The situation as regards President Trump and his likely course of action in Syria and the wider Middle East region suddenly seems difficult to predict. Many of his supporters had probably taken for granted that he would allow things to carry on as they had been, with Assad’s forces in the ascendancy, crushing the terrorist opposition, whether they be ISIS, al Qaeda, Ahrar al-Sham or others of similarly evil ilk with little need to stir the hornets’ nest when tensions in Syria finally seemed to be, at least to some extent, abating. His recent actions have shaken that idea.
However, it isn’t just Trump’s views regarding the Middle East that are being questioned. Erstwhile supporters are now beginning to wonder about his leadership abilities generally and whether he is the type of leader they had been led to believe.
Perhaps the difficulty we have to acknowledge is that the truth with Trump is seldom straightforward. Some view him as very smart, ‘playing 4D chess’ and having a far better measure of his opponents than they do of him, to the point of playing the political and public relations game on a completely different level; others think he has little clue, that he’s an intellectual lightweight who has gotten to where he has by combinations of his father’s money, bullying, aggression, lying and luckily winging it as he goes. But perhaps the truth is more complicated…
A 4D chess master?
So what do we make of the 4D chess thesis? If one seeks examples of this, a good starting point is Trump’s relationship with the media, where he appears to have had considerable success in dealing with them in spite of their hostility, to the point where he often appears to have tied them in knots. He has proved to be a master of distraction, issuing tweets and making statements that send the media barking like dogs after a ball in one direction, running away from their previous focus on negative areas regarding him and his life.
During the presidential campaign, Trump was able to draw negative attention away from his wife Melania’s speech which had been plagiarised from a Michelle Obama one by making a joke of it in public. During the same event, where Hilary Clinton was present, he also made barbs at his opponent’s expense, as she did towards him. This, along with his graceful refusal to fire the speechwriter who made the faux pas, helped to deflect negativity away from his wife and the general situation, focusing media attention on other matters. He was also able to move past negative stories about himself and comments he had made about women, along with (apparently unfounded) sexual assault allegations. At the time these things occurred, his campaign seemed to be in serious trouble. Yet he further managed to put Hillary Clinton and her team on the defensive by pointing the spotlight towards the email scandal, Anthony Wiener’s misdemeanours, leaked debate questions and Bill Clinton’s indiscretions, amongst other things.
Since becoming President, we have seen further examples of his ability to deflect and focus attention elsewhere. After his statements regarding Sweden, the mainstream media outlets took the opportunity to scorn him and attempted to debunk his claims, which on the surface of it might have seemed like an error of judgement on his part, but taking the view of this as part of a deliberate strategy, one could say that the hypocrisy of many mainstream media outlets was exposed heavily through social media and other sources; that many people did their own research and learned facts about the situation in that country that the mainstream media outlets had not been keen to admit. If Trump intended this, then it can indeed be considered smart gamesmanship. Trump’s ability to manipulate the mainstream media to his own advantage, even when they seek to attack him, does lend credence to the idea that he is the sort of person who sees no such thing as bad publicity.
In his political appointments too, we have seen interesting manoeuvres. He has publicly ‘considered’ for high office vocal critics like Mitt Romney. It’s possible that Trump might have genuinely been open to the possibilities but by raising the hopes of people who have previously opposed him, only for those hopes to be dashed could be seen as an artful form of revenge for past attacks on him.
Some would say that Trump’s recent moves regarding Syria could be seen as cleverly calculated if you are willing to read enough into them. I’m not going to get into the specifics of the Syrian situation at the moment because it would make the article too long as (if it isn’t already!) but I might delve into this side of things in a future article, which I already have a basis for. Let’s just say for now that one can make Trump’s actions fit within the 4D chess narrative, though whether this reflects a sophisticated reality or merely a wishful fantasy is currently difficult to assess with any certainty.
Personal and intellectual shortcomings?
There is a very different view of Trump: namely that he is the opposite of the great person his supporters would like to make out. In this view Trump is far from being a top chess player who can see the long game, he is in fact a novice in the game; a serial blunderer who only sees what lies immediately in front of him who is too lazy to plan for the future, rather relying on aggression and bullying tactics to get his way. He is seen as having a rather superficial understanding of political affairs, gaining much of his knowledge from television, social media or what other observations he gleans from those he pays attention to. Indeed, part of the reason he was treated with so much scorn by the media over the Sweden issue was because he had made his observations based on a Fox News documentary rather than upon official statistics or reputable academia on the subject, which helped to illustrate the point for his critics that Trump is no academic. Indeed, these claims are even made by his co-writer on The Art of the Deal, Tony Schwartz.
In an extensive interview with the New Yorker Schwartz stated that Trump did very little work on the book and that Schwartz wrote it himself because Trump showed no interest in writing it nor in structuring the lessons that he could teach to him along the way. There probably is a degree of truth in this: Trump is energetic and this makes him restless. He seems unlikely, based on what a number of sources have said, to be the type to sit and read books, let alone write them. He has been reluctant in interviews to talk about his reading habits. Some critics suggest this also accounts for a limited vocabulary.
