In the past two days, I’ve heard two people express some approval of Donald Trump. One person was in the United States. The other in the United Kingdom. Both are intelligent, well informed, high-functioning people.
The person in the US said they disagreed profoundly with a lot of Mr Trump’s policies but perhaps his pugnaciousness was needed on the world stage in order for America to assert itself.
The person in the United Kingdom said there was a lot they didn’t like about Mr Trump but he was at least standing up against China and trying to make peace with North Korea.
When I challenged both my interlocutors, they held to their view.
The thin sample of public opinion is hardly representative of anything but it does tell us something we dimly know and don’t often acknowledge.
Poseurs do well in politics and can keep the show going for as long as people will let them.
Let me explain.
Anyone who reads the detail of Mr Trump’s policies knows that the problem with his trade war with China is not the fact of launching it. It is the lack of a strategy to which China can reasonably agree.
Right now, Mr Trump is not investing in American excellence – education, R&D, infrastructure, healthcare, AI, next-gen solutions for next-gen problems. Instead, he’s trying to meanly hold China back from its own development. A futile exercise but there you go. In the meanwhile, Americans – soybean farmers, manufacturers, consumers – are bearing the brunt of Mr Trump’s grandiose strategy to use tariffs as a magic bullet to stun the world.
Then, consider North Korea. When Mr Trump took office, the North Koreans were thought to have anything between 20 and 60 nuclear weapons. Mr Trump racheted up tensions, threatening to “totally destroy” North Korea in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly. Then, he had a succession of glossy summit-style meetings with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un – sans substance, but with good photos. The end result is what it was when Mr Trump took office, with one crucial difference. Mr Kim and his nukes are being legitimised by Mr Trump. You could call it realpolitik. You could call it the Russian solution or the Chinese approach. Whatever it is, it’s not some great triumph for Mr Trump. Mr Kim still has 20 to 60 nukes and Mr Trump’s crude push for ratings hasn’t changed any of that.
As for America on the world stage, I’m not sure it’s an improvement for the hyperpower to be regarded as selfish, immoral, cruel, values-free and a bully. But there you go. That’s how Mr Trump is pushing American power.
Anyway, back to my two interlocutors. I wondered why they saw Mr Trump’s performance in such a positive way. The answer became clear with a little help from Umberto Eco’s brilliant essay ‘How to be a TV host’. Eco described the performance-worship of a people he named the Bongas:
“The Bongas want television to show them real life, as it is lived, without pretence. The applause comes from the audience (which is like us), not from the actor (who is pretending), and it is therefore the only guarantee that television is a window open on the world.
I cannot say that the Bongas are our inferiors. Indeed, one of them told me that they plan to conquer the world. That evening I turned on the TV and I saw a host introducing the girls who assisted him, then announcing that he would do a cosmic monologue, and concluding with: “And now our ballet!” A distinguished gentleman, debating grave political problems with another distinguished gentleman, at a certain point broke off to say, “And now, a break for the commercials.” Some entertainers even introduced the audience. Others the camera that was filming them, Everyone applauded.
Distressed, I left the house and went to a restaurant famous for its nouvelle cuisine. The waiter arrived bringing me three leaves of lettuce. And he said, “This is our macedoine of laitue lombarde, dotted with rughetta from Piedmont, finely chopped and dressed with sea salt, marinated in the balsamic vinegar of the house, anointed with first-pressing virgin olive oil from Umbria”.”