PARIS—British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson thought he was speaking off the record about the bull rampaging through the china shop of the fragile international order.
“I am increasingly admiring of Donald Trump,” Johnson told a closed meeting with fellow Tories a few days ago, unaware his remarks would be recorded and leaked. “I have become more and more convinced that there is method in his madness.”
Johnson, who’s been known for his own farcical antics and rhetorical bombshells, wondered aloud what would happen if Trump was running the Brexit negotiations with the European Union: “He’d go in bloody hard… There’d be all sorts of breakdowns, all sorts of chaos. Everyone would think he’d gone mad. But actually you might get somewhere. It’s a very, very good thought.”
Almost 17 months into the Trump presidency, even among world leaders once appalled by his pathological narcissism and aggressive ignorance, a certain level of acceptance has taken hold. To be sure, they once hoped the madness could be managed, but those days clearly are over. The “adults” in the Trump administration have mostly been expelled. Those who remain are letting Trump be Trump. And he’s having a ball. So the questions that are posed in the wider world are about isolating his craziness, enduring it, or like Boris Johnson embracing the madness as if it were just a game, a shrewd negotiating ploy.
In a provocative and prescient article published only a couple of weeks after the inauguration last year, psychologist David B. Feldman asked in Psychology Today, “Will we all just get used to Trump?” And, yes, despite continued talk of “the resistance,” that is exactly what’s happening at all levels of society.
“One of the oldest and most predictable phenomena observed by psychologists is habituation,” Feldman wrote. It is “the tendency of almost all organisms—from amoebas to human beings—to cease to respond to a stimulus after it has been repeated over and over.” He noted that “unlike past administrations that took controversial actions occasionally, with enough time between for the public to recover, the current White House does so continuously, on a seemingly minute-to-minute basis. Such repeated events create the perfect conditions for habituation to occur.”
Many in the public may simply tune out, but heads of state and senior policymakers cannot do that, so confusion continues to reign, and that’s what we saw at the G7 on Friday and Saturday. It’s very likely that’s what Trump intended, which is crazy like a fox, or just crazy. Or conceivably both.
It’s as if seven people went to a club to play poker, and one of them, the richest, threw the deck in the air and announced they would play 52 pick-up instead. Everybody else in the room knows that this is nuts. They also know that for better or worse, they have to live with it. But maybe they won’t invite him back.
Amid headlines about tariff disputes, a basic fact is lost. The so-called Group of Seven “most industrialized countries in the world” is not just a club for the rich, but for leaders who traditionally assumed they shared the same basic values: belief in empirical facts, fundamental human freedoms, sacrosanct democratic processes, and the rule of law. All of which is to say it’s a club where Trump doesn’t fit in. He has shown he shares none of those values. Indeed, from the question of climate change to his dealings with Russia, he’s unapologetically hostile to them.
When French President Emmanuel Macron talked regretfully about making the G7, in fact, G6 plus one, he was essentially recognizing the fact that Trump doesn’t belong.
“The American President may not mind being isolated, but neither do we mind signing a 6 country agreement if need be,” Macron tweeted going into the summit. “Because these 6 countries represent values, they represent an economic market which has the weight of history behind it and which is now a true international force.”
So, what does Trump do when he comes across a club that doesn’t want him as a member? He starts his own. (Ask people in Palm Beach.) That may be what he had in mind when, as he set off for his hit-and-split visit to the G7 in Canada, he shouted to the press the need to bring Russia back into the group as “the G8.”
In fact, Russia never had a place there. Its economy by comparison with the G7 countries is insignificant, on a par with Australia’s. It was brought into the “G8” in 1997 as a gesture in hopes post-Soviet Russia would embrace, yes, the values of the G7. By 2014, under Vladimir Putin, that clearly was not the case: Putin seized Crimea, annexed it, and launched a war in eastern Ukraine that has cost more than 10,000 lives, including hundreds of innocents killed on a Malaysian airliner shot down by one of Putin’s anti-aircraft missiles. That’s why Russia was expelled from the G8, and that’s why it won’t be invited back.
But Trump is comfortable with Putin. He has made that more than clear. And he is comfortable with China’s Xi Jinping, whom he likes to call “my good friend.” Perhaps coincidentally, Putin and Xi met in Beijing on the eve of the G7, acting like besties, and signing $3 billion worth of nuclear energy deals. Would Trump have preferred to be there rather than in Canada? Very likely.
As Trump checked out of the G7 early, ostensibly so he could head off to Singapore for his “hot date with Kim Jong Un” (in the words of World Politics Review’s Judah Grunstein), the impression lingered that he was much more at ease with the tyrants who are America’s adversaries than with the leaders of the countries that have been its closest allies for the last 70 years.
In a parting shot that was just as implausible as the suggestion Russia be brought in from the cold, Trump said the G7 should do away with all tariffs. As the Financial Times reported, that left the other leaders “flummoxed.” This especially at a time when Trump has been promising to tax all German cars off the streets of the United States, even though most are assembled there in plants that employ tens of thousands of people in South Carolina, Tennessee, and Alabama…
Here’s the thing, nobody expects Trump to be rational anymore. And few people really believe this madness will end any time soon. Crazy as it sounds, the world is just getting used to him, and while Trump’s counterparts scramble for answers, the rest of us are left searching for a way to be, in the classic line from Pink Floyd, “comfortably numb.”
Reporters, including those on Air Force One en route to the Kim Jong Un summit in Singapore, were told that the United States would sign the G7's anodyne joint declaration. But no. Trump went into a rage aboard the plane, apparently after watching a press conference held by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the conclusion of the summit, which Trump had not bothered to attend.
There are two basic issues here.
One is about Canada's dairy tariffs, which are definitely protective and have grown worse for U.S. farmers after Canadian regulators moved to close a huge loophole. The Globe and Mail published a very useful explainer a few weeks ago.
The other issue is the judgment — and indeed the sanity — of a President of the United States who would publicly rebuke one of his country's closest allies with tweets like this:
and this ...
At a dinner with journalists in early March, before the announcement that he would indeed meet with North Korea's leader, Trump addressed the question of what it would be like to negotiate with a person reputedly as crazy as Kim.
“As far as the risk of dealing with a madman is concerned, that’s his problem, not mine,” Trump said.
The line was reported as a joke.