All politicians wear masks. Donald Trump’s favourite is that of Maximum Leader. It was on display during this past week. ‘If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will,’ he said at the weekend, ahead of his meeting with Xi Jinping — a throwaway comment that could end up causing mayhem in the Far East. Next, his reaction to news of a chemical bombing in Syria. Trump blamed the atrocity on his predecessor’s ‘weakness and irresolution’, suggesting that he is keen to show the world what strength and resolve look like. The President, it seems, is not too dissimilar to the nightmare his political enemies warned us about: a nuclear-armed hothead itching to show the world how tough he is.
Since Trump’s election, talk of fascism on the rise in America is omnipresent — 241 years after declaring independence, the United States finds itself compared to the Weimar Republic, which lasted barely a decade. Serious observers liken Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler, with others casting his strategist Steve Bannon or press spokesman Sean Spicer (take your pick) as Joseph Goebbels. Mein Kampf (presumably in English translation) is said to serve as Trump’s ‘playbook’. Trumpism, we are told, is repackaged Nazism.
Andrew J. Bacevich is joined by General Sir Richard Barrons and Heather Williams to discuss Trump’s wars:
As with so many earlier bouts of American political paranoia — recall that Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight D. Eisenhower were each denounced as tools of international communism — this one has its comic aspects. Yet silliness aside, comparisons between Trump and Hitler are unhelpful. Rather than furthering our understanding of the Trump presidency, they impede it. What we confront is troubling enough.
Still, there remains something irresistible about dredging up bits of the past to explain the present, especially when colourful personalities are involved. So let me propose an alternative to those who see Trump as Hitler sans the moustache (although retaining the bad haircut). Stick with Germany, its villainous past making it an agreeable foil for us Anglo-Saxons. Rather than focusing on the Third Reich, however, consider the Second. That’s right: Donald Trump as Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Almost precisely 100 years after the USA intervened in the Great War, few Americans can differentiate between Hohenzollerns and Habsburgs. Unless it concerns Alexander Hamilton or Abraham Lincoln, we don’t do much history predating 7 December 1941. But for British readers, citing a German emperor as a figure worthy of note might not seem far-fetched.
That Wilhelm was the last monarch to rule Germany was in no small measure due to his own folly. When he assumed the throne in 1888, Germany had already emerged as a great power and proud possessor of the world’s mightiest army. As Kaiser, Wilhelm was determined to make Germany greater still, his stated ambitions not differing materially from Donald Trump’s vow to ‘Make America Great Again’. The Kaiser was given to bluster, which concealed his own fears and insecurities. In his role as supreme war lord, he loved playing soldier, sitting astride some magnificent mount as grenadiers, uhlans, cuirassiers, and infantry regiments without number paraded by in review. He coveted colonies and wanted a navy that would stand comparison with that of his British cousin. He was impatient and ambitious.
Yet Wilhelm knew nothing of statecraft. A gambler and an opportunist, he lacked prudence. ‘He knew how to make the gestures, to utter the word, to strike the attitudes in the imperial style,’ Churchill wrote in profiling the Kaiser. ‘He could stamp and snort’ but he possessed neither character nor consistency nor foresight. His modus operandi was to raise a ruckus and to see what might happen. Impulse took precedence over calculation. In the long run-up to the war of 1914-1918, the Kaiser’s penchant for recklessness was on full display. On multiple occasions, he instigated crises that brought Europe to the brink of war over issues that no European leader viewed worth fighting for. Take the Agadir Crisis of 1911. Annoyed that France was asserting primary influence in Morocco without properly accounting for German interests there, the Kaiser opted for a show of force. Dispatching the gunboat Panther seemed to suggest Germany was looking for a fight. Thus did Wilhelm come within an eyelash of dragging all of Europe into a conflagration over an issue of trifling importance.
‘It seems probable,’ wrote Churchill, ‘that the Germans did not mean war on this occasion. But they meant to test the ground; and in so doing they were prepared to go to the very edge of the precipice. It’s so easy to lose one’s balance there: a touch, a gust of wind, a momentary dizziness, and all is precipitated into the abyss.’
Just three years later, in no small measure due to the Kaiser’s own miscalculations, Europe plunged headlong into that abyss. The ensuing cataclysm cost Wilhelm his throne, his empire, and much else. No participant emerged with less than grievous wounds. In Donald Trump we may have another Wilhelm II on our hands — someone who poses a danger, not because he is intent on evil, but because he is erratic, unpredictable, and totally oblivious to how others may interpret his words and deeds.
Consider the range of issues where President Trump has backed away from actions that as a candidate he had vowed to take, more often than not on ‘day one’ of his presidency. The US remains fully committed to the Nato alliance that Trump previously denounced as ‘obsolete’. The ‘One China’ policy of previous administrations remains intact, as does the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by his predecessor. That Trump will abrogate the North American Free Trade Agreement appears about as likely as Mexico paying for any ‘wall’ along the American border. The US embassy in Israel has not moved to Jerusalem and is unlikely to do so any time soon. Trump’s ‘secret plan’ to defeat Isis differs little from Obama’s plan, apart from more bombs and a handful of additional US troops. And Trump’s longed-for friendship with Vladimir Putin has yet to bloom. The Trump administration neither acknowledges nor provides any rationale for these shifts. Over the course of a single news cycle, positions once said to represent the President’s considered view simply become inoperative. Without explanation, the gunboat sent to Agadir weighs anchor and goes home, leaving behind bewilderment and relief.
In other circumstances, we might chalk up the disparity between what a president says while a candidate and then does on the job to mere politics. Or see it as evidence of an individual sobered by responsibility and ‘growing’ in office. Yet such explanations do not apply here. What we have is a president whose words and actions are untethered to principle.
Like Wilhelm II, Trump is given to bluster and to striking poses. His compulsion to look tough is apparent. So too is his need to command attention and his affinity for military pomp. He loves generals.
Yet the real signature of Trump’s presidency lies in the way he communicates. As his Twitter feed demonstrates almost hourly, his ability to use the English language is strikingly limited. We Americans don’t know what bizarre rant to expect next. Imagine the challenge that faces high-ranking officials in distant capitals struggling to understand what those rants imply regarding US intentions. In all likelihood, Trump himself does not know. He’s operating on instinct, playing it by ear. As was the case with the provocations the Kaiser flung at London, Paris, and Moscow, Trump seems uninterested in potential second- and third-order consequences.
To appreciate the possible implications, consider the case of North Korea. Rex Tillerson, seldom seen but rumoured to hold the office of US Secretary of State, recently declared as defunct the prior US policy of ‘strategic patience’ toward Pyongyang. Officials hint that they expect China to solve the North Korean problem forthwith.
What if President Xi Jinping does not comply? How will Kim Jong-un, another blusterer, respond to signals that Washington now considers ‘all options on the table’? How will Trump react to having his bluff called? To venture to the very edge of the precipice without falling into the abyss requires an awareness of precisely where that edge is. It’s not at all certain that Donald Trump knows. He may not even care.
Andrew J. Bacevich is a retired colonel in the US army and the author of America’s War for the Greater Middle East.