Ethics & Public Policy Center

Trump’s Chaos Theory

Published in The Wall Street Journal on November 16, 2018


The moods of Donald Trump are tactical—situational, improvisational, existential, like jazz: riffs, memes, fake news, constant motion.

He operates as if he had carved out a unique dimension of invulnerability, like the Ghost Dancers of the Lakota, or the Chinese in the Boxer Rebellion who claimed they were immune to bullets. Such an illusion can be fatal, but it disconcerts Mr. Trump’s enemies and gives him a crazy sort of freedom.

The Lakota warriors and the Boxers were disabused soon enough. Mr. Trump was a little bit disabused by the midterm elections, but the damage was so much less than it might have been that he bragged about it.

Still, one imagines it is time for Mr. Trump to do what he does well in his practice of both entertainment and politics—time to change the tempo and maybe the narrative.

If he cannot alter his behavior—or sees no need to do so—he might introduce new plotlines. The 19th-century French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon laid down the principle that prevails in Mr. Trump’s instincts: “The fecundity of the unexpected far exceeds the prudence of statesmen.” President Nixon went to China. It did not save him in the short run—he had to resign because of Watergate—but it gave him a measure of redemption in the history books.

If Donald Trump were inclined to think historically, he might reflect on the solution that Henry IV hit upon after eight bloody religious wars between Catholics and Protestant Huguenots in France between 1562 and 1598. Some three million people are said to have died.

In a stroke of conciliatory genius, Henry, a Protestant, converted to Catholicism: “Paris is worth a mass,” he is supposed to have said. Later he signed the Edict of Nantes, which granted concessions to Huguenots and damped sectarian fires. What resulted was not the peaceable kingdom, but at least the French gave up the practice of religious massacre for a time.

America’s present division, Trumpians vs. progressives, is essentially sectarian; the country is divided between two religions. “All right we are two nations,” the novelist John Dos Passos wrote in his “U.S.A.” trilogy when considering the Sacco-Vanzetti case, which split the country in the 1920s. “Two nations” is not necessarily a bad thing. America has generally expanded its idea of itself, and broadened its democracy, by struggling through conflicts of its contending faiths, value systems and ethnic components: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. It is as if the country came with an embedded scheme of binaries—colonial revolutionaries vs. loyalists, immigrants vs. nativists, whites vs. blacks, old Eastern elites vs. Western Jacksonians, North vs. South, rural vs. urban, wets vs. dries, labor vs. management, and so on—that had to be fought over and resolved.

At the Democratic convention in 1936, Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke of his enemies in the business and financial world as “economic royalists.” “I welcome their hatred!” he said later. It was French Revolution talk—Roosevelt as Robespierre. A president could not speak more divisively than that. Yet arguably Roosevelt saved capitalism. After that, it was not FDR but Pearl Harbor, a brilliant but ultimately fatal outside-the-box gesture by the Japanese, that led to the end of the Depression and united the badly divided Americans in a titanic war.

There always seems to be a thesis (French Catholics, say) and an antithesis (Huguenots) and then, in the course of events, a synthesis (Henry’s conversion and the Edict of Nantes). Sometimes the synthesis is a long time coming—as has been the case with race in America.

But Mr. Trump is not Henry IV. Synthesis is not his way. He does not yet grasp that his compulsion to create chaos—sometimes an asset—may ultimately prove to be the greatest threat to his presidency.

People are either conciliators or confrontationists. Mr. Trump is a confrontationist. He will not kneel at the altar of the progressives’ church—nor will he betray the faith of those who sustain him, those widely derided as “the base” by progressives who half-consciously invest the word with its second meaning: low and degraded. Mr. Trump is sustained by the base; progressives are the exalted ones.

Henry IV became a Catholic only after decades of religious civil war in France. It’s possible that America’s religious wars are only starting, and that the Edict of Nantes is a long way off.

Mr. Trump’s game, meantime, is agitation: dancing into and out of conflict, making his own rules. The self-generated and manically inner-directed drama gives him energy, and above all it gives him that freedom to act—a freedom that his enemies consider dangerous to the Constitution and the country, but that his supporters find both satisfying and productive.

He has the 2020 re-election campaign to think of now, and he has Robert Mueller, still maneuvering out there beyond the radar. Mr. Trump presumably means to stick with the style of vivid effrontery that has brought him this far.

In President Trump, we behold an evolving dilemma. Americans—whatever their cultural divisions—will yearn increasingly for an end to the craziness and for a different, calmer personality in the White House. But Mr. Trump can never betray himself by becoming a normal human being. There are three possibilities: He will transcend himself (and who knows what that would look like), or he will destroy himself, or he will somehow manage, through it all, to go on being Donald Trump.

Mr. Morrow, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a former essayist for Time.

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