Monday, March 13, 2017

Listen: Trump is not an evil genius.

Trump's not some Machiavellian mastermind, playing us all like a fiddle.  I'm sorry, but he's just not.

I can see where it's coming from. I mean, Trump went from being a punchline to winning the nomination of the Republican party -- and then he went on to win the general election.  A lot of his supporters and some of his opponents say that this all played out according to his plan (or Steve Bannon's plan) and that it proves he is manipulating everyone.

The president's use of Twitter adds to the perception of his genius,  He has no qualms about outright lies or sudden reversals, nor does he have any discipline.  He'll tweet inflammatory falsehoods in the middle of the publicity campaign for his own initiative.  He'll make outlandish promises that have no hope of fulfillment.  And yet... well, he won the primary and the election, right?  Even though that seemed crazy, too?

I'll admit that it's possible.  But so far, the White House has launched two major efforts to actually effect change.  I'm not talking about signing deregulation, nominating people, or pumping out public-relations executive orders.  I'm talking about two actual things that they've pushed to get done: the Muslim ban and Trumpcare.  And at the end of this post, I'll show you an easy test to investigate the truth.

Before we get to those, though, let's review a few of the different brilliant strategies that Trump might be using, hypothetically (as described by the Thirty-Six Stratagems of traditional Chinese warfare):

  • Cross the sea without the emperor's knowledge.  An obvious feint: you indicate one goal, but actually intend another.
  • Openly repair the gallery roads, but sneak through the passage of Chencang.  Appear to be taking the long and difficult road while secretly striking quickly from another direction.
  • Watch the fires burning across the river.  Wait for all other players to exhaust themselves.
  • Stomp the grass to scare the snake.  Do something flamboyant but pointless so that your enemies reveal themselves.
  • Tossing out a brick to get a jade gem.  Bait the enemy, then trade them some nonsense for a valuable gain.
  • Feign madness but keep your balance.  Hiding behind the mask of a fool can make your enemy underestimate you.

There are more possibilities, but these are good examples.  So then, how do we know that the Muslim ban and Trumpcare aren't just masterful fulfillment of one of these stratagems?  Perhaps Trump always wanted the "revised" Muslim ban that he announced last week, and the first ban was just "tossing out a brick to get a jade gem" -- exhausting the opposition without actually relinquishing anything of value?

Here's a pretty good thought experiment: if Trump had announced the revised Muslim ban in his first week, and never issued the first (rescinded) order, what would have happened?

Well, I think it's pretty clear that a lot of liberals would have been outraged.  It is still a reprehensible and idiotic thing to do, even if the slight changes in the revision (no longer banning legal visa holders, for one) make it slightly less abhorrent.  But you wouldn't have had news stories about infants being blocked from a lifesaving surgery, families torn apart by the disruption, Iraqi interpreters being betrayed, and so on.  Trump wouldn't have burned through so much goodwill from conservatives who could see the insanity of the move but were too scared to denounce him.  And you almost certainly wouldn't have seen multiple courts strike down the order with scornful language.

Compare that reality with our own.  Given the chance to choose, why would Trump ever choose our own -- the world in which he massively bungled a key policy and was forced to withdraw it?

His enemies are stronger and emboldened.  Nor did he flush out any new enemies, either within or without the administration.  He didn't sneak through some other policy while we were distracted.  He didn't win a single new ally.  What could he possibly have gained from his hamhanded and ignorant fumbling of a key campaign promise that wouldn't have been better achieved from a competent and careful fulfillment of that promise?

Trump didn't bungle the Muslim ban because it was part of some clever plan.  He bungled the Muslim ban because he's a bungler.

In the same way, consider Trumpcare.  Now, it seems obvious to me what happened, first of all.  The president never had a healthcare plan, ever.  He just blustered with vague tripe about how it would cover everyone at a lower cost, but he never actually had anything in mind.  Unable to admit that gap, but equally unable to announce a plan that didn't exist, Trump just endorsed the plan put forward into the vacuum by Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI).  And the backlash has surprised him, either because he counted on Ryan to do a good job or because he thought the weight of his own popularity would carry it through.

But let's consider an alternative reality.  Let's imagine that this was all orchestrated by Trump, instead.  What would be the purpose?  He has weakened and fractured his own party, sure, but he's put himself on the side of the GOP leadership and against the elderly, Medicaid recipients, and anyone who can do basic math.  Virtually every major group of import has denounced the plan on the left, right, and center: FreedomWorks, the AMA, most major insurers, the AARP, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute... even Breitbart News hates the plan!  The bill has no allies and countless enemies, and it doesn't appear to have the votes to pass the House, much less the Senate.

Maybe I haven't convinced you, and you're still afraid of a genius Trump playing 12-dimensional chess.  (By the way, it's also dangerous to have an impulsive child as president, so don't rest on your laurels even if you do believe me.)  Here's a test.  There's a way this could work for Trump -- a way he might be trying to "cross the sea without the emperor's knowledge."

The CBO score was announced today.  It's devastating... the CBO estimates that 12 million Americans will lose health insurance by next year, and 24 million would lose health insurance within eight years.  If Trump now reveals his own secretly-developed plan, vastly superior and treacherously persuasive... then you might have a case.  But if the current iteration of Trumpcare just spins around, getting hacked up and amended and going nowhere, or Trump just decides to cut his losses and tells them to try again (rather than introducing his own bill)...

Let that be the test.  Fight this abhorrent bill and keep an eye on it.  I think you'll find that when it comes to the idea of Trump as an evil genius, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

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