David Rothkopf, former CEO and columnist of Foreign Policy, published an opinion piece last 4th of July entitled “The greatest threat facing the United States is its own president.” In the piece Rothkopf makes the case that Trump is more a threat to the US than radical jihadis, North Korea, the Russians, or any foreign country. While I will not defend all the behavior of our current president, these sorts of outlandish and hyperbolic claims are more problematic than the Trump administration’s foreign policy. The “resistance” aside, the hysteria that has gripped many in the media and certain sectors of government tells us more about their own anxieties than the current state of the executive branch.
This tyrannophobia masks the real problems that our politics face. In a recent wide-ranging interview with Michael Morrell, former acting-Director of the CIA, Susan Glasser of Politico probed, among other things, Morrell’s assessment of the Trump administration’s relationship to the intelligence community and broader foreign policy. Morrell, unlike many in our current moment, was sober and reflective, stating that his public endorsements of Hilary Clinton and opposition to Trump during the campaign had some unintended consequences that he now appreciates in hindsight. With great candor and sympathy, Morrell shouldered some of the blame for perhaps presenting Trump with a narrative that the intelligence community was politically partisan or against him.
Morrell: So, let’s put ourselves here in Donald Trump’s shoes. So, what does he see? Right? He sees a former director of CIA and a former director of NSA, Mike Hayden, who I have the greatest respect for, criticizing him and his policies. Right? And he could rightfully have said, “Huh, what’s going on with these intelligence guys?” Right?
Glasser: It embroiders his narrative.
Morell: Exactly. And then he sees a former acting director and deputy director of CIA criticizing him and endorsing his opponent. And then he gets his first intelligence briefing, after becoming the Republican nominee, and within 24 to 48 hours, there are leaks out of that that are critical of him and his then-national security advisor, Mike Flynn. And so, this stuff starts to build, right? And he must have said to himself, “What is it with these intelligence guys? Are they political?”
What Morrell demonstrated in our Manichean age of politics is a bit of nuance in his views on Trump and our current political climate. Rather than falling for the easy narrative that Trump is the cause of all of these problems, he took some ownership. A rare feat in our current political environment.
In the era of Trump with acrimony and daily drama reaching near-hysterical proportions, it’s important for us to step back and take a deeper look at the causes. If one were to pull a meta-narrative from all of the editorials, news stories, and punditry, the general sense, whether conscious or not, is that Trump is the source of our current chaos and woes. Impeachment is such an enticing option for many on the left because it holds out the promise of ridding them of the thorn in their side. But this is a delusion on a grand scale because the current polarization was there before Trump took office and will be there after he is gone.
One can see it in the apocalyptic and religious language that commentators use to describe the Trump phenomenon. David Brooks paints Trump as the Faustian devil seeking to bargain away the soul of the Republican party. A self-described moderate, Brooks recently described Trump and his followers as the new Bolsheviks of our age—a rather immoderate and historically illiterate comparison to say the least.
Likewise, Michael Gerson uses apocalyptic language more akin to Dante’s Divine Comedy, publicly musing over what level of hell the current Republican members will find themselves unless they ditch their corrupt and immoral president. Anne Applebaum, seeking to outdo all others, wrote a long-form piece for the Washington Post on the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, half of which was devoted to claiming Trump has taken up the mantle of Lenin and Co.
One need to not bother responding to such histrionics since it is so patently nonsensical, but it does worry me because the media, like the boy who cried wolf, are chipping away at their own credibility with each prophecy of apocalyptic doom gone unfulfilled. Where, I ask our modern-day pundit-prophets, are the bodies stacked by the thousands? Where is the radical remaking of society into a utopian dream through gulags, secret police, and tyranny?
The shiny object that is Donald Trump allows members of the media and both parties off the hook for what he truly represents: a failure of our politics on both sides of the aisle. Democracy delivered us Donald Trump. Foreign policy is a particularly glaring failure. The last two presidential administrations were notable for the lack of prudence and vision on the world stage. The Bush overreach and Obama retrenchment displayed a serious lack of judgment. Perhaps one of the reasons the foreign policy community has been so united in its opposition to Trump is that his election presents the clearest indictment of their failures. And failures they are. If Bush handed Obama a destabilizing world, Obama only exacerbated those problems.
But rather than suck it up and own those failures, you mostly get redirection back to Trump. That is utter nonsense. The Iraq War and pull-out were executed with exquisite flat-footedness and strategic naivete, leaving the region worse off than before. Obama’s handling of the Arab Spring should have earned him a revocation of his hastily awarded Nobel Peace Prize. The current North Korean predicament is the product of a kick-the-can-down-the-road policy that has left Trump with few decent options. While Trump’s bluster and temperament seem ill-suited to the subtleties of diplomacy he is surely not the cause of our current predicament. And yet, there is precious little public soul-searching amongst the foreign policy elite about their own abject failures the past two decades.
Our current president, for all of his obvious flaws which are on display every day for us to behold on an hourly basis, is a mirror of our own failures and the failures of our current politics. Though this conclusion is obvious to many people outside the beltway and the Acela corridor media complex, it seems a rather mystifying conclusion for those within. When Michael Morrell was asked what he thinks the biggest problem facing the country is, he did not point to Donald Trump, as easy as that could have been. He responded, “The biggest threat to the United States is us.”
Daniel Strand is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Political Thought and Leadership at the Arizona State University. His scholarly interests are in history of political thought, religion and politics, and the thought of St. Augustine of Hippo.
Photo Credit: The White House illuminated pink in honor of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. October 2, 2017. Official White House Photo by D. Myles Cullen.