Thursday, March 16, 2017

Crazy Like a Fox

David Friedman 

One possible interpretation of Trump's actions is that he is ignorant, stupid, impulsive and thin skinned. During the campaign the obvious implication, which many drew, was that he had done and would continue doing stupid things that would lose him the nomination or, if he somehow got the nomination, the election.
That did not happen. When your theory confidently predicts something that does not happen, it is worth considering that the theory may be wrong. 
Additional evidence against that theory comes from Trump's earlier history. His finances are not public knowledge and some have argued, for all I know correctly, that he would have done at least as well if he had invested his inherited wealth in a collection of low risk interest bearing assets. But he didn't. He engaged in a long and risky series of entrepreneurial projects. If he was as incompetent as many seem to believe, he would by now have lost all or most of his money. 
That suggests an alternative interpretation, that while Trump may indeed be impulsive and thin skinned he is not stupid, that the apparently stupid things he did were for the most part tactics that were intended to win and did win, that it was not Trump who did not understand what he was doing but his critics. 
Hence the title of this post.
How well does that fit what has happened since the election? 
The initial travel ban made very little sense as a way of preventing Islamic terrorism  but quite a lot as a way of giving Trump the image of doing everything he could to defend America from Islamic terrorism. Seen from that standpoint, even its poor design made sense as a way of provoking noisy and passionate opposition, making his opponents in the Democratic party and the mass media seem to be soft on terrorism. It isn't as if the average voter can be expected to pay attention to the details.
The oddest thing about the response of Trump's critics to his moves is the implicit assumption which they would surely disavow if were made explicit—that Trump's motives are benign. On the assumption that his objective was to make America better, his actions look stupid. But not if his purpose was to promote his own power and status. 
The theory I am offering also explains the accusation that Obama tapped Trump's phone. As best I can tell, there is no evidence that it is literally true. But there is evidence, reported in the New York Times more than a month ago, that federal agents acted under a FISA warrant to tap the communications of some members of Trump's team in the Trump Tower. There is probably no evidence that they did so at Obama's urging or in order to provide information to him, but there probably would be no evidence of that even if it were true.

Obama, the New York Times and the rest of the opposition could have responded to Trump's charge by denying that Obama had tapped Trump while conceding that some around him had been tapped as part of a legal investigation, a fact reported a month or more before Trump made his charge. They could even have suggested that confusing the two claims was evidence of Trump's weak hold on reality. Perhaps some did. But the overall impression of their response as I saw it and, I suspect, as most others saw it, was that it amounted to "That's absurd, Trump must be crazy, nothing of the sort happened."
At which point Trump's supporters could respond that something of the sort, even if not exactly the same thing, had not only happened, it had been reported in the New York Times. That might not convince someone paying close attention to the two claims and the differences between them, but not many voters would be. Making people less willing to trust the mass media, especially when they are criticizing Trump, is a win for Trump.
When I offered arguments along these lines in a Facebook comment thread, the response I got, at least implicitly, was that by denying Trump's incompetence I was defending Trump and that Trump defenders were not worth listening to. My response, that assuming your opponents are stupid when they are not is a very dangerous mistake, fell on deaf ears.

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