• A Weak Man Trying to Look Strong

    Donald Trump would not be the first political leader to try to build his popularity, or divert attention from his troubles at home, by seeking a diversion – usually by means of a military adventure of some sort – overseas.  In recent times, we can think of multiple examples – President Putin and Crimea, the Ukraine and Syria, for instance, or George W. Bush and Tony Blair in Iraq.

    In Trump’s case, the need for such a diversion seems to be becoming more and more pressing.  If it is not rattling a nuclear sabre at North Korea one day, it is Venezuela – Venezuela! – being threatened with a military intervention the next.

    Paradoxically, one might think, such behaviour is more likely in a democracy, where public opinion matters, than in a dictatorship.  It becomes especially predictable and probable if the democratic leader in question is single-mindedly obsessed with his popularity with the voters – or lack of it.

    Again, Donald Trump’s exemplification of the syndrome offers little cause for comfort and compounds the dangers.  In Trump, we have a President (and supposed leader of the “free world”) who is unusually, not to say dangerously, narcissistic and living in a fantasy world, and who accordingly sees everything through the lens of his own self-interest and self-image, whether real or imagined.

    As we get to see more and more of the American President, it becomes increasingly clear that every issue and every potential decision is assessed according to how he believes it will impact on his image with the voters.  And more than that – it is not enough for him to be approved; he has to be the biggest and best, the strongest and bravest, “ever”.

    He seems obsessed with the military power at his disposal – and, at a time when his poll ratings have dipped disastrously, it is not surprising, given his personality, that he should see his readiness to threaten and use military power as providing a route back to the popularity he believes he enjoyed when he was elected with “the biggest majority ever”.

    Again, the paradox is that Trump’s fascination with the possible use of his nuclear arsenal, which he hopes will show him to be a strong leader, is a sign of weakness rather than strength.  A leader obsessed with his poll ratings loses strength rather than gains it.  Trump is now in a position where he dare not disappoint any group (and particularly any group who supported him at election time), however disreputable their views; he has, in effect, become their prisoner.

    We have seen an example just this week, where Trump avoided any direct criticism of the part played specifically by the Ku Klux Klan and their far-right allies in the civil disorder that broke out in Charlottesville.  Rather than condemn them, he preferred instead to lament –and even that was belated – the violence displayed “on many sides”.  It was a demonstration of weakness and a refusal to face the facts that earned him a contemptuous implied rebuke from his wife, but it was driven by his fear of losing support from a group of right-wing extremists that see him as “their man”.

    Many commentators have expressed their concern that a man of such “disordered mind, unstable personality and stunning ignorance” (according to Peter Wehrner, a veteran of three Republican administrations) should have his finger on the nuclear trigger.  There will be many around the world who share that concern.

    No one doubts that North Korea in particular poses a particularly difficult problem, not just to the United States but to the world as a whole, not least because Kim Jong-un and the North Korean military (who are the real power behind the throne) have institutionalised Trumpian attitudes in their own policies.  The North Korean problem needs to be handled with firmness and the combined pressure that can be applied by calm heads around the globe.  But the dangers North Korea represents can only be compounded many times over by the inflammatory language used by Donald Trump.

    None of us can feel comfortable when the shots are being called by a leader who sees everything, including the risk of nuclear catastrophe, in terms of whether or not his own image and his prospects of re-election will be advanced or hindered.

    And, as to Venezuela, one can only marvel that this small and disturbed country, struggling with its own internal issues, should have found itself apparently in the Trump firing line.  If Venezuela, who next?

    There is nothing more dangerous than a weak man trying to appear strong – particularly when that weak man is looking for opportunities to demonstrate how strong he is and has been unwisely entrusted with the ability to start a nuclear war.

    Bryan Gould

    13 August 2017