Sunday, December 04, 2016

#Clownarchy Calling

The moment I realized just how dangerous a Trump presidency could be came back in March, when I watched  a town hall meeting with the prospective GOP nominee moderated by Chris Matthews. In response to a question about reproductive rights, Matthews and Trump fell into a long exchange about the mechanics of a ban on abortion, with Matthews pressing Trump on the issue of how such a ban would be enforced. After several attempts to deflect or dodge the question, Trump finally declared, "The answer is that there has to be some form of punishment."

What alarmed me was not the illiberal principles underlying this pronouncement, but the look on Trump's face as he made it.  He looked as if, reluctant as he was to be pinned down on a politically sensitive issue, he was nonetheless sensible of delivering the wisdom of Solomon. His tone said, "Here comes the straight shooter again. Watch and learn, America. This is how it is done."

Only someone who was blissfully and totally ignorant of the state of debate concerning reproductive rights could have projected that air of self-satisfaction. Looking at him in that moment, one could see that the howls of protest that would arise from Republicans across the ideological spectrum, even among his most ardent supporters, would come as a total surprise to Mr. Trump. He had no idea that he had just demolished a carefully cultivated rhetorical position (the insistence that an abortion ban would NOT requires sanctions against women) that "pro-life" advocates had spent years building and defending.

This is the peril posed by the Trump presidency. Mr. Trump is not merely ignorant. His ignorance extends to a complete incomprehension of just how ignorant he is. He in fact knows so little that he is insensible to the danger of just how little he knows.

This problem has been on display since his ascent to the position of President-elect. Whether he is equating the loss of citizenship with a year's incarceration or alleging millions of illegally cast votes without proof, Trump does not seem to have the slightest understanding of how his pronouncements will be perceived or the potential damage they may do to his credibility. His supporters might view such antics as "bold," but for them to truly be bold there would have to be some evidence that Trump understands that they entail risk, and such evidence is missing. Unfortunately for everyone concerned, those risks are real.

The most alarming example thus far has been Trump's congratulatory phone call with President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan. This was an enormous breach of the protocols of "strategic ambiguity" that have been the cornerstone of U.S. policy in the Taiwan Strait for more than four decades. The Strait is the most dangerous flashpoint in the world, surpassing even the DMZ of the Korean Peninsula. Though formally a province of China, since the flight of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government to the island at the close of China's civil war in 1949, Taiwan has had its own president, legislature, constitution, and judiciary. Moreover, there is a large faction in Taiwanese politics that resents mainland exploitation of Taiwan (which began long before 1949) and who would seek a break from China at all costs.

At the same time, the citizens of the People's Republic of China on the mainland harbor deep and painful grievances over European, American, and Japanese imperial aggression against their homeland, the history of which includes the forced cession of Taiwan to Japan as a colony in 1895. Any formal declaration of independence by Taiwan would thus be met with massive popular unrest on mainland China to rival the Tiananmen demonstrations of 1989. No government in Beijing, even one that had been democratically elected, could survive the political firestorm that would follow a Taiwanese declaration of independence.

It has thus been the policy of the United States to keep the peace through a diplomatic balancing act calibrated to maintain the status quo. On the one hand, our government concedes that there is only "one China" and that Taiwan is a part of it. There can thus be no "President of Taiwan," as the island is not sovereign. On the other hand, we maintain close informal relations with Taiwan (through the office of a "trade consul") and provide the Taiwanese military with billions of dollars of advanced military hardware, to dissuade the mainland government from trying to settle the conflict militarily.

This homeostasis has been maintained by every president, Democrat and Republican, for more than  forty years. Donald Trump's decision to not only receive a phone call from Tsai Ing-wen but to then tweet his thanks to "the President of Taiwan" is thus an unprecedented move for a president-elect. Politicians and commentators may debate the wisdom of this maneuver (I personally find it incredibly foolhardy), but no one can deny that this is an enormously consequential and risky shift in our foreign policy. If the President-elect did not mean it to be read that way, he did not understand what was at stake. If he did intend some significant statement, his choice of the telephone and Twitter as the media with which to make it (and the tenure of his sitting predecessor as the time to do so) were unthinkingly irresponsible. Either way, this latest gaffe is another in a long string of signs that Mr. Trump does not understand the role of the President or what is at stake in its conduct.

With Mr. Trump we are quickly entering terra incognita in the history of the modern presidency. The response of the Chinese government to this latest provocation reveals a trajectory for our future path. In a face-saving maneuver, they have blamed the incident on Taiwanese "trickery." While this preserves Sino-U.S. amity, it likewise reduces Mr. Trump to the status of an ignorant dupe. This is the inevitable direction in which Trump's presidency will evolve: as more actors cannot or will not take his words or deeds seriously, his persona will progressively transmute  into that of a clown, and the Presidency from a sovereign Executive into a #Clownarchy.

Confucius taught that, "If one conquers oneself and returns to ritual for a single day, the world will return to humaneness (Analects 12.1)." This is a profound insight into the universal nature of civil authority. Civil power relies on the regularity, predictability, and dignity of ritual and protocol. Though personal dynamism and charisma can be effective in performing a role like President of the United States, those assets will be counterproductive if one is unable to subordinate one's own selfish idiosyncrasies to the essential ceremonial parameters of the office. There are occasions when a civil official must simply do and say what protocol demands, a necessity that all of our presidents have acknowledged and successfully fulfilled to varying degrees.  Mr. Trump does not have the ability to recognize what those occasions are or even the shallowest knowledge of what the ceremonial aspects of his office entail. More perilously than that, he does not recognize that this is a problem. The whole world may suffer as a consequence.

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