LONDON – With all the skill of an experienced arsonist, US President Donald Trump is preparing America for a firestorm. His actions have heightened insecurity, instability, and fear, while potentially making populations elsewhere in the world even more susceptible to political fire-starters. Voters in the United States who thought they were supporting the only capable firefighter around have been played.
But Trump has a knack for manipulating perceptions. To deflect attention from potentially incendiary policies, he launches baseless accusations against his supposed enemies – beginning with the media. Portraying negative coverage as "fake news" has helped Trump to distract from scandals big and small: his family's conflicts of interest, his dodgy business deals around the world, white supremacists among his senior staff, the rejection of ethics training for senior White House staff, and much else.
Perhaps the most prominent such scandal concerns the string of revelations tying Trump's administration to Russia, including the resignation of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn over "misleading" the vice president about the nature of his pre-inauguration conversations with Russia's ambassador to the US. When the charge of "fake news" proved inadequate to silence the whispers, Trump pulled out the big (still imaginary) guns, tweeting that former President Barack Obama had Trump Tower's "wires tapped" before the election.
Amid the bread and circuses, Trump continues along his path of demolition. His first proposed budget would slash funding for social programs, efforts to reduce drug use and trafficking, the arts, climate science, medical research, education, Meals on Wheels (food delivery for the elderly), financial assistance for low-income college students, the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, and much else. He is determined to eliminate environmental protections as well: one of his first major actions was to eliminate a rule restricting coal companies from dumping mining waste into streams. In the meantime, Trump will pursue his goal of drastically increasing defense spending, even as his policies put some members of US military families at risk of deportation.
Such moves are egregious, and companies must resist taking advantage of them, even if they seem to benefit the company in the short term. Board members and executives must remember that they are also parents, children, partners, and friends. They should fear a future of overwhelming pollution, inadequate education, poor working conditions, increasingly extreme weather events, geopolitical conflict, and the destruction of programs and policies created to build a safer, more secure, and more prosperous future for all.
Trump is no leader; he cannot create, only distract and destroy – and put his name on what others have built. That is also true of his proposed wall on the US border with Mexico, which will outshine all the buildings around the world – from Brazil to Indonesia – to which he has licensed his name. In size, scope, and fame, the wall will surpass the Hoover Dam and Mount Rushmore. No highway or airport named after a US president will come close. (The one thing on which Trump does not want his name is the Republicans' widely derided new health-care proposal, intended to replace Obama's signature Affordable Care Act.)
What's next? Perhaps Trump will follow the example of Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan's first president for life, and start renaming the months of the year, beginning with "Trumpuary."
The absurdity need not end there. Having already run roughshod over nepotism norms, why not, appoint his wife Vice President, as the presidents of Azerbaijan and Nicaragua have done. Or he could start marching around in a faux military uniform, made to his own specifications (by a Trump Organization subsidiary and manufactured in China, of course). He already visited an aircraft carrier in a bomber jacket and cap.
Not even Trump believes his own act. He certainly can't sustain it for long. His governance by id means that he will always reveal his true self, whether in the form of maniacal claims like those about being wiretapped, or when he reveals his true intentions by saying that his latest travel ban is just the old one watered down. So when does it all become too ludicrous? At what point will commentators stop gushing that Trump has finally become "presidential" every time he sticks to a script? When they will stop treating every raving tweet as part of a rational plan?
Trump's cohorts, many of whom are not accustomed to life in the spotlight, only make matters worse. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, for example, noting that he is "not a big media press access person," flies around the world without a press entourage – unsurprising for a former CEO of a multinational oil company, but highly unusual for the top US diplomat. And Tillerson cut short his trip to South Korea – in the midst of a growing crisis on the peninsula – due to fatigue (a reminder never to send a man to do a woman's job).
As Trump occupies himself with manipulating appearances and performances, the rest of the world is concerned about North Korea's nuclear and missile programs, the crisis in Syria, the Brexit negotiations, climate change, and the growing threat of starvation and famine in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan, and Nigeria. Against this background, the last thing the world needs is a volatile and unabashedly dishonest US president, much less one who likes to play with matches.
Lucy P. Marcus is CEO of Marcus Venture Consulting.
© Project Syndicate 1995–2017