Trump is not an intellectual, nor in fairness does he claim to be. He is a successful businessman and he has had some clever and experienced people around him, both in business and in politics. Some people have said that they see in Trump’s approach tactics that resemble those espoused by Sun Tzu in The Art of War. Trump and Schwartz’s book seems to take some inspiration from those concepts, though whether Trump or indeed Schwartz ever had a familiarity with Sun Tzu’s work is moot.
There is the possibility that any strategic successes in the political sphere that are perceived to be akin to The Art of War might owe more to people like Steve Bannon, a person who would seem more likely to be familiar with higher intellectual and political strategic concepts than Trump and who might have been able to point him in the right direction through verbal advice and brief memos rather than in persuading him sit and read any ancient texts on strategy.
When we consider the cutthroat and sometimes conflict-ridden way the business world can work, Trump’s extensive business dealings over the years mean he will have learned many practical lessons during the course of his business life and perhaps a number of those are even similar to some of the lessons espoused by Sun Tzu. After all, it is no mistake that the latter’s book is so popular with businessmen the world over. Those who go to war will learn from the experience one way or another and pick up valuable insights if they are going to live to fight another day and the same arguably applies to business. But perhaps this fact in itself reflects something else in business that can be true in war: the success of bold aggressors determined to get their own way. Trump could fall within this category.
Schwartz also claims to have deliberately ignored some of Trump’s business failures when writing the book and portrays him in the interview as a bully, a liar and thin-skinned, saying that the image of Trump that came out of the book is one that Schwartz created to make him seem more palatable. He also says there was no structure to his time with Trump and he found him restless and difficult to ever pin down in order to learn from him. However, his political opposition to Trump might well have tainted his apparent recollections of the writing process and could have led to a strong sense of guilt that he helped to assist someone he dislikes on his way to eventually becoming President.
Schwartz’s views therefore can’t be viewed uncritically as he has political motivations for his claims about the writing of the book and showed no reluctance to indicate his opposition to Trump politically, saying in the New Yorker interview that “Trump stands for many of the things I abhor.” Schwartz is critical of him in the New Yorker piece and takes much credit for creating the ‘Trump myth.’ Indeed, he had been a critic of Trump before getting involved with the book and thus Trump’s approach surprised him (which, depending on how one interprets it, could in itself be an example of either cleverness or ignorance from Trump) as did his willingness to pay him half a million dollars advance as well as half the royalties – was this generosity from Trump or a bad deal form a supposedly great businessman?
Regardless of the extent to which Schwartz’s comments and those of other critics may or may not reflect the truth, they should serve to remind us that we should not make the mistake of necessarily believing that Trump is some kind of intellectual colossus who merely hides the fact behind a mask. Trump has a tendency to come out with things that can be construed as sounding downright stupid – not simply blunt, but sometimes offensive and lacking in apparent awareness or tact as well as being repetitive, as if he doesn’t have anything more to utter than a basic mantra. We have seen this pattern in presidential candidate debates, rallies, interviews and press conferences. There is undoubtedly some cultivation in Trump’s public persona and he clearly understands the power of various forms of media to get a message across. His previous success as a TV star helps with this. However, the true extent of this and of how much he may or may not deliberately come across as unsophisticated in certain instances is difficult to gauge. Some would see these examples as indicating a lack of intellect, but perhaps this, like the 4D chess idea, is also too simplistic a reading of the man.
A more complicated picture?
Knowing what we do about how Trump operates, whether from stories concerning his business dealings over the years, or what he says and tweets, one can read a degree of calculation in all of this and that his methods are effective in producing results, though whether this is based on careful planning or simply on an instinctive and almost cavalier style is more difficult to say.
Regarding his public persona, we should bear in mind that not everyone can express themselves eloquently and much of Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama’s supposed ‘brilliant oratory’ as oft touted by the media was in fact largely thanks to the autocue, without which he was visibly lost, as well as his having been ably assisted by the public relations machine of the mainstream media.
Trump’s successes are plain to see. The way he comes across might be part of a very deliberate attempt to ram home the same messages and to show consistency in his priorities, with the view that if the messages are repeated often and simply enough they will sink in and that his whole method is to come across as the everyman, free from the usual political language and constraints.
Even if his methods don’t necessarily seem to be the most sophisticated, the man gets results and when you look at how far he has risen and the fact that a president of his type with no substantial political or military background is unprecedented in US politics.
Trump’s lack of academic abilities does not in itself indicate a lack of intelligence or ability – as already stated, he has never claimed to be an intellectual and he hasn’t managed to get where he has in life without some significant ability, however much critics trot out the ‘his daddy’s money’ or ‘look at his failures and bankruptcies’ arguments. If he didn’t have some substantial level of competence he surely would not have been able to succeed, either as a businessman or in his ascendancy to the presidency. But could Trump’s abilities have also been overstated? And could we have been too willing to accept the positive spin?
Are we blinded by impartiality?
Even if we accept the positive narrative regarding Trump as true, or partially so, we should remember that there is the possibility that might be given too much credit and we may have fallen into the trap of trying to see the good in order to subscribe to what we want to believe when the reality is in fact that as with any politician Trump too has his flaws and does not necessarily come up to the high standards that each of us might wish for in our representatives or project upon him specifically.
