This is it. Tomorrow, January 20, is Inauguration Day in the United States, and you know what that means. Donald Trump will change his acronym from PEOTUS to POTUS. With that title go other titles like Commander in Chief, and unofficial ones like "leader of the free world."
Let's see if he comes to deserve them. President Barack Obama famously said "words matter," so let's see if Mr. Trump, once he starts signing his name on White House stationery, can think before he tweets, or can link words to consequences.
Robin Wright in the New Yorker, writing about her conversations with diplomats in Washington trying to interpret Trump for their capitals, presents their dilemma: “Every day I send back the same cable saying, ‘We don’t really know’" what to make of Trump's pronouncements. Friends are confounded and dumbfounded, foes can't believe their dumb luck.
How can you lead anything, like NATO for example, when you call the organization both "obsolete" and "important" in the same sentence?
When I wrote on November 9, the day after the 2016 presidential election, that we needed to bone up on our history books (especially one about the upset election by a minority German vote-getter who came to power in 1933), many readers wrote to share their concerns.
One referred to the next four years as the "new season of Presidential Apprentice," and several had awakened thinking that it was all a nightmare (see Nicolas Vadot's nice "Nightmare before Christmas 2016" dedication on my copy of his book). Some admitted to crying, they were so distraught at this hard-right turn in American politics. An Englishman, talking to Brexiteers who expressed solidarity with Trump voters, said he felt like a liberal in Munich in the 1930s. And from Germany, someone who saw Stephen Bannon, the "alt-right" presidential counselor, as "the American Julius Streicher," the rabid anti-Semite who was judged at Nuremberg. My book review apparently wasn't the only reminder of analogies with the dangers of the 1930s: Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here, his 1935 novel on the rise of a crass, nativist populist in America, sold out on Amazon after the November 2016 election.
Only one reader (not an American voter) thought I had gone too far in the 1932-2016/Germany-US comparison. He felt that Trump had some useful observations on the dangers of globalization, and on improving relations with Russia (more on that below). Another, an American historian of 20th century Europe, took solace in the "checks and balances" in America that didn't exist in Thirties Germany.
Now, on those potential safeguards, a word of caution: given the collection of Trump appointees to head agencies and departments that they have a proven record of opposing (Rick Perry, named to the Energy Department, famously said he wanted it abolished - but couldn't remember its name), and the unseemly speed to confirm them before they even complete vetting procedures, can anyone seriously believe that his own party will provide checks and/or balance? Despite winning a minority of the popular vote, Trump shows no inclination whatsoever to govern cautiously. On the contrary, he sees his Electoral College victory as a landslide, and he and his party are pushing full steam ahead on ramming through appointees and policies that often are the antithesis of his own supposed "populist" campaign blather. I would truly like to know if those who chose to regard Trump's election with equanimity have been reassured by anything he's said or done in the past two months.
And on that Russia thing... can anyone, given the overwhelming evidence of Russian meddling in the American presidential elections, still believe that Trump can be trusted to foster American interests - NATO and Western security - when dealing with Russia? The man never misses a chance to praise Putin, for God's sake. And Trump puts him on a par with Angela Merkel - seriously?
This may upset the reader who objects to my Thirties analogies, but there was another politician back then who promised great things: "Give me four years, and you will not recognize Germany." We know how that ended.
Be careful what you ask for.