The American president has long been described with the honorific “Leader of the Free World.” No more. Donald Trump basically surrendered the title during the recent G20 meetings in Germany.
Even the Russians were offended by Trump’s pointless abandonment of the Paris Climate Accords — pointless because it’s a purely voluntary agreement with no enforcement mechanisms. The president imagines a worldwide scientific conspiracy, which most educated adults recognize as impossible.
Trump’s Polish speech was also seen as problematic. By endorsing a Manichean, good vs. evil defense of “the West” — defined, Putin-style, entirely in racial and religious terms — Trump was widely suspected of scorning multi-ethnic European democracies like Germany, France and Great Britain. Not to mention Asian ones like Japan, South Korea and India.
The West, so defined, excludes most of the world’s population, although it definitely includes the Confederate States of America.
However, relatively few thought Trump actually grasped the full implications of the tribalized worldview he expressed.
Somebody wrote a speech; Trump read it. Our allies can only guess who’s in charge at the White House: traditional defenders of NATO like Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster?
Or blood-and-soil “populists” like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, the author of the Warsaw speech defining ISIS as a grave civilizational threat — an all-but defeated terrorist organization with no army, navy or air force?
In reality, of course, the single greatest threat to the integrity of western democracy is the Kremlin. But hold that thought.
The correct answer to who’s in charge of U.S. foreign policy is nobody. And certainly not Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who served as the president’s minder during his ballyhooed meeting with Vladimir Putin.
At the White House level, the U.S. doesn’t have a foreign policy. Trumpism is best understood as a cult of personality with a worldview rooted in WWE professional wrestling, where race, ethnicity and tribal loyalties prevail.
But equally important, where long-nurtured enmities and alliances alike can be reversed almost overnight.
Everything depends upon protagonist’s whims, that is to say Trump himself. In the WWE, the operative term for these scripted melodramas is “kayfabe” — possibly what the president meant when he tweeted the nonsense word “covfefe.”
Wikepedia defines it thus: “portrayal of staged events within the industry as ‘real’ or ‘true,’ specifically the portrayal of competition, rivalries, and relationships between participants as being genuine and not of a staged or predetermined nature.”
Just so Trump’s meeting with Putin, which for all the hullabaloo, was basically a made-for-TV spectacle of little real import. One day Trump boasted that he and his new best friend Vlad were going to set up a U.S./Russian Cyber Security task force. But after Sen. Lindsey Graham described it as maybe the dumbest idea he’d ever heard, the president abruptly dropped it.
Otherwise, the headline on Russian expatriate Masha Gessen’s New York Times commentary said it all: “Trump gave Putin exactly what he wanted.” Specifically, a co-starring role, along with no serious criticism for such Kremlin pastimes as executing journalists and cyberattacks on other countries’ elections.
Otherwise, Putin got little in real-world terms apart from the ego-boost of occupying center stage with the President of the United States, whom, like an ambitious prostitute, he was clever enough to flatter.
Loosens Trump up like WD-40.
Every single time.
However, the good news is that even a GOP congress won’t let the president give Putin anything concrete, such as a free hand in Ukraine, or redress from economic sanctions. Russia holds Crimea, but at a cost Trump can’t relieve. Otherwise, Putin’s scheming has pretty much backfired.
But what really seems to animate Trump himself is his ongoing feud with CNN — the cable network that basically made him president. Following the president’s recent tweeting of a WWE video showing him pummeling a figure labeled CNN — not so much an incitement to violence as to stupidity — I was struck by this from a Washington Post profile of correspondent Jim Acosta:
Covering this White House, Acosta said, is like “covering bad reality television.”
No kidding. Also, however, by White House spokesman Sean Spicer’s appraisal of Acosta: “He’s the prime example of a (reporter in a) competitive, YouTube, click-driven industry … He’s recognized that if you make a spectacle on the air then you’ll get more airtime and more clicks.”
Who better than Spicer to understand?
So were you aware that CNN president Jeff Zucker personally masterminded Trump’s program “The Apprentice” when he presided over NBC Entertainment? And that Trump received an estimated $5.8 billion in free coverage from CNN and the rest — more than twice that of any other candidate — while cable news ratings and profits soared?
Also that ratings continue to grow for CNN as the Trump/Comey/Putin kayfabe drives news coverage? You may disdain professional wrestling, or, like me, never seen a single episode of “The Apprentice.”
But we’re all watching it now.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.