Many people have compared Donald Trump to a mob boss. But I’m starting to think that the comparison is unfair — to mob bosses.
After all, you can’t build an empire, even a criminal empire, unless people believe that your word is worth something. They have to believe both that you’ll honor your promises and that you’ll make good on your threats. The first few times you renege on agreements it may look as if you’re being smart and other people are being suckers; but soon they’ll take your measure, and realize that you’re actually the guy who can be rolled.
I’ve been thinking about this reality over the past few days, as we’ve watched two separate Trump administration debacles unfold.
The biggest debacle, the one that has many of us feeling a bit ashamed to be Americans, is, of course, the betrayal of the Kurds. We don’t really know why Trump so casually abandoned allies who have fought and died on our behalf, but one thing is clear: Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan took Trump’s measure, decided that his threats to retaliate against Turkey’s effective invasion of Kurdish territory were empty, and seized the moment.
But there was another, lower-key debacle involving China. Trump has, of course, made a trade war with China the centerpiece of his economic policy, inflicting substantial harm on both economies along the way. Last week, however — perhaps realizing the weakness of his domestic position as the march to impeachment gathers momentum — he seemingly decided to declare victory and retreat, proclaiming that he had a deal with China that, even by his own officials’ description, sounded like getting nothing China hasn’t been offering all along.
But it was actually worse than that. Acute observers quickly pointed out that all we had was a unilateral announcement by U.S. officials that there was a deal, which should be treated with skepticism until and unless we got an explicit joint statement of what had been agreed.
And sure enough, yesterday the Chinese basically said, “Oh, that deal? Well, we’re thinking about it. Let’s talk some more.”
In other words, like Turkey’s Erdogan — and, actually, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un a while back — they’ve taken Trump’s measure and decided that he can be rolled.
The point is that Trump’s actual art of the deal, which involves making promises you intend to break whenever it seems convenient, only works if you can keep finding fresh suckers to cheat. If there are people you have to deal with repeatedly, like the leaders of other nations, they eventually figure out both that you can’t be trusted and that you needn’t be feared: your promises are empty, but so are your threats.
All of this has vastly weakened America. We used to be a country of great power but even greater influence, because we had principles other nations could count on us to follow. Now we have a leader whom other leaders see as malleable — an unprincipled and ill-informed guy who can be flattered, bribed or simply fooled into giving them what they want.
Making America great again, indeed.