Through the Looking Glass

Early in the Republican race last year, Jeb Bush called Donald Trump "the Chaos Candidate." A month into his administration, he has now become the Chaos President.

He doesn't know how the government works, and he clearly has no idea what he himself is doing- or what he's going to do next. He's undermined our alliances in ways which cannot readily be fixed. The entire Flynn affair is a confused jumble. If 45 knew about his National Security Advisor-Designate's phone call to the Russian ambassador, the legal implications alone are staggering; if he didn't, he isn't in control of his own administration. Michael Moore believes that our new president's election was due to an outpouring of anger by slighted and ignored working class voters determined precisely to break the system, neither knowing or caring what would happen next, Well, that seems to be what they have done.

Judah Grunstein of "World Politics Review" writes that

The hallmark of the Trump presidency has been uncertainty. Would he follow through on his most controversial campaign promises or moderate his approach once in office? So far the record is mixed. On some things, like an entry ban for residents of Muslim-majority countries and walling off the U.S. border with Mexico, he clearly means to deliver on his campaign pledges, no matter how counterproductive they prove to be. On others, like U.S. alliances in Asia and Europe or U.S. policy toward Israel, he seems to have put off major disruptive changes for now.

But if the period of uncertainty continues, there are already clear conclusions that can be drawn.

First, the guard rails on American electoral politics that kept the political discourse within a bandwidth of relative consensus are no longer in place. It has long been a complaint among international observers of American presidential elections that, given America’s unique global role, so few people decide the fate of so many. The chaos we now see in the new administration was not only predictable, it was predicted—Trump arguably won election not despite, but because of it. This is more a reflection on the U.S. electorate than on Trump, even if he proves to be unique in his ability to capitalize on it. The U.S. global role was predicated on assumptions of stability and relative continuity in the Washington policy consensus. Those assumptions no longer apply.

Second, the American electorate’s attitude toward the world has grown noticeably less tolerant and benevolent. Trump campaigned on a platform that portrayed the world as a threat to American security. Allies and adversaries alike, he claimed, were not only taking advantage of American largesse and weakness, but mocking the U.S. while doing so. He publicly advocated for the U.S. military to commit war crimes and torture, and engage in plunder to finance the nation’s wars. These were not cryptic messages for his most rabid political base—so-called dog-whistle politics—that he later walked back or disavowed, but brazen and repeated declarations of intent. While the U.S. has at times failed to abide by the rules-based order it professed to uphold, the U.S. global role was predicated on assumptions of benevolent and enlightened self-interest. Those assumptions no longer apply.

He overstates the second point. Trump lost the popular vote and won the electoral vote through an accident of circumstance unlikely to repeat itself. He ran a campaign as amateurish as his presidency has been, and the unexpected turnout of large numbers of angry but uninformed habitual non-voters ironically seemed (at least to him) to gratify his naive and amateurish notion that presidential elections are won by the sheer awesomeness of the candidate rather than by the nuts and bolts work of identifying and getting out the vote. In a very real sense, Trump's election was a fluke; it wouldn't have happened in any other year, and should not be taken as evidence of a change in the American electorate's attitude toward the world- or at least a change as consequential as Grunstein seems to think.

But the fact remains, as Grunstein concludes, that the genie has been let out of the bottle. World peace and the international order thrive on stability and predictability, and the one player on the world state whose predictability has more than anything else kept the world relatively stable has gone berserk. The damage done to our alliances and to the precarious balance upon which the peace is maintained is already done, and to some extent irreversible. And nothing about the chaotic administration of our 45th president so far would lead one to think that it will become more stable or more predictable as time goes on.

We are through the looking glass. We have entered the Twilight Zone. The act of frustrated pique in which those Rust Belt voters engaged last November has become to have lasting and dangerous consequences. Even if Donald Trump finishes his first term- which is by no means certain- the damage will be enormous. The assumptions and presuppositions upon which the world order has functioned ever since the Second World War have been knocked into a cocked hat, and the world looks, mouth agape, at an American president who cannot be depended on to do or not to do practically anything. Nobody knows what outlandish promise he may try to keep, what erratic tangent he may veer off on next, or what completely irrational thing he is liable to say or do tomorrow.

This is a crisis in our history and in the history of the world. The consequences of last November's electoral temper tantrum are apt to be grim and in may cases permanent. The sooner America and the world return to the pattern which has prevented the world from disintegrating into chaos, the better. But the Chaos Candidate has become the Chaos President, and at least to some extent, the damage he has done is probably already irreversible.

It remains to be seen how much of Humpty Dumpty the next president can put back together again.

However much, it will never be the same again. For starters, Donald Trump has, to all intents and purposes, killed NATO.