Warcraft and Governance

Alan Zendell, February 20, 2017

On February 7th of this year, the lead article in James Hohmann’s The Daily 202 (a daily news capsule put out by The Washington Post) was Five books to Understand Stephen K. Bannon. The week before, a long-time associate of Bannon had told a cable news channel that his “bible” was The Art of War, by Sun Tzu.  Written in the fifth century A.D., that tract is still considered a classic work of military strategy.

Why was this important? Because President Trump appointed Bannon as his chief strategist. One can never say for certain who is whispering what in the President’s ear, but it’s safe to say that the advice of his chief strategist matters. So I obtained a copy of The Art of War and devoured it, looking for correlations with the first month of the President’s actions. Fortunately, I didn’t have to look very hard.

Trump had often stated himself that he intended to be unpredictable because that kept his opposition off guard and strengthened his position. And regardless of who you believed, it was clear that Trump’s version of what was true and what was not usually differed from the establishment’s. For whatever reason, his bombastic campaign of attacking everything he didn’t like, calling every differing opinion a vicious lie, and labeling every media outlet that criticized him a failed enterprise spreading fake news, succeeded.

Trump was masterful at misdirection, diverting attention, and creating chaos among all those who opposed him. Feint here, attack there, strike quickly, and show no mercy in battle − exactly what Sun Tzu prescribed as the formula for victory in war.  Whether or not he was a devotee of Sun Tzu, you have to give Trump credit for recognizing that his political campaign was a perfect allegory for war.  In many ways, of course, his business career displayed the same qualities.  One never lays his cards on the table when negotiating a business deal. It’s all about deception, creating false expectations, and knowing when to strike.

As unpleasant as the election campaign was, unless Congress finds collusion with Russia, Trump didn’t violate any laws. Political campaigns really have no rules.  The assumption is that the voters will punish any candidate who behaves really badly. All is fair in politics and war.

But is the same true for governing? We’ve now seen Trump (and presumably Bannon) apply the art of warcraft in two scenarios.  As I see it, he’s in an entirely different arena now. In addition to adversaries, he must deal effectively with allies, the loyal opposition at home, the courts, and the press. And my question is this: should the President treat all of those entities in the same manner as he would an enemy on the battle field?

If his intention in demonizing the news media and the courts is to diminish their influence, he is acting in direct contravention of our Constitution. If he is attempting to reduce his political opposition to impotence, we are on our way to autocracy. If he uses his populism to intimidate Congress, he will do great harm to our republic.  And if he creates chaos among our allies, he will only strengthen our potential enemies.

History has repeatedly demonstrated that a charismatic leader who has no self-imposed boundaries will invariably do more harm than good, and most often will bring his country to ruin.  That’s what being presidential is all about. Our greatest presidents have risen above the personal once they were in office.  It’s not about them any more. It’s about what best for the country.

Another lesson history has often repeated is what happens when people sit back and do nothing when things appear to be going off the rails. Is all the talk of confusing our NATO allies with mixed signals just more of Trump’s unpredictability? Does he believe that makes his administration stronger?

The events of the last couple of days seem almost comical, except for their deadly serious overtone. When it was reported that the Iraqi terrorists who didn’t commit the Bowling Green Massacre also didn’t commit one in Sweden, we all chuckled. But the Swedish government didn’t find the situation amusing.

It turns out that Trump isn’t the only one who knows how to use Twitter. A former prime minister tweeted, wondering what Trump had been smoking. And the Swedish Ambassador was pointedly sarcastic in his response.

Maybe all this will amount to nothing, and a year from now we’ll be laughing about it. But maybe it’s just the tip of that Manhattan-sized iceberg that broke off the antarctic icecap last week (unless NASA’s Landsat 8 satellite, which recorded the event, was co-opted by anti-administration environmentalists planting fake news).

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