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Trump’s first steps: from incompetence to delusion

The first few days of his administration have offered a masterclass in how to not run a country – let’s explain with a contrast of leadership.

Mohammed Fairouz
8 February 2017
Hillary Clinton looks out over North Korea, 2010. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain.

Hillary Clinton looks out over North Korea, 2010. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain.I'm trying to find a word that describes the feeling of optimism intermingled with sheer frigid terror. The Trump administration is in a weaker place than I thought it was two weeks ago. The first few days in the life of this administration have offered a veritable masterclass in how to not run a country. This leaves us in a dangerous situation. The hope is that we don't all go together when we go. I'll explain with a contrast of leadership. A picture is worth a thousand words, and the image above is from the demilitarized zone demarcating North and South Korea, a place that president Bill Clinton described as "the scariest place on earth." During her tenure as Secretary of State, while engaged in an analysis of Hillary Clinton's use of the military, I studied her time on the Senate Armed Services Committee. I spoke with soldiers who were impressed by how well-briefed she was and mentioned her quick-footed analyses of information at hand (a strength that would continue evolving). No surprises there. But two mentioned something striking: that, in an area that made many a world leader, foreign or defence minister or senator cringe, she maintained a breezy composure that made more junior members feel at ease; she spoke and, more importantly, listened to the soldiers in such a way that expressed respect. This is important. The military and defence seniors respect these traits as a show of strength and a sign of good leadership. These are the same generals that Trump entered the presidency claiming that he "knew better than."

When Trump took office, I saw what I thought was an attempt to reconcile his standing with the army, by surrounding himself with generals in his cabinet who would mend relations and act as a buffer. But then he started making endless blunders. From taking 40 cheerleaders into the Memorial room at the CIA where he delivered a self-congratulating campaign-type speech while standing in front of the stars marking agents who fell in service of country. That predictably riled up the Agency (think of it like delivering a campaign speech in Arlington Cemetery). If Clinton impressed with her strategic chops in her readings of the reports in that Situation Room as Secretary of State, imagine the bemusement when the Trump team requested tanks at the Inauguration or when he later suggested that he would parade the military through DC or fly them over New York City. Beyond the strategic childishness of imagining that the pavement on Pennsylvania avenue could handle an M1 Abrams without fracturing, there was the implication that the most sophisticated army on planet earth would be used for pageantry.


All things considered, not the best time for any further agitation. So Trump's survival instinct kicked in and he called on the defence establishment in order to mend vital relations.

Just kidding. He ousted the country's most senior intelligence and military officials from being regular members of the Principals Committee and installed Bannon, a man whose stated political goals ("I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment" as he put it a couple years ago) isn't exactly music to the ear of an already irritated defence establishment tasked with the role of protecting the country from exactly what Bannon proposes.

Right wing outlets reported that Bernie Sanders flipped out over this, and I can see why he might have done so. The move brings an inexperienced right-wing extremist into a room where politics, even normal non-lunatic fringe politics, is supposed to be left at the door. For the record, Sanders said the move was "unprecedented and dangerous." Those are facts; check your definition of "flipping out" guys.

Trump and Bannon are moving fast. Way too fast. Part of this is overconfidence. But most of it is carelessness and desperation. Bannon is acting cornered, and not playing a good poker face. The administration's complete lack of expertise of what they're trying to do, coupled with their total incompetence, doesn't help them on their mission.

And finally Trump-Bannon & Co may have turned their most valuable weapon, the manipulation of fear and reliance on demonizing a distant "other", into a self-destructive force. They tried to play the politics of fear in a big way with the Muslim ban. But, as my friend David Ignatius pointed out, millions of Americans saw it as an attack on the Statue of Liberty.

Can there be a green populist project on the Left?

Many on the Left want to return to a politics based on class, not populism. They point to Left populist parties not reaching their goals. But Chantal Mouffe argues that as the COVID-19 pandemic has put the need for protection from harm at the top of the agenda, a Left populist strategy is now more relevant than ever.

Is this an opportunity for a realignment around a green democratic transformation?

Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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