One of the hard parts about understanding Trump is whether he is just not very bright, incredibly lazy or just doesn’t care. Of course, these are not mutually exclusive categories. But I got to thinking about this after it came out during his VP nominee’s speech that Trump had an interview with the NYT on foreign affairs, and he said stupid/ignorant stuff on NATO. Is Trump’s incompetence deliberate and strategic, or just a product of a man who does not care, is lazy, and perhaps not that smart?
Some folks are thinking that Trump doesn’t want to win so most of his strange/dysfunctional/self-destructive actions/stances are purposeful because he does not care about the consequences. I don’t really buy this since the man’s ego is, um, fragile, and drives much of what he does, and losing would be a blow to that ego, even if he can then blame everyone else (Trump never takes responsibility). Still, not caring is definitely on the table.
How about lazy? A Presidential candidate usually studies a bit before doing an interview, and this deep in the campaign should know some basic stuff about NATO and its members. If Trump is only willing to have the US defend those that meet NATO obligations, then Estonia would be ok if the focus is on spending (at the 2% of GDP but Latvia/Lithuania are short), and all three would be deserving of defense if one factors in their Afghanistan performance. Each country deployed a significant number of troops. Latvia had the second highest percentage of troops deployed to available troop, and the ratios of the other two were greater than France’s.* In terms of what they did, these countries sent contingents that were, in general, far more flexible than much of Europe, leading to significant prices being paid–Estonia lost the second highest number of troops per capital, Latvia was seventh, and Lithuania was in the middle of the pack.** One does not have to read my stuff to figure this out, but just do the basic homework. Ah, but Trump doesn’t do homework as that would require … work.
How about dumb? Trump should know that the majority of the American public, even if it does not care that much about foreign policy during elections, supports NATO and the American commitment to its allies. That Hillary Clinton’s campaign is centered on the idea that he is unqualified to be President, so why give her more fodder? That his party is already riven with cleavages, so why give folks leaning #neverTrump to take the next step? At this point, Trump needs to move beyond his base, and this kind of stance does not do it at all.
Back to not caring, perhaps Trump doesn’t care because he has other interests in mind. Yes, it is pretty far out there to name Trump a fellow traveler of Putin, a dupe of our adversary. But the evidence keeps rolling in–the economic ties, the background of his campaign manager, and the consistent stances Trump takes (a man who rarely takes consistent stances) about cutting breaks for Putin. The funny thing about this is that eight years ago, the GOP made a big stink that Obama had some kind of links to a long irrelevant domestic terrorist (Bill Ayres).
These days, much of the GOP seems not to care that its candidate actually supports the views of one of the most significant adversaries to American interests. Where is the House Un-American Activities Committee when you need it? Trump’s supporters throw around the words “traitor” and “treason” quite carelessly, but giving aid and comfort to the enemy may best describe what Trump’s positions are when it comes to NATO and Putin. Yes, I went there. Not that I am calling for Trump to be shot, unlike Trump’s Veterans advisor, just that he should not get any votes from anyone who cares about America’s place in the world, not to mention the security and stability of Europe (and Asia and Latin America and Africa…).
Stephen Saideman is a Fellow and the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, and the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs