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Giving Donald Trump his props

US president a master at playing to media attention

This op-ed by Parkland Institute Director Trevor Harrison appeared in the Lethbridge Herald on July 25, 2018.

Another day, another stop on Donald Trump’s Grand Tour, each event a sequel to the last: confusion, angst, discord, but finally, triumph; a lumbering strut amidst the wreckage, duly caught by the rolling cameras.

No one seems to know how to deal with Trump. In normal situations, which this decidedly isn’t, peers would shun the spoiled child, cutting him off from the attention he craves. But this won’t work when the Narcissist-in-Chief is in charge of the world’s most powerful country and who, moreover, is a virtuoso at playing the media.

Trump’s strategy – if it can be called that – is to foment a crisis, hold a meeting, then walk away declaring victory, before going home to his rabid followers, leaving his opponents, friends and allies stunned.

Take North Korea (please). For months, Trump all but declared war – a rain of nuclear destruction to be visited upon Rocket Man and millions of people. Then suddenly, there’s a summit between him and Kim Jong Un – “a very honorable” and “talented” man, who “loves his country” – out of which the threat of nuclear war has been forever banished from the peninsula. This is, of course, nonsense; North Korea will never give up its nuclear arsenal. But, no matter, Trump got his photo op, as did Kim. That’s showbiz.

NAFTA and assorted trade wars are of the same ilk. Trump has used trade as another prop meant to build himself up as a strong leader who gets things done. Some have thought of his actions as a negotiating tactic, but increasingly it is clear that they are meant solely to play to his base; to give them the appearance that he is doing something, while also allowing them through him to vent their untethered anger at the world. Whether the United States, or Canada and Mexico, walk away from NAFTA; or whether they negotiate a new deal or pretty much the same deal does not matter. Whatever happens, Donald Trump will declare a great victory; a victory of enormous proportions, one the likes of which – we will be told – the world has never seen, nor shall again.

We come to the latest NATO meetings. World leaders were understandably apprehensive going into the meetings, but they should not have been surprised. Trump is not just a textbook narcissist; he has rewritten the entire book. While the others might have wanted to discuss seriously any number of issues, Trump predictably turned them in to stock figures in his diorama.

The meetings began with Trump lambasting Germany over breakfast for buying Russian gas and being “totally controlled” by that country. As usual, the U.S. president got a lot of his information wrong and was quickly rebuffed by the other leaders and NATO secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg. But one can almost hear Trump supporters shouting at their television sets, “Give it to ’em, Donny!”

Later on, Trump was at it again, rebuking NATO’s countries for failing to spend two per cent of GDP on defence, and challenging them in fact to spend four per cent – demands that brought smiles to arms manufacturers everywhere and which quickly raised their share prices.

The NATO leaders seem again to have dismissed Trump’s demands, saying that they would get to two per cent (in time), but would not go higher. Their response quickly vanished in the wind.

Before leaving Brussels, Trump held a press conference at which he hailed the summit as a success, praised NATO which he had previously implied was past its shelf life, and insisted – evidence be damned – that his relationship with other NATO leaders is good. He went on to say that he had persuaded the other European leaders, and Canada, to significantly increase their defence spending. Victory once again.

Trump shortly thereafter tweeted a short video of the summit’s highlights, to which he thoughtfully added, “Thank you @Nato2018!,” then headed off to meet with Britain’s prime minister, Teresa May, and Queen Elizabeth. Had they been better advised, they should have sent wax figures from Madame Tussauds in their stead. It’s a role in Trump’s world best reserved for props.

Trevor Harrison

Trevor W. Harrison is a professor of sociology at the University of Lethbridge and director of Parkland Institute, an Alberta-wide research organization, of which he was a founding member and first research director. Dr. Harrison is best known for his studies in political sociology, political economy and public policy. He is the author, co-author or co-editor of nine books, numerous journal articles, chapters, and reports, and a frequent contributor to public media, including radio and television.

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