The Moustache of Wisdom, in “Tony Blair’s Lesson for President Trump,” says the parallels between Brexit and Trumpism are profound. In “Donald Trump’s Military Preening” Mr. Bruni says his call on Tuesday night for a rebuilt military is about vanity, not safety. Here’s TMOW:
It’s too bad Democrats wouldn’t enlist a foreigner to deliver their rebuttal to President Trump’s address to Congress. They could have just replayed the speech given 11 days earlier by Tony Blair, the former British prime minister.
It was a passionate appeal to his country to reject its version of Trumpism. Blair said the U.K. must reconsider Brexit, the narrowly won 2016 vote to withdraw from the European Union.
It is a speech worth reading because the parallels between Brexit and Trumpism are profound. At their core, both seek to undermine the big systems that have stabilized the globe and spread prosperity, security, rule of law, democracy and openness after two world wars: the European Union, the global trading system, Nafta, NATO, the United Nations and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
Brexit and Trumpism argue for abandoning or diminishing all of these in favor of an economic nationalism that will — supposedly painlessly — make Britain and America better off.
Playing with these big systems is dangerous, not because they don’t need improving — they do — but because many of the prescriptions — let’s just put up a wall or exit — will make things so much worse for so many more people. The critics are great at pointing out the flaws of these systems, but they always forget to mention the hundreds of millions of people they lifted from poverty to prosperity and the extraordinary 70 years of peace they maintained since the end of World War II.
In their place, the Brexiters and Trumpsters want to return us to a globe of everyone-for-themselves nationalisms that helped to foster two world wars. They speak of leading grand “movements.” Their vow is “rip it, don’t fix it.” As Blair noted, “The one incontrovertible characteristic of politics today is its propensity for revolt.”
It’s dangerous nonsense. In the Cold War era the world was glued together by these global institutions and by the fear and the discipline of two superpowers. In the post-Cold War era the world was glued together by these big global systems and a U.S. hegemon. We’re now in the post-post Cold War world, when U.S. leadership and the glue of these big global systems are needed more than ever — because the simultaneous accelerations in technology, globalization and climate change are weakening states everywhere, spawning super-empowered angry people and creating vast zones of disorder.
If we choose at this time to diminish America’s global leadership and these big stabilizing systems — and just put America first, thereby prompting every other country to put its own economic nationalism first — we will be making the gravest mistake we possibly could make.
That was a big part of Blair’s speech. Blair is unpopular in the U.K. — but that’s precisely what liberated him to say what many in British politics know to be true but won’t say: Brexit was a stupid idea, based on an old political fantasy of a minority of conservatives; it was sold with bogus data; and following through on it will make Britain poorer, weaker and more isolated — and Europe more unstable.
“The British pound is down around 12 percent against the euro and 20 percent against the dollar since the Brexit referendum,” he noted. “This is the international financial market’s assessment of our future prosperity: We will be poorer. The price of imported goods in supermarkets is up, and thus so is the cost of living.”
The way Blair described Prime Minister Theresa May’s commitment to executing Brexit — no matter what — sounded just like G.O.P. leaders’ support for Trump’s ideas after they had denounced them as utterly crackpot during the presidential campaign. “Nine months ago,” Blair said of May, “she was telling us that leaving would be bad for the country, its economy, its security, and its place in the world. Today, it is apparently a ‘once-in-a-generation opportunity’ for greatness.”
Blair added: “May says that she wants Britain to be a great, open trading nation. Our first step in this endeavor? To leave the largest free-trade bloc in the world. She wants Britain to be a bridge between the E.U. and the U.S. Is having no foothold in Europe really the way to do that?
“We are told that it is high time that our capitalism became fairer. How do we start laying the foundation for such a noble cause? By threatening Europe with a move to a low-tax, lightly regulated economy, which is the very antithesis of that cause.”
And what will future historians say about all those immigrants who came to the U.K. and were a key reason for the pro-Brexit vote, Blair asked? “That the migrants were terrible people who threatened the country’s stability? No, they will find that, on the whole, the migrants were well behaved, worked hard, paid their taxes and were a net economic benefit to the country.”
Blair recalled other bogus arguments that were used by Brexit advocates and that have already evaporated — like the notions that leaving the E.U. would save Britain some $440 million a week for its national health care service and that there was a danger — most effectively exploited in a fear-inducing poster — that Syrian refugees would overwhelm the U.K., but there was no Syrian refugee flood.
“None of this,” concluded Blair, “ignores the challenges that stoked the anger fueling the Brexit vote: those left behind by globalization; the aftermath of the financial crisis; stagnant incomes for some families; and the pressures posed by big increases in migration, which make perfectly reasonable people anxious and then feel unheard in their anxiety.”
That is true in America, too. Donald Trump is not wrong about everything. We do need to fix our trading relationship with China, which has taken advantage of some of our openness. NATO members should pay their fair share for the alliance. We can’t let in every immigrant who wants to come to America. We do need to rebuild our infrastructure and enact sensible deregulation.
It’s what Trump believes — but is provably wrong — that scares me.
