Small Wars Journal

Intellectualizing Trumpism: A Massive Endeavour that is No Longer Amusing

Fri, 02/17/2017 - 12:00pm

Intellectualizing Trumpism: A Massive Endeavour that is No Longer Amusing

Ehsan M. Ahrari

Before the election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency of United States, any suggestion of intellectualizing “Trumpism” would have sounded like a joke, or even an exercise in lunacy.  However, the Trumpism of President Trump is no longer a laughing matter. Trumpism is an umbrella phrase that includes Trump’s impulsive reactions, his incessant reliance on tweeting to commend or disparage events and persons that affect him positively or negatively, his denial of facts that do not serve his purpose or are perceived as uncomplimentary of him or his actions, and above all, his passionate commitment to America Firstism, a worldview that he accentuated through the slogan, “Make America great again.”

A 30 year old “whiz kid” and a 2008 graduate from Harvard University, Julius Krein, has decided to intellectualize Trumpism; and even launched a new magazine, American Affairs, for that purpose.  Whether he succeeds in his attempt or not has a lot to do with how successful President Trump is going to be in his highly contentious rhetoric of “America Firstism.”  Simply put, this is an umbrella phrase for putting America’s interests first, by revitalizing its economy, rebuilding its infrastructure, which are in dire state of disrepair, and using the massive infrastructure-building activities to create jobs. 

America Firstism also promises to renegotiate all major economic arrangements of the past to ensure that the United States is no longer getting “a raw deal.”  An unabashed argument of Donald Trump in this regard is that past US administrations did not pay much attention to American economic interests when concluding those agreements.

According to Wikipedia, “Intellectualization is a transition to reason, where the person avoids uncomfortable emotions by focusing on facts and logic. The situation is treated as an interesting problem that engages the person on a rational basis, whilst the emotional aspects are completely ignored as being irrelevant.”  Applying this description to intellectualizing Trumpism will involve a rational exercise of transition to reason by focusing on fact and logic. 

Another requirement of this exercise is that, any attempt to intellectualize an ideology needs someone to identify its steady (or at least its reliable and lasting) traits.  However, the element of logic in Donald Trump’s assertions/statements or in his endless tweeting is seriously lacking or is chimerical.  Trump’s pronouncements or tweets on public affairs are full of contradictions.  Some of those contradictions are issued in different hours of the same day.  Even the video evidences of those statements are not accepted by him or his top staff as factual, while others are simply met with denials that he ever made them.

According to a public opinion poll published in the Washington Post before Trump became president, public perception of Trump’s decisionmaking style as president was that, “when it comes to making important decisions,” he would be “too impulsive.”.  In a survey released on January 9, 2017, over half of the respondents—58 percent—thought that Trump would be “too abrupt in his decision-making, while 34 percent said they thought his approach to decision-making would be ‘about right.’  Just 4 percent said he would be too cautious.”

Jonah Goldberg of the National Review confirmed the impulsive aspect of Trump’s decisionmaking by observing, “Trump boasts that he wants to be unpredictable and insists that he will make all decisions on a case-by-case basis.” 

If impulsiveness and unpredictability become constant features of his presidential decision-making style, they are likely to cause an awful lot of uncertainty, consternation, and even chaos in the realm of US foreign policy.  How are our allies going to determine what policies to accept or reject, and for how long, as members of the American alliance system? 

Donald Trump described NATO as “obsolete” only a few days before taking the oath of office.  But in the same breath he also said that it was still an important entity to him.  Now the question is, which part of his statement should America’s allies accept as part of his belief system as US President?  It is pertinent to note that Russia not only latched on to the “obsolete” part of Trump’s description of NATO, but publicly welcomed it.  Our NATO allies, on the other hand, openly expressed their apprehension over Trump’s perceived scorn toward NATO.  No one inside the United States, not even Trump’s closest advisers, will be able to tell the world which of President Trump’s contradictory announcements to believe and which to ignore.  All presidential assertions and actions are studied keenly by our allies as well as our adversaries.  Candidate Trump was oblivious to that reality, and President Trump cannot afford to behave in that manner.  He should know by now that all of his tweets are studied and discussed, not only by panels of experts on CNN, CNBC, and Fox Television, but by top policymakers all over the world.

Should China assume that Trump’s unpredictability would make him abandon his current quarrel with it over Taiwan?  How long would it last and what are its implications over the long run?  The notion of predictability and commitment is very important to China, as its global stakes in the world economy are continuing to mount.  China has learned the art of global leadership from the United States’ building of the post WWII global order.  And it has every intention of emulating the lone superpower as it is fast becoming the second most important leader of the world and the aspiring superpower.  So, it views with bewilderment, and even with annoyance, the inconsistencies that have become such a regular aspect of Donald Trump.

Given President Trump’s fascination with his own unpredictability, how long is the Trump-Putin “bromance” likely to last?  There is no doubt that Vladimir Putin and his top security advisers are discussing it, and may also be preparing a variety of fallback positions in response.

How would the Arab states determine what policies Trump is likely to adopt toward them?  They are both unsure and nervous.  To Saudi Arabia, another related question is what President Trump’s reaction is likely to be toward the Saudi-Iran strategic competition, whose ups and downs will play an important role in the prospects for peace in the West Asia. 

The ability of Julius Krein depends on the prospects of Trump’s own abandoning of his impulsive style of decision making.  However, as a presidential candidate, that style brought him nothing but spectacular success of beating his 17 Republican opponents.  That type of impulsive style of performance, with all its contradictions and denials of fact and realities also won him the US presidency.  There is no reason to believe that Donald Trump will abandon that impulsiveness and unpredictability and adopt predictability and conventionality in his modus operandi.

Thus, there is not likely to be a conventional version of Donald Trump, unless the maverick, mercurial, and impulsive version of him encounters a series of miserable failures.  Viewing this scenario does not make the job of Julius Krein of intellectualizing Trumpism easy.

Categories: Trumpism - Trump - decision-making

About the Author(s)

Ehsan Ahrari is specialist in Great Powers relations and the strategic affairs of the world of Islam.  He has taught at America’s premier senior military educational institutions.  His latest book, The Islamic Challenge and the United States: Global Security in an Age of Uncertainty, was published by McGill-Queens University Press in February 2017.  He is also the author of The Great Powers Versus the Hegemon (McMillan, 2011).