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There May Be an Innocent Explanation for Trump’s Helsinki Fiasco: Sheer Stupidity

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President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive for a press conference after their meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, July 16, 2018.
President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive for a press conference after their meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, July 16, 2018.Credit: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

President Donald Trump had a week from the movies. He was cast as Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho, the half-wit gangster from "Idiocracy" who reigns in the future over a dumbed-down America. Trump also conjured up James Dale, played by Jack Nicholson, the U.S. president in "Mars Attacks!" who brings destruction to America because he insists that the invading Martians are peaceful, even though they’re clearly not. Trump’s performance also brought to mind "Dr. Strangelove," "Apocalypse Now" and, needless to say, "The Manchurian Candidate."

The U.S. president was a train wreck in Europe, an embarrassment in Helsinki, an object of ridicule in his efforts to clean up the mess and a fountain of consternation and confusion in his revolving positions and self-contradicting statements. His performance left America breathless and helpless.

By the by, Trump managed to tie his own weekly record for most mistakes, misstatements and falsehoods - the Toronto Star counted 57 - including his claim that the U.S. provides 90 percent of NATO’s funding (it’s actually 22 percent), that Russia provides 60-70 percent of Germany’s energy (more like 7-9 percent), that he didn’t insult Britain’s Theresa May (he did), that, in his honor, the queen reviewed her first military guard in 70 years (she does so on a regular basis) and in his particularly peculiar branding of Montenegro as an “aggressive” nation unworthy of NATO protection (they last fought in the Yugoslav wars of the early '90s, and before that, in World War II). And that’s a modest sampling.

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Trump said he was surprised by the negative reactions to his servile appearance next to Vladimir Putin at the press conference in Helsinki; his surprise is surprising given his supposed acumen in reading American public opinion. Any reasonable observer could have told him that Americans won’t react kindly to a president who seems to be selling out to their country’s greatest foe. Trump was surprised again when his ludicrous after-the-fact “clarification” - that he said he saw no reason why Russia “would” intervene in the U.S. elections, when he meant “wouldn’t” - only made things worse. The correction was implausible given the context in which Trump uttered his words and in light of everything he’s said on the subject so far, but Trump nonetheless accused his critics of suffering from TDS - Trump Derangement Syndrome.

Some of the attacks from former top intelligence community officials, even if one accounts for their association with past Democratic administrations, were admittedly harsher than anything ever hurled at past presidents. Former CIA Director John Brennan said Trump’s behavior was “treasonous," his predecessor Leon Panetta opined that “the Russians must have something on him” and former White House counter-terrorism adviser Richard Clarke said that Trump was a “controlled Russian asset.” But many mainstream Republicans were also shocked, with usually sycophantic Fox News presenters lashing out at the president, describing his Helsinki performance as “shameful” and “disgusting.” One wonders if the breach with his media hinterland merits comparisons to Walter Cronkite’s critical February report on the faltering Vietnam War, to which President Lyndon B. Johnson is said to have reacted - though perhaps he didn’t - with the prescient observation: “If I’ve lost Walter, I’ve lost Middle America."

The hard nucleus of Trump’s base remained loyal, despite it all. An NBC poll conducted immediately after the Helsinki fiasco found that 71 percent of Republicans still approve of Trump’s handling of relations with Russia. Social media was awash with right-wing conspiracy theories about the complicity of Deep State, George Soros and scumbag Democrats in Trump’s travails, but even, allegedly, more serious people had to resort to superhuman contortion in order to justify their president. Vice President Mike Pence, who often seems to reside in an upside-down Bizarro World, said Helsinki proved that Trump was the leader of the free world. PJ Media’s D.C. McAllister suggested that Trump was laying it on thick on Putin to get his guard down. An improved, hyper-warped version of the same idea was offered by Mike Rounds, the Republican Senator from South Dakota, who said that Trump was playing mind games with Putin: When the Russian leader lied about the Kremlin’s intervention in the U.S. elections, Trump did him one better with an even bolder lie that he concurs.

President Donald Trump at a joint news conference with Russia's Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, July 16, 2018.Credit: Bloomberg

Naturally, the usual suspicions about the source of Trump’s obeisance were mentioned again, from his inferiority complex with strong leaders through the hundreds of millions of dollars he allegedly owes Russian oligarchs - one explanation for his refusal to release his tax returns - to the infamous "pee pee tape" from a Moscow hotel, the existence of which Putin pointedly refused to deny. Above them all is the dark cloud of the ongoing Robert Mueller probe, which is supposed to determine whether and how much Trump was involved in any collusion between his campaign staff and Russia’s GRU military intelligence unit.  