Like that imports from Mexico and China — not robots, software and automation — are the big culprit in taking middle-class jobs; that we are being swamped by immigrants from Mexico, when immigration from Mexico today is really net zero (most migrants are coming from failed states in Central America, which Mexico, the second-largest source of paying tourists to our country, plays a key role in preventing); that climate change is a hoax and we should lower emission rules on coal-fired power plants to restore coal jobs and ignore the long-term health implications and the impact on better-paying clean-power jobs; that the key to restoring middle-class jobs is not by investing in people, health care, infrastructure and lifelong learning, but rather by imposing a border tax. And that the E.U., NATO, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Nafta are just outdated pillars of a global, oppressive “administrative state” that needs deconstructing — rather than pillars of a liberal democratic order that have globalized our values and our rules and our standards to our great benefit.
As Blair said of the E.U.: “In the long term, this is essentially an alliance of values: liberty, democracy and the rule of law. As the world changes and opens up across boundaries of nation and culture, which values will govern the 21st century? Today, for the first time in my adult life, it is not clear that the resolution of this question will be benign. Britain, because of its history, alliances and character, has a unique role to play in ensuring that it is.”
So does America. But the spread of those values doesn’t animate Trump. The world is a win-lose real estate market for him. In the short term, he may rack up some discreet wins. But America became as prosperous and secure as it is today by building a world in our image — not just a world where we’re the only winners.
Now here’s Mr. Bruni:
Why do I get the sense that fighter jets are Donald Trump’s biceps, warships are his pectorals and what he’s doing with his proposed $54 billion increase for the Pentagon is flexing?
Maybe because that’s a strongman’s way. Maybe because so much with him is preening. Or maybe because so little of his military talk adds up.
In a sweeping speech to Congress on Tuesday night that largely diverged from his splenetic norm, he laid out his vision for a better America, and a key part of it, he said, was “one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history.”
But he also lamented what he deemed our country’s military follies of recent decades, sowing confusion in a careful listener. If we were winding down, why were we building up? If caution was the order of the day, why did it require such lavish investment?
Trump’s address was an opportunity to change the narrative of his presidency from one of an administration in disarray to one of a man on a methodical mission, and to accomplish that, he donned a new kind of tie and a new kind of tone: less truculent, more inspirational. He began with a mention of Black History Month and a condemnation of hate crimes.
But his remarks didn’t have sufficient details or offers of compromise to turn the page or to erase all the nonsense to date. Just a day earlier, at a meeting with the nation’s governors, he maintained that when he was young, America was the proud victor in all of its wars.
Really? World War II wrapped up before Trump came along, and the Korean War, which ended when he was 7, was no unfettered American triumph.
Then came Vietnam, which found Trump in college and unable to serve because of a podiatric ailment so debilitating that he couldn’t recall which foot was affected when he was asked about it in 2015. Surely, though, he remembers that Vietnam didn’t continue some glorious winning streak.
In Trump’s telling, everything about the America of yore was superior, everything about the America of today is wretched, and somehow, magically, he has solutions that even the most practiced hands don’t.
That was a theme of his military musings during his campaign, when he touted a secret plan for defeating ISIS that he conveniently couldn’t divulge, lest he trample on its secret-ness.
He subsequently ordered his top military advisers to come up with their own strategy, which makes a skeptical voter wonder what happened to his. Are the generals and he going to compare plans — I’ll show you mine if you show me yours — to determine whose is mightiest? For now that’s still a secret.
Details aren’t his thing. He’s all over the place. One moment, his chosen generals are sages for the ages. The next, he fingers them for any flaws in the Yemen raid during which a Navy SEAL, William Owens, who was called Ryan, died. “They lost Ryan,” he said on Tuesday morning.
But on Tuesday night, before Congress, they were geniuses anew, architects of a brilliantly successful operation. I was moved to see the effect of Trump’s words on the SEAL’s widow, Carryn, who stood in the audience, tears streaming down her face. I was also floored by the opportunistic shifts in Trump’s take on those events.
He used his speech to complain once again that America was paying too much of the defense bill for our allies. He said that he was finally getting them to pony up.
If so, why do we need to pump tens of billions of additional dollars into the military, especially when we already spend more on it than the seven countries that spend the next most combined?
We can’t afford the increase, not if Social Security and Medicare are off limits, not if he follows through with the tax cuts he promised, not if he’s going to embark on the infrastructure projects that he’s (rightly) calling for, not unless he’s willing to gag Paul Ryan and shove him into some Capitol broom closet while the debt balloons.
And that increase doesn’t square with all that Trump has said about being more reluctant to embroil us in military conflicts than some of his predecessors were.
I suppose he could argue that maximum military readiness is a deterrent, but does America’s count of aircraft carriers really give jihadists pause? The wars that we’re fighting aren’t traditional ones, and they hinge on the kind of diplomacy and foreign aid that Trump is giving short shrift. But then soft power doesn’t gleam or puff up the ego the way that new fighting equipment does.
His approach is provocative, antagonistic. He berates and bad-mouths allies in a fashion that threatens to push them away while promising a barrier along America’s southern border and an upgrade of our nuclear arsenal.
He’s saying that we can and will go it alone, and while that attitude may be emotionally satisfying to many Americans, it’s not at all certain to keep us safe.
I suspect that it’s emotionally satisfying to Trump most of all. He’s determined to cast himself as a figure of epic proportions and has to size everything around him accordingly.
Hence his (latest) grandiose description of his election in Tuesday night’s address. “In 2016, the earth shifted beneath our feet,” he said, going on to mix metaphors as they’ve seldom been mixed before. “Finally, the chorus became an earthquake.”
And hence his desire to upsize our armed forces. The military is one of his many mirrors. If it’s more muscular, so is he.
Tags: The Moustache of Wisdom