The 4D chess hypothesis is a fascinating one, almost taken from the pages of a thrilling novel or drama like House of Cards. It an enticing idea to supporters but one has to remember the dangers of accepting such a notion when things could easily be read in other ways. As much as the idea might appeal, there are so many contradictions to the man that nagging doubts arise and the question of bias in favour of Trump might allow supporters to view him too favourably at times.
Whilst the 4D chess theory might ultimately turn out to be correct, the opposite view could also be true. It is indicative of the enigma of the man, particularly given current affairs in Syria, that we have been forced to reflect upon his abilities. The full fallout from Syria has yet to make itself clear. There are doubts and questions; we cannot tell definitively whether this move by Trump is a sign of his genius or folly. Has he been compromised? Does he want people to buy certain ideas?
When you support someone politically, there is a tendency to seek confirmation bias, whether we wish to admit it or not. We are quick enough to spot this as a flaw in others of opposing political viewpoints but perhaps not so quick to spot it in ourselves. We can of course look at our own positions and say they are more evidence-based than our opponents or that we have a better understanding of the issues, and this might well be true. From an admittedly partial perspective, I would argue that the arguments of those of us who are considered to be on the right, whether politically, socially, economically or in a number of other areas tend to stand up better to scrutiny than those of the left, though I would be the first to admit that we don’t always get it right either and we have to be careful not to read too much into things that aren’t there and to apply careful reasoning wherever we can.
The contradictions surrounding Trump make it difficult to know for certain where he stands, though this might in itself be deliberate. Whatever the case regarding his leadership abilities, which are still very much open to interpretation, the coming of his presidency in itself has been a positive occurrence in several respects. He differs from other politicians (indeed he didn’t even see himself as one until recently and perhaps still has difficulty grasping the idea) and his influence has provided a much needed breath of fresh air to a political landscape that had become hugely (or bigly) stilted. He has shaken things up and has provided politicians around the world with food for thought when it comes to the complacency with which they have treated their respective populations.
He also seems to be genuine in trying to carry out a number of the things he promised during his campaign: he is already bringing back jobs, persuading big businesses to invest, build and employ in the US; he has repealed a large number of Obama-era regulations; he has sought to put in place a new healthcare system and repeal Obamacare, something which he has not yet been successful in but which it is likely he will try again when the circumstances are right; he is looking to provide security to the American people with travel prohibitions (admittedly frustrated by a couple of judges) and the impending border wall with Mexico; but whether he can live up to expectations on all the big issues remains to be seen and if he does end up dragging America and the world into another Middle East quagmire, in spite of having indicated in the past that he does not see wish to do so, then he will not be easily forgiven, however much good he might do elsewhere. However, it is still early days in the Syrian situation to know for sure how it will play out.
Trump admitted several weeks ago regarding his healthcare plans that he wasn’t simply going to do things that would please all of the people who voted for him. His decision in relation to launching an airstrike in Syria might be another such example. This isn’t necessarily an indication that he has sold out or allowed himself to be compromised, nor to say that he fails to appreciate his supporters but he has made it clear that he is willing to take decisions that could cause some consternation amongst them if it helps lead to the long-term goal of success in whatever venture is in question. This might be acceptable to his supporters if he is playing a long game and his ultimate aims, if realised, turn out to be positive for his country, for ours and for the world overall.
Whatever his flaws, Trump resonated with people during the election campaign. The strength of support for him at mass rallies was clear to be seen, even if the mainstream media chose to ignore it until it was too late and their expectations were convulsed. He galvanised people. His message was highly effective for all its simplicity. He appealed to ordinary people who had legitimate concerns about jobs, security, immigration, crime and a number of other issues that had been largely ignored by the traditional political elites. He spoke with a basic common sense that, in spite of ineloquence or a lack of sophistication at times, got a message through to people. Whether he is as unsound as his critics say or not, he certainly did something right and he appears to be continuing to try and see through a number of those good intentions. Whether these intentions are too good and are being taken advantage of by others regarding Syria is another matter. Perhaps the key here for him is to stick to his instincts, which served him so well in getting into the White House in the first place. What marks him out is his difference from other politicians, so he must be consistent in maintaining this exceptional quality and be bold in his resolve to continue to stand out from the rest. He must be careful not to get dragged into the usual political swamp that he has talked so often of draining, because if he does, there is likely no way back.
I can’t claim to have the answers and I don’t think anyone reasonably can at this stage, no matter how much some people might claim with great confidence to the contrary. We are seeing and hearing all manner of claims about what is occurring within the administration, power struggles, the machinations of those in positions to influence events and these are confusing enough before were even start to consider the influence of other countries.
Like most of us I’m just trying to make sense of things as best I can and attempting to sort the wheat from the chaff as I go along. It might be a very long time before the truth becomes clear and President Donald J Trump’s pages in the history books receive their fullest consideration with the benefit of hindsight. But then, such is the advantage of the historian and not the contemporary observer.