Sorting out Trump’s crazy, false statements and those worthy of consideration

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Donald Trump delivering a foreign policy speech at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

Was I too hard on Donald Trump’s big foreign-policy speech? Or maybe too soft?

I came up in journalism in the days, where all the scribblers except a few columnists were expected to be “objective,” or — more honestly — to conceal their bias enough that they could defend themselves as unbiased. I could (but, I hasten to assure you, will not) go on at length about the strengths and weaknesses of that old-time religion, which has all-but collapsed. I was sick of it well before I escaped its bounds.

Still, it left in me a healthy long-term desire to treat respectfully facts and arguments with which I disagreed, but not to let that project prevent me from trying to describe a version of the truth as best I could discern it, to bring up contrary facts and to identify the strengths and weaknesses of an argument.

The buffoonish, obnoxious, grantee Mr. Trump long ago forfeited my respect (not that he cares, of course). He lies, he bullies, he brags, he threatens, he disrespects facts and logic. And yet he rises ever higher in the polls and ever closer in his quest for the presidency. To feign respect for him would be a lie, and I pretty much won’t do it. But I will continue to care about the differences between his lies and his truths, his crackpot ideas and those that might be worth discussing respectfully.

So then comes this speech, which was calmer, more serious and expressed a more rational version of how Trumpism would translate across the foreign and military responsibilities of the president. I’m not saying rational; I’m saying more rational than his normal debate and rally shtick. It brought out that old impulse to be something more open to contrary facts and arguments than an ideological attack dog.

I wrote what I wrote — no love song, but certainly an acknowledgment that he was working on his “presidential.” I called it “coherent,” which is a big step in the right direction for Trump, who seldom completes a grammatical sentence in his usual routine. And I rated his effort to set out policies to address the problems “hit and miss.” Faint praise, to be sure, but, after all, if we hold most political speech up to the highest standards of honesty and coherence, it falls short.

The morning after, I read a lot of vituperative attacks on the presentation. This one, by MSNBC’s Benjy Sarlin, headlined “Donald Trump’s Big Foreign Policy Speech Was a Mess,” as you might infer from the headline, is an across-the-board attack. Sarlin’s main argument was that Trump’s ideas were full of inherent contradictions. As in:

At one point early in his remarks, Trump threatened to outright abandon the nation’s bedrock alliances in Europe and Asia over a funding dispute.

“The countries we are defending must pay for the cost of this defense, and if not, the U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves,” Trump said. “We have no choice.”

He then pivoted, almost in the next breath, to complaining that President Obama had not reassured U.S. allies strongly enough that America would not abandon them.

“Our friends are beginning to think they can’t depend on us,” Trump said. “We’ve had a president who dislikes our friends and bows to our enemies.”

I don’t mean to make too big a deal Sarlin’s criticisms, or those of any critics of Trump. And I have no interest in holding up the speech as a logically airtight roadmap to peace and security. The inherent contradictions between some of Trump’s principles would be excellent fodder for follow-up questions as to how he reconciles the tension between wanting to reassure our allies that they can depend on the United States and also threatening to kick them out of NATO if they don’t carry their share of the financial cost of the alliance. Sure. But I gather it is true the United States pays a disproportionate share of the cost of the alliance and that many NATO countries, including some wealthy ones, pay less than the amount that the treaty agreement requires.

Is that OK? Is there a way to get them to pay more without threatening them with consequences? Is this an area where a famously hard-headed negotiator like Trump might be able to extract a better burden-sharing deal? I don’t claim to know, but I do wonder whether a certain logical tension between various sentences in a program like this really constitutes a “total mess.”

Trump’s central principle in the speech is that everything an American president does in the world should hold the concrete interests of the American people, their safety and their prosperity, as the top priority. That’s surely in some category of oversimplification, but is it a crazy rule of thumb? I guess not. It’s actually one of those things helps me understand some of Trump’s appeal.

Anyway, I was hard on Trump in my piece, in some ways. (I called him a liar and gave a very concrete, very relevant example, namely his false claim to have been an opponent of the Iraq War.) And I will be again. Somehow, without the benefit of any rules of objectivity to guide me, I guess I will reserve the right to note the difference between the crazy (“and I will make Mexico pay for it”) and false things (“ISIS is making millions of dollars a week selling Libyan oil,” which he said in his big Wednesday speech, and here’s Politifact’s writeup with a rating “false”) and other things that he might occasionally say that are at least worthy of consideration.

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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/29/2016 - 09:48 am.

    A good source

    of relatively neutral evaluations is

  2. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 04/29/2016 - 10:01 am.


    As incoherent as Trump’s foreign policy views might be, one thing is indisputable and that is, he didn’t vote to go to war in Iraq. There is a lot of rhetoric, a lot of bluster, but a basic foreign policy question all of us have to ask ourselves in the fall election is, “Which candidate is more likely to take us to war in the middle east?”

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 04/29/2016 - 10:20 am.

      You might consider the potential effect of having a president that has a very thin skin who believes that if someone does you wrong, you go after them in a bigger way.

      Might not that make for some interesting conflicts over relatively minor matters?

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/29/2016 - 12:15 pm.

      To vote to declare war

      One must first be elected.
      And of course we are already at war in the Middle East (we’re dropping bombs on people and paying other people to shoot at them).
      Agreed, Trump might first try to make a deal with ISIL — I’m not sure that this is a reason to vote for him.

    • Submitted by Brian Simon on 04/29/2016 - 03:56 pm.

