President Trump woke up incensed Tuesday morning, apparently because after he finally got through lecturing European leaders about how they had to take more responsibility for themselves, Germany’s chancellor had the audacity to suggest that European countries should take more responsibility for themselves.
“The times when we could rely on others have passed us by a little bit,” was Angela Merkel’s takeaway from her most recent meeting with Trump. She said European powers “needed to take our fate into our own hands,” which prompted Trump to fire off an angry tweet assailing the trade gap with Germany and vowing to make the country spend more on defense.
Because what we really need are fewer BMWs manufactured in South Carolina and more of a German military presence in Europe. That’s always worked out great before.
But really, all this focus on Trump’s tweets and the stories about his boorishness abroad should please the White House no end. The more the narrative focuses on Trump’s toughness and bluster with our allies, the less anyone focuses on what’s really been exposed in these opening months of his presidency.
Trump is weak, and our rivals have figured it out. They’re walking all over the American president in a way we haven’t seen since at least the days of disco and Space Invaders.
None of this seems to permeate the family circle of Trump’s White House, where, as ever, mythology crowds out any notion of policy or reality.
As Hope Hicks, Trump’s onetime corporate flack, put it in a breathtaking statement this week that Trump himself might well have authored, the president “has a magnetic personality and exudes positive energy,” has “an unparalleled ability to communicate with people,” “treats everyone with respect” and is of course “brilliant with a great sense of humor.”
Out here in the world that isn’t Narnia, though, we’ve all got enough of a sample size now to know what kind of leader Trump is.
Trump punches down. Like all bullies, he prefers to flex his muscle with those who are inherently smaller, or where the stakes are impossibly trivial.
He’ll hurl his cutting asides at an aide, or berate some poor guy at the National Park Service who refuses to lie about the size of a crowd. He’ll mock Arnold Schwarzenegger for low ratings. He’ll bravely shove aside the president of Montenegro, which no one could circle on a map.
Like all Twitter trolls, he’s got an endless supply of insults to be dished out in 140 characters or less, using all caps and exclamation points, as long as he doesn’t have to stand in front of you and look at you level.
Just how tough is Trump when the adversary isn’t someone who works for him or serves as a prop in some way? Ask the Turkish despot, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
A few weeks ago, just after Erdogan visited the White House, a bunch of Turkish goons kicked in the heads of protesters outside the country’s embassy on Massachusetts Avenue. Thanks to this excellent video analysis from the New York Times, we know that several of these thugs had ties to Turkey’s security service, and they could be seen conferring with the Turkish president himself before deciding to plunge into the crowd.
Erdogan watched the bloody crackdown from behind the armored window of his car, two miles from the White House.
America does business with all kinds of characters, of course, and what you do at home is your problem. But here we have certain laws and convictions, and when you come to our country, people get to tell you what they think without being bludgeoned.
What did Trump, who talks so tough with other NATO allies, have to say about any of this? Where was the outraged tweet blasting back at a foreign incursion in the American capital? How many Turkish diplomats were expelled?
The answers are nothing, nowhere, and none. Erdogan flipped his middle finger to the White House, in full view of the world, and Trump hid in the West Wing, whining about his press coverage.
You can bet that Erdogan had been watching the way Trump handled Vladimir Putin, after Russian planes and subs showed up to menace the coasts off Alaska and Connecticut. A stronger leader might have politely put the Russians on notice that we take our borders seriously, and the next Russian pilot who wandered into our airspace might not be coming home.
Putin was testing Trump, just trying to see how hard he’d be able to push the man whose campaign he so deftly played to his advantage. About as far as you like — that was the answer.
Then there’s Kim Jong Un, who’s setting off a new rocket every week now, boasting about his intention to reach American targets. He’s already concluded that Trump will leave that whole Korean headache to the Chinese, as long as no one’s conspiring to hit us with more decent, reasonably priced hatchbacks.
Why are Trump’s competitors so confident they can brush him aside? Probably they can see that he doesn’t have much grasp of world affairs, or a ton of interest. Maybe they imagine he’s too preoccupied with controversy back home to get himself into any global standoffs.
But the better explanation is that other world leaders can sense something essential about Trump. The one thing they share is probably an innate ability to size people up. You don’t get to the top of any political system, large or small, without a shrewd eye for what drives human behavior.
And what they see in Trump is insecurity. The carrying on about his ratings and poll numbers, the impulsive tweets on a sleepless night, the childlike boasts and pleading diatribes — all of it betrays a need to be loved, rather than feared.
They look at how Trump sucks up to a miniature authoritarian like the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte (who Trump gushed was doing “an unbelievably good job” during an embarrassing phone call in May), and they see a man who admires steel in others precisely because he doesn’t possess it himself.
All of this creates an opening for a leader like Merkel or France’s Emmanuel Macron, who see a vacuum emerging in the West. Macron made a point this week of demonstrating what spine in a statesman looks like, condemning Russia’s anti-gay bigotry and state-controlled media while standing next to Putin himself. (And this was after Macron gripped Trump’s hand as if he meant to pulverize and eat it.)
It creates a promising moment for China, too, which is already positioning itself beyond Asia as the steadfast successor to American power, economically and militarily.
But the pressing danger here isn’t that Trump — and, by extension, American leadership — gets eclipsed. It’s that Trump’s passivity in the face of petty aggression almost certainly invites a more consequential variety.
It’s one thing for the Russians to have poked our border patrol with no response. But what happens when their troops are crossing the border of a Baltic nation instead, because Putin figures no one will stop him? What happens when North Korea finally gets a rocket to Guam — because, you know, why not?
Indifference toward aggression has never spared America from war. And irate tweets have never ended one.
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