The reason Donald Trump cancelled his trip to the veteran’s cemetery in France to commemorate the 100th anniversary of World War One’s end should be pretty obvious. It was his combover, pure and simple. The causes of World War I should be on the minds of every single one of the world’s 7.6 billion people, but the world’s most immature, spoiled leader since Kaiser Wilhelm cancelled a visit to memorialize the 100th anniversary of its end because he didn’t want another picture of himself in the wind and the rain, where an ill-placed gust can lay bare that this isn’t even a President trusted to make choices about his hair. Like everything else about Trump, it’s tempting to read a kind of multi-dimensional chess into his decision. Every decision he makes is so risible for America that if he deliberately tried to make make bad decisions, America would be in better shape. So maybe Trump is not in fact the schmendrik he seems, but is rather a cunning servant in the payroll of a hostile power who wishes America ill. But if even he is, he’s still Donald Trump. He’s so obviously stupid, and manipulable, and venal, and petty, and vain, and crude, and smutty, and cretinous, and vulgar, and thick-headed, and slow-witted, and half-witted, and did I mention how stupid he is? There’s no way that a man even half that dumb would know how to make a calculated decision. I’m not even sure he’s smart enough to carry out other people’s calculated decisions. But just for the sake of argument, let’s wonder if Trump’s decision was the calculation of someone who wants as little attention as possible brought to the chaotic circumstances which lead the world into a war that plunged the entire world into a century of death.
In spite of all the thousand myriad ways that Trump is an imbecile (have I said that he’s stupid yet?), who can deny that there is a low, base cunning to him? Dybbuks don’t need to be geniuses, they just need to feed on schnorrers until the whole neshawmeh of the host dries up. The only manner in which this khazer is not a pure schlemiel is in that he knows exactly how to feed on the basest, slimiest, most farkakte urges of the American people. He knows how to brand himself, he knows how to create a new headline for every news cycle, he knows how to distract us from an unflattering story about him with a slightly less unflattering story about him, and he’s so good at this bupkes spiel that it carried this shtik drek into the White House itself.
As terrifying as so many things about the Trump Presidency are for so many of us, the fact remains that nothing he’s done so far is nearly as bad as it could have been. However evil Trump is, he’s a hundred times dumber (have I mentioned yet that he’s stupid?). To me, nothing is more terrifying than the thought, admittedly a pretty unlikely one, that for the last three years, Donald Trump has been taking dictation on every single decision he makes from Vladimir Putin. In this theory, and I’m hardly the only person to whom this has occurred, Donald Trump is a Manchurian President, whose only goal is to decimate the United States as Putin believes the United States decimated the Soviet Union. A momzer can always identify another momzer, I’d imagine they find each other by the smell. And no one wants the world to forget the circumstances that lead to World War I more than Vladimir Putin.
It’s pretty unlikely, but not nearly as unlikely as one might think. The Economist’s prognosticated over and over again that due to Trump’s declaration of trade war, an actual war between the United States and China in the next fifteen years is getting more and more likely. Many experts and pundits are now talking with terrified alarm about something called “The Thucydides Trap”. Thucydides was an historian in Ancient Greece, who wrote the definitive account of The Peloponnesian War – the twenty-seven year long and unspeakably bloody conflict between the two most famous Greek city-states: Athens, a democracy, and Sparta, a monarchical dictatorship. Democracy in Athens was never the same thereafter, and less than seventy years after the wars end, Athens was not a democracy at all. Sparta, meanwhile, stayed the same monarchical dictatorship for nearly a thousand years.
The point of this digression is that in the past 500 years, there were sixteen times when a rising superpower threatened to go to war with a ruling superpower.In twelve of these sixteen, the tensions ended in war, and the war basically decimated them both. If you asked the average person in 1900 whom the rising superpower was, they wouldn’t have said America, they would have said Germany, and fifteen years later, Germany and England, the reigning power, were the principal powers at war in World War I. If America and China go to war in the next fifteen years, the principal beneficiary will be neither. It will be a different country altogether.
Furthermore, life and technology were much simpler during all of those wars, up to and including World War I. So just contemplate, for a moment, what war between America and China would mean in an age not only of nuclear weapons, but of chemical weapons, bioterror, ecological catastrophe, mass extinction, $20 trillion in American national debt, $35 trillion in American personal debt, 300 million privately owned guns in America, excessive corporate profits and power and growth, and the data mining and harvest of our personal information. Not only would life in America as we have ever known it cease, but the lives of half the Americans we know would cease. This war would not only involve America and China, but every other major world power would probably get sucked in too: Russia, Brazil, India, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Pakistan, North Korea, Japan, Israel, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and perhaps many more countries. And who is the one power in the world who’d benefit from this apocalypse?
Russia, who else could it possibly be? In a third world war, the country who, in theory, has the best chance of emerging with more prosperity would be a country with an inexhaustible supply of weapons, inexhaustible amounts of natural resources for its citizens to live on in lean times, a land mass so large that all its most valuable holdings can be hid virtually anywhere, a population density so low that any urban population could disburse for years into rural areas so that saturation bombing could kill only a small number of people, and the best trained intelligence apparatus in the history of the world. Even Global Warming could work to this famously freezing country’s advantage. In peacetime, Russia has no hope of being among even the top 10 economic powers of the world, but as ever before in wartime, Russia would and could be better prepared for victory than any other country by an exponential factor.
