Saturday, December 24, 2016

Trump's Nixonian Playbook

I praised it last month, and Washington Post's invaluable "Daily 202" email (sign up here or read on web here) continues to offer some of the most insightful and non-dramatic coverage of the Trump situation. Always cogent analysis and pointers to stuff I'd missed. The feature assumes you've heard the loud reactions to big ticket news items, so it goes deeper and feeds you fresh thoughts, connections, and reports.

This was a particularly good one, about Trump's would-be "crazy like a fox" foreign policy, and how much he's drawing on Nixon's playbook (and even some of Nixon's players). An excerpt:
THE BIG IDEA: Donald Trump appears to have embraced, with gusto, Richard Nixon’s “Madman Theory” of foreign policy. He thinks he can use his reputation for unpredictability and lack of respect for long-standing international norms to unnerve and then intimidate America’s adversaries into making concessions that they would not otherwise make.

The Chinese government’s decision yesterday to return the naval drone that it had seized in the South China Sea, despite howls of protest about Trump’s braggadocio, might be the first vindication of this approach.

-- A generation ago, Nixon wanted to convince the Soviets and their North Vietnamese clients that he was a hot-head willing to use nuclear weapons. The goal then was to scare the communists into negotiating. In some ways, this was the nub of the secret plan he talked so much about during the 1968 campaign – just as Trump insisted that he had a secret plan to get rid of ISIS during the 2016 race. “I call it the Madman Theory,” the then-president explained to H.R. Haldeman, his chief of staff, as they walked along a foggy beach one day. “I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, ‘For God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about Communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry — and he has his hand on the nuclear button!’ And Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.”

Elites in Washington and across the world think Trump is crazy, but the president-elect has demonstrated repeatedly that he can be crazy like a fox. He knew exactly what he was doing when he called for a Muslim ban, for instance, or picked fights with people on Twitter to distract the press from much bigger problems. We’ve already learned that Trump’s phone call with the leader of Taiwan was not some spontaneous faux pas but a carefully-planned recalibration of U.S. policy.

For Trump’s stratagem to work, foreign leaders must continue to believe that he’s erratic and prone to irrational overreaction. “We must as a nation be more unpredictable,” Trump often said on the campaign trail. “We have to be unpredictable!”
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