Before he was treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin was a movie producer, so maybe he’d appreciate that when I think about him showing up at this “Davos in the Desert” confab in Saudi Arabia next week, my mind goes to “Lost in Translation,” the film with Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson.
I picture Mnuchin and Fox anchor Maria Bartiromo, who as I write this might be the only journalist still planning to attend, wandering aimlessly through a sleek hotel and passing joyless hours with exotic teas at the hotel bar (it’s a dry country), unable to understand what anyone around them is saying, ruminating quietly on lives gone horribly awry.
On the plus side, I guess, there won’t be a line for the treadmills.
Pretty much the rest of the English-speaking world — governments, investors, media celebrities — seems to have concluded, reasonably enough, that celebrating the Saudi kingdom’s cosmopolitan future isn’t the tasteful thing to do right now, with all indications pointing to the savage murder of a Washington Post columnist by an army of Saudi thugs who carted a bone saw to Istanbul.
I mean, when you’ve brutalized a dissenter in a way that shocks the Turkish government, you have to know that you’ve really set the bar high.
But all that’s of little concern to the American president, who so far seems bent on sending Mnuchin to the annual conference anyway, and who continues to hedge and make excuses for his Saudi friends, thus isolating the United States, yet again, from the larger world community.
“They’re investing tremendous amounts of money” in American products, President Trump said of his “great ally” Saudi Arabia, which he claims — dubiously — has signed on to buy $110 billon in American-made weaponry.
Trump’s detractors will say that this is just another example of his being amoral and impulsive, bowing down to murderous autocrats because he aspires to be one of them. But that’s not giving Trump enough credit.
The president is absolutely pursuing a strategy here, which he laid out in his very first day on the job. And it’s not just morally bankrupt. It’s economically reckless, too.
In truth, every modern president has struggled to find the right balance between America’s lofty ideals and our strategic interests. During the Cold War that dominated the second half of the last century, Washington often came to see ruthless right-wing regimes in Asia, Latin America and Africa as necessary bulwarks against communism. It wasn’t a good look.
And since the emergence of Islamic terrorism as an overarching threat, no country has tested this balance as much as Saudi Arabia. The Saudis repress women and dissidents, but they’ve also lent out their land for U.S. military bases, and they’re seen as a crucial counterweight against Iranian influence.
Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama tried to walk that line between values and realpolitik in the region, and they mostly ended up talking about the former while ceding to the latter.
Trump, however, represents a radical departure from his predecessors, Republican and Democrat. He makes no pretense of balancing moral imperatives, or even military objectives, against the economic agenda that is his only real priority.
He made that exceedingly clear in an inauguration speech striking for its total indifference to moral leadership. Expanding on his “America First” philosophy, Trump laid waste to an American century in which he said we’d spent too much energy and money worrying about what happened to people in other countries.
“We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world,” Trump said then, “but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.”
Trump was articulating not so much his governing philosophy — he doesn’t have one — as his business philosophy. When you’re cutting the ribbon for a casino or some towering condo building, you don’t trouble yourself about whether the guy holding a shovel next to you is mob-connected (or, like your son-in-law, a slumlord).
No, if you’re a certain kind of businessman, you ask yourself only one question: Will this deal make money? You’re not in the business of morally policing your partners, as long as they’re not brutalizing you.
And this, to give Trump the benefit of the doubt, is probably why he appears so beholden to foreign bullies. It’s why he shrugs at Turkish goons beating up peaceful protesters near the White House, and betrays only the slightest irritation at the Russians trying to execute a man and his daughter in England, and remains untroubled by the horrific genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar — all while lashing out bitterly at Canadian dairy farmers.
If it doesn’t threaten American factories or farms, Trump isn’t especially interested. Abstract values aren’t something he loses a lot of sleep over, in foreign policy or in life.
Trump’s supporters — both the ones who wave signs at his rallies and the Chamber of Commerce kind — tend to love this about him, and I get why. They’ve had enough nation-building and finger-waving and coalition-leading for one century.
The idea of a president focused only on American jobs and industry, without all the other noise, has strong appeal in communities where Americans have often felt overlooked, and where they can’t really afford to worry about how the Saudis handle their critics.
Except that there’s a problem with this formulation. It assumes that America’s economic interests have nothing to do with its moral imperatives. And in the long term, that’s just wrong.
America’s most vital export isn’t cars or soft drinks or computer chips. It’s our culture. It’s our brand.
American businesses thrived overseas in the 20th century not just because we made a bunch of stuff, but because the stuff we made signified the American creed. In every part of the world, they watched our cowboy movies and smoked our cigarettes because they admired us. They knew Americans aspired to moral courage and the rule of law, even if we often fell short of the goal.
Coke didn’t just taste good; it tasted like America. Fords weren’t the best-driving cars on the road; they were the symbol of an empowered middle class.
Trump is, if nothing else, a brand master. He built his own, after all, with little more than fast talk and big hair. He did it so effectively that foreign investors were willing to plunk down millions on a property just because it carried his gold-plated name.
But he doesn’t seem to understand the risks he’s taking with ours. He can’t seem to grasp that, unlike a casino or a skyscraper, America’s potential for profit is inextricable from its moral standing. Without the enduring legacies of Lincoln and Roosevelt and Kennedy and Reagan, we’re just another country growing soybeans.
The American president should react at least as strongly as our bankers to the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, because we ought to stand for the right to dissent, and for the freedom of our press, and for basic humanity. That’s reason enough.
But we ought to do so, too, with the clear understanding that there is no such thing as “America First” without holding firm to American ideals.
Update: After this column was posted, the administration reversed course, saying that Secretary Mnuchin will not in fact attend next week’s gathering in Saudi Arabia. Bartiromo has not made any further announcement. “Lost in Translation” is still a good movie.
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