Trump recently withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty – the “INF”, which bans, or banned, ground-launch nuclear missiles with ranges from 500km to 5,500km. For thirty years, this is what prevented the United States and Russia from putting their nuclear missiles on the soil of other European countries. Conservatives will tell you that the reason Trump has withdrawn is that China is now developing mid-range delivery missiles. Even by the august standards of conservatives, this is a steamingly noxious pile of bull—-. It’s not that China isn’t, they certainly are, but Trump has never missed a chance to attack China: whatever the speeches, the interviews, the tweet, on the issue of China, he just can’t help himself. If China were the reason Trump were doing this, Trump would have said so. Furthermore, the American military base in Okinawa is the perfect place to launch a long-range missile attack into China with maximal precision. The reason Trump withdrew is that Russia needs an excuse to withdraw themselves, and place intermediate-range nuclear missiles in the territory of their European allies so that they can extend their sphere of influence into Central Europe, and most particularly, intimidate Germany into collaboration.
Alarming as all of this is, there’s fortunately no certainty that anything even remotely resembling this will happen, or that it’s even likely. The United States has extricated itself from more hairy situations than any country in the history of the world with nary so much as a scratch. But the whole world survived the Cold War without a nuclear holocaust by the skin of its teeth, and the Cold War was bi-polar, which in this case means it was between two sides. If you have only one opponent, it is far easier to understand the rules of the game, because the only people you have to understand are each other. A second Cold War, like the years before World War I, would be multipolar. The strategic moves of every world power would have to take in the moves of at least fifteen other world powers, because neither the United States nor China have enough influence to control the actions of their likely allies. The conditions of democracy, where the center of power is so fluid, can only thrive in a world where relations between countries are stable. Even a 5 or 10% chance that any of this would happen should drive us all insane with terror.
We’re two years into a Presidency which most of the world thought couldn’t possibly last a month. And so far, for all the anxieties of having such a stupid President (did I mention how stupid he is yet?), for all of Trump’s deliberate provocations to keep the Left in a state of perpetual exhaustion from outrage, the world is still such a safer, better place to live than we feared Trump would make it.
Even on a scale of Richard Nixon to ‘you know who’, the Trump administration is still only a 0.65 out of 10. Richard Nixon was not only a President with authoritarian inclinations, he was clearly a politician of brilliant gifts who knew how to subordinate statecraft to the worst impulses of his character. There’s no equivalent from Trump yet to Nixon bombing a million people in Cambodia, no rumors yet the President will call the National Guard on Congress to stop their future investigations, there’s a small chance that Trump will soon begin threatening to arrest journalists, but it hasn’t happened yet, and it’s Russia who’s backing all the world’s would-be-right wing dictators, not us. That doesn’t mean things like that won’t happen soon, but at the moment, the NRA, not the President, is still the biggest threat to most Americans. And internationally, Russia, not America, is clearly the great threat.
Trump is not Nixon. Love him or hate him, and I loathe him, Richard Nixon was one of the giants of 20th century statecraft, while Donald Trump is an idiot (have I mentioned yet that he’s stupid?). Trump may not even be the President in any meaningful sense. According to his schedule, he only works something like three hours a day while having nine hours a day of something called ‘Executive Time’, which, so far as anyone can tell, means that he’s watching Fox News.
If Trump is, in fact, exactly as stupid as he seems, then Mike Pence is our true President, and that is why the Trump Administration seems less like an American version of Mussolini’s Italy and more like a worse version of the George W. Bush administration. Yes, it’s another irrevocably damaging Presidency with a person of below average intelligence at the top who is clearly less powerful than his Vice President, but at least so far, it’s not a Presidency that will bring the entire republic down forever.
But if Trump is, in fact, compromised on a level half as serious as it seemed he might be in the last months of his campaign, then there is no warning sufficient for the horrors that may lurk around the corner. Economic inequality and the suspension of civil liberty is the general state of the world, it’s tragic when we lose them, but the one thing that can’t be returned to us is the suspension of life itself.
So much of the playbook is similar in the tactics of Trump, of Jair Bolsonaro, of Duterte, of Orban, of Marine Le Penn, of Nigel Farrage and Boris Johnson and Brexit, of the Polish Law and Justice Party, of the Italian Northern League, even of Erdogan and yes, even of Netanyahu, that it often seems as though they’re all getting their demagogic strategies from the exact same playbook. Somebody out there wants the world plunged into as much chaos as possible, and there is only one person in the entire world who stands to benefit from such chaos exponentially more than everyone else. What caused World War II was evil. What caused World War I was stupidity. If a brilliant and evil ruler wants to bestride the pages of history like a satanic colossus – a Genghis Khan, an Attila, a Tamerlane, a Qin Shi Huang, a Suleiman – the best way to ensure it in 2018 is not to conquer the world like the great warriors of antiquity, but to make these other countries who couldn’t care less to learn about history conquer themselves:
Step 1: Help the most provocative nationalists in any given country achieve power. The stupider they are, all the better.
Step 2: Let them be themselves.
Step 3: Wait.