Millions of words have been written about Donald Trump’s myriad defects as a president — his incompetence, ignorance, corruption, temperamental instability, and overall lack of fitness for one of the most intellectually demanding jobs on the planet.
But another aspect of the administration’s ineptitude — one that should anger his supporters even more than his critics — has nonetheless been neglected: the president’s utter failure to communicate with the country at large.
Word that Trump wants to address the nation on Tuesday evening about the government shutdown and need for a border wall shows that the president and/or his advisers might be aware of the problem. We have reason to doubt it will mark an enduring change of direction.
That Trump has chosen this occasion to request airtime on Tuesday evening is indicative of the larger problem.
Up to this point, the president has usually opted to communicate via 280-character tweets filled with venom and lies. They are aimed primarily at his most devoted supporters as well as his most unhinged critics. The former cheer on anything he says and does while the latter sputter in indignation with the same regularity. Everyone else is relegated to the sidelines to observe a form of reality-show political theater that doesn’t really concern or involve them.
A primetime address to the country promises something different — an actual effort at persuasion, at molding and shaping public opinion. Yet Trump’s decision to use the bully pulpit to defend his intransigence on the government shutdown and the more than $5 billion he is demanding of Congress to fund his border wall is not promising. The wall is Trump at his most demagogic. His voters love and demand it. Just about everyone else hates it. That gives us reason to suspect the speech will take the form of an extended tweet — rallying his supporters and antagonizing the rest of the country. On this issue, there may be no alternative.
Far smarter would be a primetime presidential address devoted to explaining and justifying the other controversial policy initiative of the past few weeks: the president’s decision, announced in mid-December (naturally) on Twitter, to withdraw American troops from Syria (and possibly Afghanistan as well). That change of direction sparked a conflagration of hostile coverage and the resignation of Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and it has culminated in Trump’s own national security advisor (John Bolton) appearing to contradict the president.
This extraordinary display of turbulence and confusion on matters of war and peace certainly warrants a presidential address, if for nothing else than to clarify exactly what we are doing. Is the U.S. pulling out of Syria now? In a few months? Or in a few or more years? Has the U.S. defeated ISIS, as Trump stated in his initial tweets announcing the withdrawal? Or does more work remain to be done? If so, how much? And how long will it take? And what about the stories about halving American forces in Afghanistan? Are they true? Or not? And if they are, when will the draw-down commence?
But such clarification, however important, is just the absolute minimum that the president owes the country. It would be far better for Trump to acknowledge that his desire to pull back from our military involvement in Syria and Afghanistan (and perhaps Libya and Yemen and Somalia and Niger?) involves a significant shift in U.S. strategy throughout the Greater Middle East and maybe the world. Yes, the president sometimes spoke in both vague and sweeping terms on the campaign trail about favoring such a change, but in typical Trump fashion, it was usually done in blunt, ill-informed, deliberately inflammatory ways, completely lacking in an effort to persuade the unpersuaded.
The time has come to change that. If the president actually hopes to buck the forces that favor the status quo — including the foreign policy establishments of both parties, the bureaucracies of the Pentagon and intelligence community, and the broader military-industrial complex, which has expanded enormously since 9/11 — he will need to rally public opinion to his side.
Unlike the border wall, which is a stunt that Trump has been forced to fight for because of an ill-conceived campaign promise, powerful arguments can be marshaled to defend a change of foreign policy direction, despite the best effort of those who oppose such a shift to discredit these arguments. They are arguments rooted in realism and restraint, in the belief that using military force to attempt to exert control over vast swaths of the globe does not further American interests, and in the conviction that it’s foolish to suppose that we must transform the countries of the world into liberal democracies in order to get along and avoid conflict with them.
More specifically, these arguments presume that it makes little sense for the U.S. to pick sides in a multi-front, morally muddled civil war in Syria — an ethnically fractious Russian client state over 5,000 miles away whose borders were drawn by colonial powers with little regard for long-term political viability. They also presume that it makes even less sense for the U.S. to continue fighting an intractable war in Afghanistan that is now in its 17th year.
Are there arguments against these positions? Of course there are — and many more arguments to be made in response. So far, the president hasn’t even begun to make any of them. If he doesn’t want his presidency to end in utter failure, with his stated policy preferences in multiple issue areas not only defeated but thoroughly discredited, he and his advisers need to begin doing the work of making the case.
The topic for Tuesday night appears to be taken. The White House would be well-advised to pick another evening soon to begin its long-overdue work of persuasion.