Stupid is as stupid does

But therein lies the rub. If Trump really owes Putin, and certainly if he is a Kremlin stooge, as many Democrats asserted this week, why does he go to such lengths to prove it? Why does he make such an effort to look like he’s guilty? Trump refuses to say a bad word about the Russians. He ignores the Kremlin’s crimes and belittles its sins, spouts fulsome praise at strongman Putin, does his best to undermine the Mueller investigation and freely admitted that he fired FBI Director James Comey because of the Russian probe. Even Putin, who knows a thing or two about handling moles from his time at the KGB, appeared ill at ease with Trump’s overstated fawning. He emphasized ongoing U.S.-Russian disagreements and vouched that Trump really doesn’t trust him one bit.

This is an additional explanation for Trump’s conduct on Russia and in general: There is no explanation. No logic. No method in the madness. A year and a half after taking office, Trump still ignores advice, refuses to learn, acts on impulse, says one thing yesterday, another today and something completely different tomorrow, sees molehills as mountains and interprets criticism as a nefarious plot. He continues to assume that he can solve complex international problems by word of mouth alone, from North Korea’s nuclear program through Russia’s subversion and aggression to peace, unfortunately, in the Middle East. Israelis may view Trump’s nixing of the Iran nuclear deal, the transfer of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and his obvious disdain for the Palestinians as a profile in wisdom and courage, but most of the world views Trump’s unqualified support for Benjamin Netanyahu as being in lockstep with Trump’s ongoing march of folly.

The possibility that Trump isn’t the brightest bulb in the box would bear out Occam’s razor, which says that the simplest solution is usually the right one. A perfection of this principle, recently dubbed Hanlon’s razor was voiced by Napoleon as well: ”Never attribute to malice that which can be explained by incompetence.” And then there’s “Trump’s Razor” formulated last year by Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo, which states that when there are several explanations for the president’s conduct, the stupidest one is true.

Trump, of course, believes he’s the smartest. “My IQ is one of the highest," he tweeted in 2013. Since then he has asserted that he’s smarter than George Bush, Barack Obama, Jon Stewart and even the entire editorial staff of the Washington Post. Last year, social media fans claimed that Trump’s IQ is 156, which would make him a genius. They based their findings, among other things, on Trump’s graduation from the prestigious Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, although some reports suggest he was accepted, in the middle of his studies, by virtue of his acquaintance with an admissions officer, as well as his family’s wealth.

In any case, Trump’s narcissistic boasts of his great intelligence and superior abilities only strengthen suspicions that the opposite is true. Psychology’s Dunning-Kruger Effect stipulates that the less competent have an inverse appreciation of their talents. As philosopher Bertrand Russell put it, “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt." Only stupid people, after all, think they know everything and everyone else know nothing. They are incapable of taking advice and accepting criticism. Sound familiar?

Trump’s acolytes will point to his business experience and undeniable success in getting himself elected in November 2016, but intelligence, in the usual meaning of the word, may have nothing to do with it. Trump may have basic instincts and even emotional intelligence that allow him to go for his rivals’ jugular, to zero in on his voters’ fears and wishes and to manipulate them accordingly, but even that trait seemed diminished this week in light of inability to forecast the adverse reaction to his hell in Helsinki. In one of the more renowned essays on the subject, entitled "The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity," the late Italian economic historian Carlo Cipolla ruled that stupidity can exist independently of any other trait.

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin after a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, on July 16, 2018.Credit: AFP

Stupidity, Cipolla asserted, has immense power: Intelligent people tend to underestimate its prevalence and are often helpless in fighting it. Acts of stupidity are powerful because, by definition, they are illogical, unreasonable and unexpected. The third of the five basic laws of stupidity outlined by Cipolla defines a stupid person as one “who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.” On the assumption that Putin doesn’t really own Trump, it’s an accurate description of the president’s achievements over the past week.

Cipolla had another formula, which seems sadly pertinent to Israel as well this week, after the Knesset passed a series of superfluous, damaging and downright dumb laws, from the nation-sate bill to the tax exemption for Netanyahu’s already state-funded expenses. All countries have plenty of stupid, Cipolla notes, but in those that are on an upward tick there is an abundance of intelligent people at the top while in those that are on their way down, there is a preponderance of idiots calling the shots. A regime controlled by stupid people even has a name: not idiocracy but, believe it or not, kakistocracy, in which the corrupt, the incompetent and the brainless are in control. The word comes from the 17th century, was revived in recent years and reached a new zenith of popularity after Trump became president. Rightly so, judging by this week. 

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