Editorial: Trump’s mixed messages are all about showmanship
What does it say when President-elect Donald Trump invites Al Gore for a visit to talk about climate change on Monday, then on Wednesday nominates Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency? What does it say when he calls the president of Taiwan in a direct affront to China, and then says it was all just an off-handed phone call instigated by Taiwan — even if he knows that is an outright lie?
It says Trump believes in the value of sending mixed messages, of keeping his audience and opponents off-balance just enough to cause confusion and doubt as to what his real message and motive might be. It is a style of leadership that Trump used well in the Republican primary and the general presidential campaign against Hillary Clinton.
It is also a style of government that will require the American public to understand the full story, in order to sort truth from fiction — and to avoid the head-fakes if we are to grasp his objective.
Take a moment to consider both examples: On climate change, many Americans will remember that during his campaign Trump often said climate change was a hoax and dismissed the science behind it. Yet, with Trump’s recent meeting with Al Gore, former vice-president and Democratic presidential nominee in 2000 whose campaign focused on climate change and the need to reduce our carbon emissions, many Americans no doubt took that as a sign that Trump may be more “open-minded” about the reality of climate change than they initially thought and might take a reasonable stand. That very sentiment was reinforced by Gore’s comments after Monday’s meeting.
Most Americans are not familiar with Scott Pruitt, the Attorney General for the small state of Oklahoma — a state mostly known for its college football teams, and its oil and gas production. Pruitt is a name that will hit the headlines yesterday and today, and be forgotten tomorrow by most Americans. Trump knows that. Even though Pruitt is in the news this week for being one of the leading opponents of the measures put in place by President Obama to curb carbon emissions; even though as attorney general of Oklahoma he has sued the EPA for trying to impose measures on states and the oil and gas industry to reduce fossil fuel use; and even though he is a huge ally of the oil and gas industry, the majority of Americans will forget Pruitt’s background by next week after other news buries the significance of this week’s announcement.
Trump knows, however, that many Americans will remember that he talked to Al Gore, and that Gore came away from that meeting with positive things to say about how Trump might think about climate change. That will stick in people’s minds, even though nothing came of it. And conservatives likely will use the meeting with Gore, and perhaps even Gore’s initial optimism, to counter criticisms of Trump’s actions when Pruitt and Trump proceed to rollback federal efforts to limit carbon emissions. It was a carefully crafted play that allows Trump to show he has considered both sides.
The shenanigans around Trump’s call to Taiwan are more obtuse. First, Trump’s team dismissed the diplomatic affront to China by saying it was just a congratulatory call between two leaders. Next, he tried to pass the blame by saying he didn’t initiate the call, Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen did. More recently, news came out this week that detailed how former Kansas Republican Senator Bob Dole, now 93 and a Republican presidential nominee who lost to President Bill Clinton in 1996, had spent the past six months working as a lobbyist on improved ties with the U.S. and had arranged the call with Trump in a carefully orchestrated event. Dole and his firm earned $140,000 from May to October for the work, and Dole is paid a $25,000 per month retainer for lobbying work on Taiwan’s behalf.
Why would Trump purposely irk China with the phone call to Taiwan, then lie about its genesis, and finally have to own up to his own involvement and that of a paid Republican lobbying firm? Why would Trump purposely antagonize China and then criticize them for unfair trade practices and aggressive military moves? Does he really think he can intimidate China, a country that holds $1.157 trillion of U.S. debt — a third of the debt owned by foreign countries as of September 2016?
Why rebuke the nation’s One China policy, which was adopted in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter and embraced by every U.S. president since? Does Trump not think it’s a big deal?
The New York Times called the move “a striking break from nearly four decades of diplomatic practice (which) threatens to precipitate a major rift with China.” A front-page editorial in the overseas edition of China’s People’s Daily took Trump to task for the affront.
But to the average American voter this probably plays fine with them, and most don’t really see the reasoning behind what they might consider diplomatic nonsense. What many in the Rust Belt know is that China has taken a lot of jobs from them, and it’s about time we poked them a bit.
The fear is that for Trump it’s all about showmanship, that in his mind this is “the art of the deal” and he’ll simply back off or deny intent or try to explain it away if his gamble turns sour. Hopefully, China has a sense of humor and doesn’t respond by playing tough in response.
As for climate change and Pruitt’s appointment? Make no mistake that this is a direct assault on President Obama’s policies to reduce carbon emissions. And for anyone concerned about the environment, it’s a signal for an all-out war pitting America’s oil, gas and mining interests against those who want to support measures to reduce air pollution, reduce water degradation and reduce the harmful gases that are causing a warming climate, which are, in turn, melting glaciers, rising ocean levels and causing more severe storms and droughts throughout the world.
Even small actions from the president of the United States have consequences, and so does every cabinet appointment. Americans are in the early stages of learning how damaging those consequences can be — and learning how to detect Trump’s bull from his real intent.
Angelo S. Lynn