Sunday, June 10, 2018

Literary Corner: Trump, Preparing

Salvador Dalí, "Le Jeu Lugubre", 1929, via.

There's been a lot of online mockery directed at Mark Landler's political analysis in the New York Times, "Meeting With Kim Tests Trump’s Dealmaking Swagger", for its lede suggesting that the president is right to feel he shouldn't waste time preparing for his summit with Marshall Kim Jong-un of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, because "in his own unorthodox way" he's "been preparing for this encounter his entire adult life."

And yet when poor Maggie Haberman reports on what people do and say and refuses to construct fancy philosophical explanations they just dump on her.

I think that cold conventional news-story presentation has confused people as to what Landler is trying to achieve here, which might be better understood as—ah—poetry, as follows, omitting the longueurs of the article itself and focusing on the first and last paragraphs:

Trump Has a Point
by Mark Landler

When President Trump declared that he did not really
need to prepare for his legacy-defining meeting
with North Korea’s leader, he drew sighs
or snickers from veterans of past negotiations.
But he had a point: In his own unorthodox way,
Mr. Trump has been preparing for this encounter
his entire adult life....  “To the president,
‘duck and cover’ and the Cuban missile crisis
were formative experiences,” said Stephen K. Bannon,
Mr. Trump’s former chief strategist. “He knows the Korean
War hasn’t ended, and he can accomplish
what destroyed his idol, General MacArthur.”

In this format, a couple of oddities stand out right away: Trump was just 16 at the moment of the Cuban missile crisis, not embarked on his "adult life", while it was just a couple of months ago that he found out that the Korean War hasn't ended, as we learned—
“People don’t realize that the Korean War has not ended. It’s going on right now. And they are discussing an end to war. Subject to a deal, they have my blessing.”
—from an article in the Times bylined by, as it happens, Mark Landler (and Matthew Rosenberg). So we have to recognize that we're working here with a very fluid concept of time, in which the onset of Trump's adulthood stretches at one moment back to 1962, and at another had barely started last April. The surreality of this dreamtime tells you we're in the world of poetry, for real, and what the poet is saying and what the poem is saying don't necessarily have to coincide.

Indeed, throughout the body of this piece, we have really no views of Trump "preparing" for anything, as an adult or otherwise, orthodoxly or not, in spite of the lede. It's almost entirely a nostalgia piece, about his passive reception of the news, in boarding school, 1959-64:
the life-or-death issues at play today on the Korean Peninsula are the same ones that shaped Mr. Trump’s worldview. In 1959, six years after the armistice that halted the war, his father, Fred Trump, enrolled Donald as a cadet in the New York Military Academy.
Fred Trump chose the strict boarding school in Cornwall-on-Hudson mainly to straighten out his unruly son, then 13. But classmates of the future president said that while there, he got a firsthand taste of the terrors of the atomic age. In 1962, during Mr. Trump’s junior year, the United States and the Soviet Union almost went to war after the Soviet leader, Nikita S. Khrushchev, shipped missiles to Cuba to be pointed at American territory.
Mr. Trump and his classmates listened to the radio as President John F. Kennedy warned Khrushchev of American action if he did not pull back. At a time when students were used to air raid drills, the fears of these cadets went beyond the general dread of a nuclear exchange.
“Here we were, 60 miles outside of New York City, with rifles,” said Peter Ticktin, a lawyer in Florida, who was in his class. “We figured if the United States was attacked, we would have to keep order.”
You know what the kids thought they were going to do with their rifles and uniforms if a nuclear weapon was dropped on New York, if you've spent time with the movies and novels of the period: they'd be training the rifles on American citizens, the marauding hordes of the underclass let loose by the collapse of the US government looting and raping and generally terrorizing the bourgeoisie, because that's what always happens.

Thus what Trump learned during his formative years in Cornwall-on-Hudson is that nuclear powers (like Kim Jong-un) aren't the thing to fear, but one's own savage and hungry countrymen. (Just as Vladimir Putin isn't to blame for seizing Crimea and annexing it to Russia—that, we learned this week, is by some surreal logic savage Barack Obama's fault.)

And the other thing he evidently learned is General Douglas MacArthur, who, after wrongly predicting that Chinese troops would never back up the North Korean army (an error that led to the calamitous defeat of two US divisions), decided he should directly invade China, with the the help of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and maybe nuclear weapons, and carrying on a public dispute on the matter with President Truman (as some of Trump's beloved generals, Flynn, Mattis, and Keane, did with President Obama):
“We sort of disregarded the controversy around MacArthur,” said George White, another classmate. “We just regarded him as a great commander.”
As a candidate, Mr. Trump regularly invoked MacArthur’s name, often to mock his opponents for their weakness. He once said of Hillary Clinton that she “tells you how to fight ISIS on her website. I don’t think Gen. Douglas MacArthur would like that too much.” Aides said the president has continued to talk about his exploits in the White House.
It's unlikely that Trump has a very clear concept of what MacArthur did, aside from being fierce. If he thinks Hillary Clinton was wrong to discuss her ideas of military strategy on the campaign website, I don't know what he'd think of MacArthur carrying it on in scandalously specific and terrifying terms in a media polemic, until Truman had to fire him.

And what's the meaning of that, "accomplish what destroyed MacArthur," anyway? Is there a thing that destroyed MacArthur that Trump might accomplish? Is Trump planning to invade China by way of North Korea too? Is he planning to have a no-holds-barred duel with the president of the United States, unclear that the president of the United States is himself? Or does he just imagine MacArthur had a secret plan to have a meeting with Kim Il-sung where they'd hang out with old basketball players and admire each other's toughness?

And finally, what's Stephen Bannon doing in this story, as an expert on what Trump has been preparing for his entire adult life (while not in fact discussing that at all)? That is to my mind the key to the mystery of this entire story: it's a big frame for Bannon's remarks, offered to buff up the narrative that Trump has (or Bannon has on his behalf, still working for him behind the scenes) some kind of plan here; a scoop Bannon's hawked to the press to sell a sense that Trump knows, in some way, what he's doing. Though not a coherent sense, there are some intellectual miracles even poetry can't make.


There's a sense in which Trump really is prepared by his early adult life for what he does today, to which Dr. Krugman was pointing in a Twitter thread that starts out like this:
It's that his ideas were fully formed, presumably from listening to bad talk radio, by around 1976; his whole view of political economy and social reality is basically a set of ideas that were wrong 42 years ago when he imbibed them and are now entirely irrelevant.

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