Trump meets with Chinese president
Credit: The White House/Flickr

Donald Trump has the understanding of a moderately bright 2nd grader when it comes to world affairs. And that may be giving him too much credit.

Consider what the President of The United States said this morning:

For most rational people, this sort of thing is mindboggling. The world is changing rapidly, and the economic currency of the day is technology and information. This is followed by finance and service work, and only from there by raw manufacturing. Countries that rely primarily on manufacturing may temporarily run trade surpluses, but in today’s globalized economy they are immediately undercut by less wealthy developing nations once domestic wages begin to rise. Developing countries like China that have risen in power through manufacturing know that they cannot sustain a burgeoning middle class on it, and are rapidly trying to become a leader in fields such as green energy and artificial intelligence in order to stay ahead of the curve.

Much of the battle within the left in developing countries rests on how to manage the economic shocks among displaced workers in response to these realities: some want to retrench with protections designed to reinvigorate these industries despite automation and global competition (we might call this paleoliberalism); some want to retrain workers for what they perceive to be the private sector technology jobs of the future (neoliberalism); and others want to bypass the storms of the increasingly unjust, amoral and capricious private sector job market entirely by pushing for guaranteed government jobs programs and universal safety net guarantees (progressivism). The right, by contrast, veers between pretending that unfettered capitalism will magically solve everything (traditional right), and instituting a mishmash of policies designed only to protect native ethnic male workers at the expense of immigrants, women and the marginalized (alt right).

But Trump lacks even the basic grounding in reality to belong to any of these factions–not even the alt-right. His lack of a sense of direction even toward that end was primarily responsible for his falling out with Steve Bannon, who grew increasingly frustrated with his inability to keep the president in a coherent ideological framework. Trump is just an overgrown 8-year-old playing a simplistic dominance-oriented strategy game loosely based on world affairs.

Those who have played Sid Meier’s Civilization series of games (especially the early versions) will recognize Trump’s reductionist approach to realpolitik: each “civilization”, be it the Greeks or the Aztecs or the Japanese, is a nation inhabited by a specific people with their own ethnicity and characteristics. There are many paths to winning, but few can be readily achieved without maximizing resource collection and construction capacity, while building massive armies to scare off the competition constantly seeking to take advantage of you and conquer you. This makes for fun and engaging gameplay for children and adults, but in a globalized modern economy it’s terrible geopolitics for the modern world.

In the real world of 2018, almost all developed nations are facing the same systemic problems: climate change and environmental crises forcing a rapid move away from fossil fuels; competition for low- and medium-skill labor from the global south, automation and online flattening causing economic disruption in all sectors; hyper-financialization causing asset prices to far outstrip the ability of wages to meet them; multi-national banks and corporations consolidating power beyond the capacity of nation-states to control them; and immigration patterns causing ethno-nationalist backlash in a time of perceived scarcity. Philosophically, each developed nation has to come up with attempted solutions to these problems according to their own cultural instincts, but realistically universal global challenges are going to require more cooperative than competitive global solutions.

The enemy isn’t other nations but rather the stateless plutocratic class eager to preserve their place at the top of a ziggurat of economic injustice, the inexorable combined environmental crises, and a growing, seething number of formerly comfortable ethnic majorities in developed nations who yearn for the former social and economic comforts of the post-war era and are willing to try to reclaim them through hideous means.

Trump doesn’t understand any of this. Frankly, far too many on the purported left don’t seem to grasp the severity of the situation, either, and the reality that incrementalism isn’t suited to the daunting tasks ahead or the radical solutions that will be required to navigate safely to port through these turbulent waters. The traditional right is still sticking their fingers in their ears, chanting magic ritual market incantations from Milton Friedman until the waves come crashing in overhead–which frankly isn’t much better than Trump, who at least pretends he’s defending someone from something.

It’s more than a little terrifying that developed nations face such enormous challenges requiring so many different uphill battles just to survive, only to have the most powerful country in the world governed by a dunce playing a zero-sum children’s game of statecraft.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.