One of the great myths about President Trump is that America’s enemies would fear him because he is predictably unpredictable. Trump himself stated during the campaign that he didn’t want to spell out general military strategy because he didn’t want to warn our enemies. “Douglas MacArthur, George Patton spinning in their graves when they see the stupidity of our country,” he stated during one of his debates with Hillary Clinton. And in April 2016, he stated: “We are totally predictable. We tell everything. We’re sending troops? We tell them. We’re sending something else? We have a news conference. We have to be unpredictable, and we have to be unpredictable starting now.”
Trump, the theory went, would certainly be unpredictable.
The theory gained credibility after Trump decided to fire a missile at a Syrian airbase in the aftermath of American intelligence reporting that Syrian President Bashar Assad decided to use weapons of mass destruction on Syrian civilians. It seemed he had the capacity to frighten our enemies — you never know what might set him off. That was a good thing: It left those who would challenge us in the dark as to where his triggers would be. If North Korean leader Kim Jong Un were to go too far, he might find himself on the wrong end of a cruise missile.
Now, it seems, Trump isn’t unpredictable. He’s absolutely predictable. He’s just unstable.
There’s a difference between unpredictability and instability. Unpredictability can be strategic. It can allow you to shift your moves in order to throw off your opposition. It means shifting your actual strategy and sticking with that new strategy. It’s a key component of any chess game: Do something different and throw your opponent off course.
Instability is different. Instability typically manifests as shocking initial action followed by utterly predictable regression to the norm. The unstable people you know may flare up occasionally, but they generally settle down in relatively short order. And we can often predict when they will become unstable: when they feel threatened, when they have an emotional response to something out of the ordinary.
That seems more like Trump.
His initial bursts of rage generally peter out until convenience dictates action. If there’s any massive blowback at all, he backs off. That’s why his treatment of Attorney General Jeff Sessions is actually damaging to America on foreign policy: It leads our enemies to believe they can willfully ignore Trump’s initial fulminations and then bet on cooler heads to prevail. It’s not a coincidence that Russia and North Korea are gradually upping the ante with Trump in the belief that Trump will talk tough and do little.
All of this means that Trump may have to do something truly unpredictable: take a hard stand. On the home front, that means restructuring his administration so that it looks more like a major corporation than a family business, with rules and chains of command. We can hope and pray that retired Gen. John Kelly provides some of that structure. On the foreign policy front, Trump will have to stand behind real consequences for bad actors.
If Trump continues to respond to situations with knee-jerk activity followed by grudging acceptance, he won’t live up to the promise he made: to unleash hell, in unpredictable but effective fashion, on the enemies of the United States should they violate our interests.
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