If so it is not tragic, only mere dementia.

    • I think if Walt has any classical definition in mind, then tragedy for him would be in this case on behalf not of Trump and the core Trumpists, who are more the villains in the play, but of foreign policy Realists and everyday Americans who’d staked any hope at all in the Trump disruption delivering a more Realist American strategy. Walt doesn’t say whether he ever held such hopes himself, but he does lay out the, from his or his school’s point of view, lost potential of the moment. So, if you believe there was such a potential, and if you believe failure to reach it is likely to equate with great waste in American blood and treasure, damage to the American interest, vast human suffering in war, and risks of global cataclysm, then the effect would probably satisfy two definitions of tragedy, and certainly the looser one – of a profoundly bad outcome.

      • Certainly there is many who voted for that fellow will meet a tragic impasse – enabling the outcome they sought to avoid. But it seems to me that Walt isn’t making this point – or only in passing.

        In the passage you quote he writes “By that standard, in short, Donald J. Trump is already a failure. Didn’t take him long. I would say it was “Sad!” but it’s not. It’s tragic.” That is he himself is the tragic figure.

        As I said, I would normally let the causal use of “tragic” pass without comment. But here, if we are to understand anything about the unfolding events, I think we should use a group of words, “tragic” among them both judiciously and precisely.

        • Well, I guess we disagree then about what Walt seems to be trying to say. I’m not aware of any point where he ever has taken Trump on his own terms seriously enough to speculate about him as a (classically) tragic figure, nor do I see any other evidence that Walt’s means us to understand the term in a precise, literary sense.

          • Just so. That’s my point – he didn’t seem to mean precisely “tragic”, but only as you say “profoundly bad outcome.” My poorly made point is that, given the care he takes in the rest of his essay, he should continue it to the final word.

            • OK – I think I’ve got you now, and can see your argument.

              I’m unsure about it. If problem or possible problem didn’t occur to me before, that might be because I’m so disinclined to attribute any noble purpose or higher virtues to Trump at all. The question of tragedy in the highest sense would never even come up for me, but I can see that you might imagine it an open question for some.

              I do think, however, it would be wrong to think of him as utterly devoid of virtues – or, for instance, to call him a “coward” as some do. I do think he possesses courage to some degree. It might be a foolish and inconsistent courage, but he’s still “unafraid” in situations where angels fear to tread.

              I suspect that a few people I’ve seen calling him a coward in social media would tremble before the prospect of, say, giving a speech to a room full of friends, much less before taking on all that Trump has taken on. More to the larger point, for better or I think much worse, of all of the individuals who put themselves forward for the presidency last year, he possessed spiritedness (thymos), expressed as machismo (and hard to separate from it), more than any of the others. Among the Rs, he often came across as a man (a deranged one) among boys. Clinton stood up to him, but couldn’t overawe him: Perhaps she was calculating where we needed her to be indignant.

              But if you’re saying that blustering his way to the top of our heap doesn’t make him a potentially tragic figure, and no one should be confused about that, I agree.

              • Yeah, courage is perhaps a particularly fraught virtue. Emerson asserts that one must have “practical power” to have courage, so one unaccustomed to giving a speech is not faulted for being afraid t do so. He also writes:

                It is plain that there is no separate essence called courage, no cup or cell in the brain, no vessel in the heart containing drops or atoms that make or give this virtue ; but it is the right or healthy state of every man, when he is free to do that which is constitutional to him to do. It is directness, – the instant performing of that which he ought.

                A lot hangs on that “ought”. Terrorists, snipers and ambushers all can be characterized as either courageous or cowardly depending on how one construes that “ought”.

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TV pundits and op-ed writers of every major newspaper epitomize how the Democratic establishment has already reached a consensus: the 2020 nominee must be a centrist, a Joe Biden, Cory Booker or Kamala Harris–type, preferably. They say that Joe Biden should "run because [his] populist image fits the Democrats’ most successful political strategy of the past generation" (David Leonhardt, New York Times), and though Biden "would be far from an ideal president," he "looks most like the person who could beat Trump" (David Ignatius, Washington Post). Likewise, the same elite pundit class is working overtime to torpedo left-Democratic candidates like Sanders.

For someone who was not acquainted with Piketty's paper, the argument for a centrist Democrat might sound compelling. If the country has tilted to the right, should we elect a candidate closer to the middle than the fringe? If the electorate resembles a left-to-right line, and each voter has a bracketed range of acceptability in which they vote, this would make perfect sense. The only problem is that it doesn't work like that, as Piketty shows.

The reason is that nominating centrist Democrats who don't speak to class issues will result in a great swathe of voters simply not voting. Conversely, right-wing candidates who speak to class issues, but who do so by harnessing a false consciousness — i.e. blaming immigrants and minorities for capitalism's ills, rather than capitalists — will win those same voters who would have voted for a more class-conscious left candidate. Piketty calls this a "bifurcated" voting situation, meaning many voters will connect either with far-right xenophobic nationalists or left-egalitarian internationalists, but perhaps nothing in-between.

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