Perhaps the most vivid description of President Trump’s histrionic performance at the NATO summit earlier this week in Brussels came from a foreign-policy analyst named Philipp Liesenhoff, who quoted a German folk saying to reporters for the Daily Beast: “A blind chicken finds corn once in a while.”
It’s a marvelous metaphor. But I’m afraid it’s deceptive. Here’s a word of advice to the Trump-loathing defenders of the liberal-democratic order, whether in Europe or Britain or at home in the United States: Beware the blind chicken. His other senses have become finely tuned. Mock him at your peril. If you believe for a second that he will be easy to capture or contain or defeat, then you have learned nothing from the last three years of political chaos across the Western world. In years to come, as a servile flunky on the lowest tiers of the Forever-Existing Blind Chicken Empire, you will have time to repent of your arrogance.
This article first appeared in Salon.
I have previously suggested that Donald Trump is an important figure in “World War IV,” that being the self-destructive struggle within the Western world that philosopher Jean Baudrillard identified as beginning with the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Baudrillard did not live to see the rise of Trump and Trumpism (which may have been merciful), but it certainly fits with his prediction of a system-wide “gigantic abreaction” to Islamic terrorism, a “moral and psychological downturn” in which the Western world’s “ideology of freedom,” which also represented its claim to moral authority, would corrupt itself into “a police-state globalization, a total control, a terror based on ‘law-and-order’ measures.”
With Donald Trump’s current trip to Europe — and his apparent effort to troll NATO into destroying itself, undermine an already unstable British government and form who knows what sort of alliance with Vladimir Putin — we have arrived, I believe, at a dangerous turning point in the largely invisible history of World War IV. Those of us who imagine a more democratic and egalitarian future are at great moral risk.
Opposing the authoritarian, racist and nationalist tendencies represented by Trump and his ilk is the easy part. But what is the path forward? How do we avoid trapping ourselves in systems or ideologies that are only slightly less bad, and furthermore now seem doomed? Do liberals and leftists really want to ally themselves with figures like Angela Merkel, Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron, who conspicuously represent the failed politics of the past that Trump has rejected? Those questions do not have easy answers.
In context, Liesenhoff’s blind-chicken joke clearly referred to Trump’s striking knack for identifying the weak spots and contradictions in the positions of his adversaries, despite his (shall we say) limited understanding of policy or history or much of anything else. He has done this so often, and so effectively, that it cannot be viewed as a matter of luck or accident. It is his one great political skill: He consistently wrong-foots his enemies, putting them on the defensive and making them look like hypocrites — arguably the one thing Trump himself isn’t. (You can’t be a hypocrite if you don’t believe in anything except your own greatness, and don’t even pretend to.)
Trump did this in Brussels, confronting the other member nations about their defense budgets and hurling wild accusations at German Chancellor Angela Merkel over her Russian gas deal — two issues he clearly doesn’t really understand and probably doesn’t care about. Then he moved on to London and did it again, inflicting an extraordinary humiliation on Prime Minister Theresa May with a tabloid interview in which he said that May had thoroughly bungled Britain’s departure from the European Union, and suggested that former foreign minister Boris Johnson — a porcine, upper-class Trump wannabe — would do a better job at 10 Downing Street.
By Friday morning, Trump had officially made up with May, and even suggested that this interview with The Sun, Rupert Murdoch’s London tabloid, was somehow “fake news,” despite the existence of an audio recording. The prime minister had no choice but to stand next to the so-called leader of the so-called free world and mouth homilies about the “special relationship” between Britain and the U.S., and the amazing bilateral trade deal that was sure to follow Brexit. Perhaps May wished she could cut Trump’s liver out with a rusty kitchen scissors, or regretted her long-ago decision to go into politics instead of becoming headmistress of a mediocre girls’ school. As you have sown, so shall you reap, Theresa. You’ve been Trumped.
None of these incidents is all that significant in itself, probably. But if we take even half a step backward, the larger pattern that begins to be visible is extremely dangerous. All the drama in Brussels and London this week carried the shadow of an event that has yet to occur — Trump’s upcoming private tête-à-tête with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, reportedly with no American aides or interpreters present. That too is Trumpian stagecraft at its finest: The entire Western world is concern-trolling itself over something that hasn’t happened.
Is Trump likely to strike a deal with Putin for worldwide nuclear disarmament, as he has hinted? Certainly not, but here again the president is putting his foes on the defensive. Perhaps the worst single contradiction of the anti-Trump “resistance” is the marriage of convenience between genuine liberals and progressives, on one hand, and Cold War-style national security hawks on the other.
Yes, it now appears certain that Russian agents meddled in the 2016 presidential election on an unusual scale — and in a sharply polarized situation, may even have tipped the balance. Yes, President Trump has a long and tangled history of shady business deals with Russian oligarchs, which may well account for his oddly smoochy relationship with Putin. Yes, Putin himself is a venal and corrupt autocrat with an atrocious human rights record.
Those things are important, but they do not come close to creating a good reason for the so-called left to align itself with paleo-conservative warmongers who believe that the best way to unite American society is through militant paranoia directed at an outside enemy. If you wanted to write a script that might allow Trump to win the Nobel Peace Prize (for real this time), and then sweep to re-election by depicting the Democrats as small-minded prisoners of old thinking, you could hardly do it better.
In this and other ways, I suspect that Trump is once again luring his enemies into the political equivalent of a Heffalump trap — that is, a trap constructed to catch him, but in which we trap ourselves — as he did repeatedly during the 2016 presidential campaign. He is just smart enough to understand that he has no actual policies or ideology, and cannot survive any contest fought on that ground. But he might be able to win a second term and destroy democracy and become chicken-emperor for life and all the rest of it if he can persuade his enemies to sabotage themselves.
How would they (or we) do that? Mostly by reflexively resisting Trump without any semblance of a positive vision for the future, and trying to claw our way back to the pre-2016 past, when it wasn’t yet obvious that liberal democracy was collapsing. Does that sound an awful lot like the dominant strategy of the Democratic Party? You tell me!
Effectively, it’s a dumber version of the “let’s kill Hitler” time-travel scenario: If we can recreate the conditions that made Trump possible — a world of grotesque inequality, permanent culture war and political paralysis, permanently ruled by neoliberal technocrats like Merkel and David Cameron and Barack Obama — maybe he won’t happen this time!
How do we avoid that? A good place to start is by facing the nature of the blind-chicken paradox. Trump often acts as a scouring agent who reveals truths below the surface of conventional politics, even if he doesn’t understand them or uses them in the worst possible ways. Trump is at least a little bit right about NATO defense spending, even if he has no idea how the policy is supposed to work and most of the things he said about it weren’t true. He also has a point on Merkel’s pipeline deal with Russia. In both cases, Trump seized on those issues not because he actually understood them or cared about them, but because they are sore spots in the NATO alliance that put the other leaders on the defensive.
It’s ludicrous to suggest that “Germany is totally controlled by Russia” because Merkel is buying a backup supply of cheap Russian gas from Gazprom, the giant company closely tied to the Putin oligarchy. But that deal has been a massive embarrassment in Europe: It was poorly timed and halfway swept under the carpet and has made the German chancellor look simultaneously clueless and hypocritical. In case you haven’t noticed, with Donald Trump the facts don’t much matter, but appearance is everything. Tactics and optics and inflated rhetoric and fanciful, paranoid narratives — that’s his terrain, and on that ground he remains undefeated.