Six months into the Trump era, foreign-policy officials from eight past Administrations told me they are aghast that the President is still so witless about the world. “He seems as clueless today as he was on January 20th,” Boot, who is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said. Trump’s painful public gaffes, they warn, indicate that he’s not reading, retaining, or listening to his Presidential briefings. And the newbie excuse no longer flies.
“Trump has an appalling ignorance of the current world, of history, of previous American engagement, of what former Presidents thought and did,” Geoffrey Kemp, who worked at the Pentagon during the Ford Administration and at the National Security Council during the Reagan Administration, reflected. “He has an almost studious rejection of the type of in-depth knowledge that virtually all of his predecessors eventually gained or had views on.”
Criticism of Donald Trump among Democrats who served in senior national-security positions is predictable and rife. But Republicans—who are historically ambitious on foreign policy—are particularly pained by the President’s missteps and misstatements. So are former senior intelligence officials who have avoided publicly criticizing Presidents until now.
“The President has little understanding of the context”—of what’s happening in the world—“and even less interest in hearing the people who want to deliver it,” Michael Hayden, a retired four-star general and former director of both the C.I.A. and the National Security Agency, told me. “He’s impatient, decision-oriented, and prone to action. It’s all about the present tense. When he asks, ‘What the hell’s going on in Iraq?’ people around him have learned not to say, ‘Well, in 632 . . . ’ ” 1
“He just doesn’t have an interest in the world,” Hayden said…
…“The sheer scale of his lack of knowledge is what has astounded me — and I had low expectations to begin with,” David Gordon, the director of the State Department’s policy-planning staff under Condoleezza Rice, during the Bush Administration, told me.
This put me in mind of certain political considerations and how a largish cohort of individuals can not name check Archibald Cox, much less the still unraveling implications of Watergate. If we allow the continued dumbing down of America’s education system, it won’t be but another generation before the idea of democracy is but a wistful dream…
I mentioned Rodney King in an Intro to American Government class. I got the blank “Is that a thing we are supposed to know?” look that I have come to recognize when students hear about something that happened more than six months ago. “Rodney King?” More blinking. “Can someone tell why the name Rodney King is important?”
One student, god bless her, raised her hand. I paraphrase: “He was killed by the police and it caused the LA Riots.” I noted that, no, he did not die, but the second part of the statement was indirectly true. God bless technology in the classroom — I pulled up the grainy VHS-camcorder version of the video, as well as a transcript of the audio analysis presented at trial. We watched, and then talked a bit about the rioting following the acquittal of the LAPD officers at trial. They kept doing the blinking thing. I struggled to figure out what part of this relatively straightforward explanation had managed to confuse them.
“Are there questions? You guys look confused.”
Hand. “So he was OK?”
“He was beaten up pretty badly, but, ultimately he was. He died a few years ago from unrelated causes (note: in 2012).”
Hand. “It’s kind of weird that everybody rioted over that. I mean, there’s way worse videos.” General murmurs of agreement…
…This is a generation of kids so numb to seeing videos of police beating, tasering, shooting, and otherwise applying the power of the state to unarmed and almost inevitably black or Hispanic men that they legitimately could not understand why a video of cops beating up a black guy (who didn’t even die for pete’s sake!) was shocking enough to cause a widespread breakdown of public order…
…These kids have grown up in a world where this is background noise. It is part of the static of life in the United States. Whether these incidents outrage them or are met with the usual excuses (Comply faster, dress differently, be less Scary) the fact is that they happen so regularly that retaining even one of them in long term memory is unlikely. To think about Rodney King is to imagine a reality in which it was actually kind of shocking to see a video of four cops kicking and night-sticking an unarmed black man over the head repeatedly. Now videos of police violence are about as surprising and rare as weather reports, and forgotten almost as quickly once passed.
When I went to bed last night America was still one of the few countries incapable of electing a Hitler, a Mussolini or even (more aptly) a Berlusconi; America had mostly moved past –at least at the Federal level– apartheid as policy; America was also conservative enough to not elect as president a person who by their very presence would roil the markets1; America was still a country with common sense enough to not elect a narcissistic sociopath with a record of failed businesses and marriages trailing behind him, a man whose singular policy was to emotionally evoke a time when whites ruled and women and niggers knew their place.
When I went to bed America had an eye on the future.
When I awoke America appeared a failed democratic experiment, ready to deport or imprison anyone of color, regardless of legal status; America is now ready to stack SCOTUS with the justices to make the preceding (and much, much more) happen 2; America has decided to devolve in the face of impending demographic change, though that decision surely will not stop the coming tide.
I woke this morning to find that portion of America, the “I Told You Sos”, who after 8 years of a near hysteria at Obama’s presidency, had risen up their orange-tinted golem for one last tilt at inevitability.
It promises to be a bloody and ultimately futile four years. 3