The real questions in this election are 1) who are we? And just as importantly, 2) who does the international community think we are?
The world is a beautiful, complex, yet, at times, dangerous place. Choosing a president to lead in such times is fraught. Problems have numerous competing points of view, which lends a plate-spinner’s quality to building consensus. As such, except in those very rare moments like December 8, 1941, or 9/12/01, the nation never really achieves universal accord. There is always a plate or two that is wobbling.
But that was the framer’s vision, fearful as they were of arbitrary royal power. So the art of politics is not to produce one side with perfectly spinning plates while the other side’s crash to the floor, which was essentially the old feudal system. Instead, it is in managing to keep all the plates spinning as best you can so the set remains whole.
Though we are a nation of individuals, there is a shared ethic undergirding the American experience. So did the Founding Fathers “mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor” in signing the Declaration of Independence.
That pledge and declaration gave birth not only to the nation, but to the concept of American Exceptionalism whose legacy has brought the country through the depths of a Civil War and the world through the cataclysm of two world wars. It is not just the nation, herself, but the world at large that has been guided by the great even keel of this ship of state.
The danger, then, is not only what a particular candidate will say or might do once in office, but also what others may say or do in response.
Consider the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2001. Saddam Hussein didn’t actually have weapons of mass destruction. But because he wanted to remain a major power in the region, he bragged about having them to the point where, without realizing it, he convinced the Bush administration that he did have them. And look where that led. We went in all shock and awe, which truly did shock Saddam. But in the end it was us who said,”aw.” Lesson? Bluster matters.
So say what you will about Billary (sic) – and God knows there’s plenty to say – but there isn’t any surprise there. After 25 years in the national spotlight as First Lady, U.S. senator, and Secretary of State, everyone knows what she’s about, us and them alike. It might be ungainly at times, duplicitous, even plain wrong, but there’s no mystery to it. She’s experienced, steady, prepared. She’s not going to create uncertainty or go rogue on us.
Then there is her opponent. As Rolling Stone magazine wrote about Ray Charles in naming him the second best singer in history ( behind Aretha), “Ray Charles…would do these improvisational things, a little laugh or a “Huh-hey!” It was as if something struck him as he was singing and he just had to react to it. He was getting a kick out of what he was doing. And his joy was infectious.”
Donald Trump carries that same improvisational quality into the political arena that has served him so well in business and entertainment. But try as his handlers may to keep him “on prompter”, the candidate is so taken by the feedback coming from his campaign crowds, and is so blind to the outer reading of consequence, that he gives in to the extra, over-the-line snippets, and controversial addenda at every turn. To quote the candidate himself, “why not?”
But when your every utterance is parsed to the nth degree, as a president’s are, what works for an entertainer in concert is not the quality one is looking for in a world leader.
So forget that Mr. Trump is just this side of a policy wonk — he is proudly not the studious type, proud of not needing to prepare for debates, thinks he can just wing it. But because his frame of reference is so limited, his convictions are never settled. That’s why he can simultaneously declare he would never use first-strike nuclear weapons, then in the very next sentence say, “But I won’t take anything off the table”. So which is it?
Why do you think third-one’s-a-charm campaign manager Kellyanne Conway (who has emerged as the real star of this campaign season) could come in and turn him so quickly into a TelePrompTer reader rather than a stump and Twitter riffer? As a seasoned pro she is well aware of the risk of taking him off the leash.
The prospect of an improvisational American president who has demonstrated no previous interest in public service, shown no aptitude for, or curiosity about the tradecraft of the office he seeks, and who further exhibits a thin-skinned, bullying reaction to any perceived slight, is so unsettling to the international community that his election would immediately place him in the Kim Jong Un category of leader, an unpredictable novice with no impulse control, yet access to great power.
Such a combination of power, pique and ego could well inspire a level of fear that substantially increases the chance for preemptive action by adversaries who have concluded they can’t just sit back and wait to see what the apprentice might do once in office, like not live up to our treaty obligations, or establish a pay-to-play international protection racket without ever understanding the consequences.
When even old school republicans who are loathe to vote for Hillary Clinton say he is not temperamentally fit to be President of the United States, and point out that he holds no firm policy positions other than “winning”, the concern they voice is in the creation of uncertainty and fear in America’s adversaries and allies alike.
Rather than engendering respect and caution, intemperate talk combined with a shallow or even non-existent understanding of history or the international political landscape can easily lead to disastrous results. Not on purpose, mind you, but simply by blind-spot miscalculation.
Just as Donald has asked the African American community “what the hell do you have to lose?”, so might that be the attitude our enemies take if America moves him into the White House.
The prospect of that, alone, should make the American people wary of any such presidential candidate, from whichever end of the political spectrum he or she may come.
Are all the nation’s plates spinning perfectly atop their sticks? Will they ever? Since World War I the United States has served as the North Star of international order, the one state all others could steer by and trust to stay true to the course laid down by its founders. That makes 2016 the “be-careful-what-you-wish-for” campaign.
When neither party offers a great choice, remember, change for change sake carries a much greater chance of dire unintended consequences than pie-in-the-sky success.
The world is a dangerous enough place as it is. Some plates are wobbling rather precariously. What we and the rest of the world don’t need is for us to go all wobbly ourselves and make things worse. Hail Marys belong in churches and on football fields, not in the Oval Office.