Remember the domino theory?
It didn’t have anything to do with the pleasant game of deploying spotted oblong tiles. Rather, it was a way to view the world that believed, once a nation became communist, its neighbors would also fall under the sway of Marx, Lenin, et al., working like an infection toward the good old U.S. of A.
The theory didn’t show much confidence in our own system. But it was enough to get 57,000 American soldiers killed in the 1960s and 1970s trying to stop one tiny Asian country, South Vietnam, from being absorbed by its communist neighbor, North Vietnam.
In the daily anguish that is the Trump administration, I’ve been using the Vietnam War as a touchstone, a reminder of how bad things aren’t, at least not yet. Because you might be forgiven, reading the analyses surrounding Trump’s first 100 days in office, for assuming that his administration represents some historic nadir of disaster in the realm of American mis-governance. Vietnam reminds us there are hells below this one.
Yes, it’s difficult to identify disaster aborning. Vietnam simmered for years. But Trump’s missteps tend to be utterly stillborn, and he has fallen into a regular pattern of initial zeal for the detestable — to ban Muslims, scrap health insurance for millions, build a nonsensical wall and, most recently, bankrupt the country giving tax breaks to the rich. Each folly in turn is thwarted by the heretofore lamented but now cherished diffusion of power and creaking inefficiency of American government: blocked by the courts, by rebellious fellow Republicans, by fierce local resistance.
Then Trump shrugs and moves on.
Despite this encouraging dynamic, there is much anxiety on the part of Trump’s foes, who decry his government as the most perilous band of incompetents ever to defraud their way into the presidency. Which it may be. But like the domino theory, the basic assumption — that bad leadership pushing bad policy will lead to bad results — is unproved.
John F. Kennedy was a savvy, dynamic president. Lyndon Johnson a crude but effective dealmaker. Richard Nixon, though unstable, was smart and experienced. Yet this trio of presidents sunk us in Vietnam then kept us there years after the disaster became plain. Not only snuffing out 57,000 American lives but creating a deep disillusionment with government that simmered for half a century and led to a mean-spirited and inarticulate TV carnival barker in the White House.
Perhaps it’s my inherent sunny nature, but I can’t help focus on what Trump hasn’t done. Not involving us in a bloody Asian land war is a low bar. But we’ve already dodged bullets to excuse a kind of hope. Had Congress gone ahead and approved billions we don’t have for a wall we don’t need, I would now be drawing your attention to the opening gong of doom: the United States drifting into Soviet-style dysfunction where truth gets murmured amongst the people reading the official lies. And maybe the steady erosion of having an amoral fraud in the highest office will drag us there.
Or maybe Trump represents the lancing of a boil, the airing of a poisonous and deep-rooted American pathology festering beneath our political landscape. The most significant thing about the Trump presidency is that 63 million Americans voted for him and most support him, still. Even the blindest has to, at some point, recognize their handiwork. For the rest of us, Trump is a master class, by negative example, in all that is valuable in life. Has Trump not illuminated the detestable smallness of bigotry? The weakness of nationalism? The importance of expertise and facts? Underscored the value of a free press? Humbled a sometimes haughty nation on the global stage? Is not the automatic worship of wealth even more ridiculous?
Americans sometimes pine for the unity felt immediately after 9/11. Trump is a daily mini-attack gathering and focusing the forces of America’s true self, rising to her fierce defense. Trump is making America great again though, of course, in nowhere near the way he or his flock imagines.Tweets by @neilsteinberg