Analysis

Lauding Trump’s Decisions on Iran and Jerusalem Requires a Willful Suspension of Disbelief

Evangelicals and many Israelis refuse to see a connection between his tawdry personality and radical foreign policy moves

U.S. President Donald Trump after declaring his intention to withdraw from the JCPOA Iran nuclear agreement in Washington, U.S. May 8, 2018.
\ JONATHAN ERNST/ REUTERS

Bret Stephens wrote a column in the New York Times on Tuesday in support of U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to renege on the Iran nuclear deal. He described it as “courageous.” This is the same Stephens who has denounced Trump as a demagogue and deviant and everything in between. The same Stephens, who, in another column published in December, excoriated fellow conservatives for embracing Trump’s policies while ignoring his character.

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“This is the fatal mistake of conservatives who’ve decided the best way to deal with Trump’s personality — the lying, narcissism, bullying, bigotry, crassness, name calling, ignorance, paranoia, incompetence and pettiness — is to pretend it doesn’t matter,” Stephens wrote. But when it comes to the Iran nuclear deal, which Stephens fiercely opposed from the outset, the U.S. President is suddenly “courageous.”

Because of Trump’s decision to nix what Stephens describes as the “lousy” nuclear deal, he is willing to shelve his denunciation of the president’s tawdry personality. Moreover, he refuses to countenance the possibility that there might be a direct link between Trump’s countless personal flaws and his unilateral – and, for much of the world, dangerous - decision to abrogate the deal. For such a noble cause, Stephens discards his “Never Trumper” trademark and joins the ranks of those he criticized, those who betrayed his conservative ideals by supporting the president, despite his shortcomings.

Stephens, a hawkish writer of infuriating talent, will most likely return to denouncing Trump in short order. But what is likely to be an exception for Stephens is the general rule for many others. Trump supporters, in particular Evangelicals as well as an increasing number of Israelis, have learned to turn a blind eye to Trump’s glaring deficiencies because his policies seem to serve their purposes. As long as he’s doing the right thing, Trump’s perverted personality doesn’t seem to matter. The fact that he is a sexual predator who lies through his teeth on an hourly basis and barely knows anything about anything seems to pose no obstacle to adulating him as a “courageous” statesman, a hero of the Jewish people, God’s instrument in rebuffing evil, a champion of justice and peace on earth.

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English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the phrase that aptly describes such collective and willful blindness: “Suspension of Disbelief.” In the arts, it is defined as “a willingness to suspend one's critical faculties and believe something surreal; sacrifice of realism and logic for the sake of enjoyment.” As William Shakespeare’s chorus implores the audience in the prologue to Henry V,

“Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide on man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth;
For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings.”

To adulate the president, as Evangelicals and many Israelis do, requires a similar leap of faith. One must believe that there are actually two Trumps that have no connection with each other. It is to assume that his offensive nature, impulsive outbursts, propensity for dishonesty and disregard for facts have no bearing on his actual policy decisions. Those are being made, it seems, by a completely different Trump, a brave, clear-minded and calculating statesman who knows right from wrong and can be trusted to lead the U.S., and with it the world, to a better and safer future.

The same dichotomy ostensibly existed in Richard Nixon. Even when his supporters were forced to acknowledge that the president is probably a crook, they continued to extol his sound policies and international statesmanship. History’s final judgment, however, was harsher: For most Americans, Nixon’s name is now inextricably linked to Watergate and cover-ups rather than achieving detente with the Soviet Union or opening the door to China. And Trump, to paraphrase the late Democratic Senator Lloyd Bentsen’s zinging rejoinder to Republican Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice-presidential debate, is no Nixon.

Conniving and dishonest as he may have been, Nixon’s monumental foreign policy achievements were based on his vast experience, immense knowledge and cautious and calculating approach to international affairs. Trump, at best, is working on gut instinct. And while Nixon’s contribution to world peace and stability are indisputable, the jury is still out on Trump’s latest decisions, and probably will be for some time to come.

Without suspension of disbelief, it’s hard to imagine that Trump’s decision to abrogate the Iran nuclear deal was based on a thorough examination of the advantages and disadvantages of the agreement itself. In fact, it’s hard to image that he’s even read the actual text of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, let alone grasped its intricacies. Trump’s spiteful jihad against Barack Obama’s legacy, his blind devotion to fulfilling his campaign promises and his delight in upsetting the apple cart and confounding the world are far more plausible motivations.

The same is true of Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, another bold and “courageous” decision that was based more on audacity for audacity’s sake – and a will, possibly, to please his pro-Israel donors - than on any deep deliberation on the pros, cons or potential repercussions for Middle East peace or Israel’s wellbeing.

Trump, instead, is flying by the seat of his pants, an expression that was apparently coined after the famous 1938 flight of pilot Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan who wanted to fly from New York to California but wound up in Dublin instead. Corrigan blamed his mistake on a navigational error, but at least he landed safe and sound. Trump is also flying without a compass, but it’s still anyone’s guess whether he’ll reach his destination, wind up somewhere completely different or crash his aircraft, with passengers on board. Those who trust his instincts won’t stop believing—they won’t even look out their windows— but everyone else will just have to pray.