      Indisputable, yet irrelevant

      He wasn’t in a position to vote for or against the authorization to use military force in Iraq, which makes it irrelevant as a point of reference for analyzing a potential President Trump. More relevant would be what proposals he makes. That limited sample leaves a keen observer to guess at what Trump means when makes contradictory statements (see above), or proposes something completely ridiculous (Mexico will pay for a wall).

  3. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 04/29/2016 - 10:05 am.

    Keep Up the Excellent Work!

    No, you were NOT too hard on Mr. Trump.

    I’m reminded of President Harry Truman’s response to being called “Give ’em hell, Harry.”

    “I just tell the truth on them and they think it’s hell.”

    You told the truth on Donald Trump.

    I have every confidence if similar truth is revealed concerning the Democratic candidate, you’ll do the same.

    Of course if you’re telling the truth about the Democrats, that automatically excludes anything being trumped (in the vulgar British sense of the word) on weasel news,…

    which never has and never will deliver the truth should their lives, or the life of our nation depend on it.

  4. Submitted by Jim Million on 04/29/2016 - 10:14 am.

    True “Debates”

    Scholastic debate training teaches participants to prepare and deliver both sides of a question: affirmative and negative. It seems very few people have this experience, at least not showing in their perpetual polarization or dogmatic rejection of alternate opinion.

    One need not believe both sides of a question; however, one should understand the premise and argument of each. Unfortunately, we have become a society of affirmation more than confirmation.

    Respect for all diversity, especially in opinion, is vital to problem-solving at any level.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/29/2016 - 12:17 pm.

      Scholastic debates

      put very little emphasis on being right;
      it’s how many ‘squirrel killers’ you can come up with.
      The payoff is how well you can support a case, whether it’s true or not.
      Bush/Cheney did well in Iraq by the standards of scholastic debate.

  5. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 04/29/2016 - 03:09 pm.

    Even a broken clock is right twice a day, the way Trump’s scattershot approach to any policy issue has a tiny moment of reasonableness to it, here and maybe there. By accident.

    The point is, though, that he simply hasn’t given any of the issues much thought. You can see that in the self-contradictions in his speech the other day on foreign policy, and in just about any interview he has given in the past ten to twelve months. He says he’s for, and then against, this or that. So at some point on the clockface, Trump has said something you or the other guy can agree with. He has it made, being all over the place. Like on the Iraq war. And he actually claims that our allies are going to trust HIM?

    Unthinking, though, and hotheaded to an extreme, this man Trump has never been pushed to coherence by the press. He blows his stack, threatens never to appear on their network/be interviewed by XYZ reporter, blusters and blows. And then tries to take it all back. And they let him get away with it. (Why does CNN insist on covering, wall-to-wall, every Trump campaign rally? They have made the rest of the world disappear from the news.)

    He’s a fake. A showman with no qualifications for the office he’s playing around with.

  6. Submitted by chuck holtman on 04/29/2016 - 05:19 pm.

    A hypothesis

    I’ve not cared about or followed Trump’s path thru the world, or paid much attention to anything he’s said the past six months, but it strikes me that perhaps he has operated in a very simplistic world: do the “art of the deal,” skim off the profits, leave some minions to manage, move on. In other words, he’s not had to have a coherent worldview, or think thru strategies or tactics within complicated systems involving many centers and forms of power, the need to manage relationships over time, or consequences and risks short- and long-term.

    Trump has said some things about trade and foreign policy that I consider quite more sound than the establishment viewpoint as expressed by the other Republican candidates and Ms Clinton. The blind squirrel, broken clock, Jesse Ventura thing. But I don’t consider them policies; I don’t believe he has in his head any coherent set of policies. They’re closer to stream of consciousness. If he were President, I expect his advisors would include a heavy dose of establishment figures, some nuts of the far right, and a few difficult-to-pigeonhole eccentrics. They’d propose generally neoliberal/corporatist policies, he’d bluster unpredictably, there’d be a lot of turnover, and that’s the way things would trundle along …

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 04/30/2016 - 11:24 am.

      Yup. Making money and doing deals is very different is very different than being the head of a government.

      Making big money/deals is based on betting on the unpredictable. When the metric is money, screwing over the guy on the other side of the table is one habit. Revenge on those who didn’t do what you want is another. Making sure everyone pays their own fair share (or even more than you) is another. Those describe Trump’s outlook petty closely.

      It would be interesting to see if any of the Trump supporter can point out where Trump has worked on a win/win deal, or the maximum benefit for the maximum number of people. Has he ever worked on anything where the gain of others was more important than his?

  7. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 04/29/2016 - 09:01 pm.


    With or without paying much attention to Mr. Trump, I’m inclined to believe that Mr. Holtman has hit upon an important point: “…he’s not had to have a coherent worldview, or think thru strategies or tactics within complicated systems involving many centers and forms of power, the need to manage relationships over time, or consequences and risks short- and long-term.” My (limited) experience with people who’ve come from wealthy, privileged backgrounds is very much in line with Holtman’s line of thought. When you have “people” to do mundane tasks for you, summarize events or issues for you, etc., it’s pretty easy to either stop thinking, or perhaps never develop much of a sense of intellectual curiosity in the first place. That’s one of the ways Trump strikes me – a “Bonfire of the Vanities” kind of guy who’s never really had to think very much or very hard about *consequences* beyond a quarterly earnings sheet, and when underlings do all the grunt work of figuring out what will work or not from the corporate earnings standpoint, why do all that brainwork yourself?

    Trump is perfect for the Medieval mindset of the fiefdom, lord and vassal, that characterizes not only the namesake time period, but much of the corporate world, whether here or in other societies, in the 21st century.

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