Sunday, December 23, 2018

The non-general in his labyrinth

Update: Thanks for the shoutout, Infidel753!

Screenshot from Jim Henson's Labyrinth, 1986.

A lot of people roll their eyes when journalists like Haberman and Baker file another story about Trump's "increasing isolation"—how much more could it have increased since the last time they wrote it? Is it getting near bottom yet?
WASHINGTON — When President Trump grows frustrated with advisers during meetings, which is not an uncommon occurrence, he sits back in his chair, crosses his arms and scowls. Often he erupts. “Freaking idiots!” he calls his aides. Except he uses a more pungent word than “freaking.”
For two years, Mr. Trump has waged war against his own government, convinced that people around him are fools. Angry that they resist his wishes, uninterested in the details of their briefings, he becomes especially agitated when they tell him he does not have the power to do what he wants, which makes him suspicious that they are secretly undermining him.
Personally, I've long thought such stories were appropriate to the Trump administration, in the same way the protocol trivialities and sly portraiture of the memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon were appropriate to the reign of Louis XIV, because that's the kind of administration it is, based on the day-to-day lurches in the emperor's mood and how he bestows his favor. Yesterday he was praising the newly resigned General Mattis for his distinguished service, today somebody's explained to him what the resignation letter said and he's demanding Mattis leave by New Year, instead of sticking it out through February:

Understood that he wouldn't have worked through those long paragraphs himself—he's never in his life read enough to learn that you can learn things that way—and the staff was afraid to tell him, or grateful he didn't ask the right questions, so he got it from hate-watching CNN.

Something else he did this morning got me thinking in this context about "his generals", of whom Mattis is pretty much the last one (Keith Kellogg is still in the administration, but in a safe perch as Pence's national security adviser since April):

I would have been surprised if Trump knew what Obama had dumped him for, not that he'd have disapproved of it (he wasn't actually fired, but rotated a few months early out of the top spot in Central Command, in January 2013, because he was just this side of insubordinate on the subject of the administration's conclusion that Iran had no plans to produce a nuclear weapon), but I wasn't at all surprised that he'd remembered the Obama dustup; that's why Trump hired him, and Flynn, and tried to hire Keane (who turned him down but advised him to hire Mattis), because they had some reason to blame Obama for messing up their careers (whereas Kellogg, McMaster, and Kelly did not). Carly Fiorina had trotted them out in her campaign, December 2015, as an icon of Republican complaints about Obama's relations with the military, and Trump sort of took them up as she flamed out.

Flynn, as we know, acted on his resentment in a fairly spectacular way, attaching himself not only to the Trump campaign but also to the Russian and Turkish governments, which may have given Trump false expectations about what he could get out of a general if he squeezed hard enough; Mattis did not, and although I was not among those who rejoiced at his hiring—I'm against breaking the tradition of having the Pentagon run by a civilian, and I really dislike his views on Iran, and as Professor Cole points out he's got worse to answer for just in recent months—but he may have prevented a war or two by deliberately disobeying Trump, if the story in the Woodward book is true:
Woodward depicts an agitated Mattis explaining to Trump in a meeting that the United States maintains a military presence on the Korean peninsula to “prevent World War III” and later deriding the president as “a fifth or sixth grader.” Woodward also claims that when Trump called up Mattis and suggested the United States “fucking kill” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons against civilians in 2017, Mattis played along but then hung up the phone and told an aide, “We’re not going to do any of that,” and instead drew up plans for more limited air strikes that Trump ultimately authorized. 
Or worse:

So, thanks for your service, and Merry Christmas.

But Mattis's departure, and the end of "my generals", underlines the theme of Trump's isolation in a poignant way. These constituencies that thought there was something to support, or something to defend, are all falling away. With a 65% turnover rate, his shop is running out of institutional memory as his own individual memory seems to seep away, and he's especially feeling unloved, and under attack by his closest allies, taking compliments he feels should be reserved for him:
More recently, the president has told associates he feels “totally and completely abandoned,” as one put it, complaining that no one is on his side and that many around him have ulterior motives. That extends even to his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who was credited for helping push through the criminal justice bill, praise that Mr. Trump took note of.
Longtime associates said Mr. Trump’s relationship with his children has grown more removed and that he feels he does not have a friend in the White House. He disagrees with Mr. Kushner and Ivanka Trump much of the time, but cannot bring himself to tell them no, leaving that instead to Mr. Kelly, according to former aides. That made Mr. Kelly the heavy, they said, and therefore the target of their ire until he was finally forced out.
Baker and Haberman also find some sources to say things are going just fine,
“It’s absolutely fair to say that it’s better to have Nancy Pelosi as a foil than Paul Ryan as a foil,” said Marc Short, the president’s former legislative affairs director. “It’s better for the party and it’s better for unity.” He added, “The reality is the Democrats could overplay their hand.”... “When he’s talking about the economy, he’s gotten a much more positive reaction,” said David Winston, a Republican pollster.... Fred Fleitz, who worked for nearly six months this year as chief of staff for John R. Bolton, the current national security adviser, said the new team is more cohesive and better suited to Mr. Trump than one constantly undermining him.
(Fleitz has actually fled the White House, in the wake of the Trump mismanagement of the Khashoggi murder, and gone home to Frank Gaffney's Center for Security Policy, but I'm glad he found something nice to say.)

But he really is significantly more isolated every time they write it, and the picture of a president going to work later every day, and keeping the TV on in the office so he can be watching Fox whenever an ongoing meeting gets boring or irritating, and seeing himself surrounded by enemies even inside the family, really is a picture of someone getting less and less capable of coping, and more and more alone. A non-general in his labyrinth. And it is getting near bottom, as failure succeeds failure.

Cross-posted at No More Mister Nice Blog.

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