‘Trump the Thucydidean’ — OK, yeah; I hear it…

Occasionally, I get a little glimpse into what Trump voters object to when they behold the folk they see as out-of-touch elites — particularly those whom their spiritual godfather George Wallace called “pointy-headed intellectuals.”

An interesting discussion came on “On Point” this morning, just as I was arriving at the office. I’m sorry I didn’t have time to listen to the whole thing. One of the guests was Graham Allison titled “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?” It’s about what may be the inevitable coming clash between these two behemoths, and you can hardly find a topic more important than that. Here’s an excerpt from a 2015 magazine article in which the author set out the concept:

When Barack Obama meets this week with Xi Jinping during the Chinese president’s first state visit to America, one item probably won’t be on their agenda: the possibility that the United States and China could find themselves at war in the next decade. In policy circles, this appears as unlikely as it would be unwise.



And yet 100 years on, World War I offers a sobering reminder of man’s capacity for folly. When we say that war is “inconceivable,” is this a statement about what is possible in the world—or only about what our limited minds can conceive? In 1914, few could imagine slaughter on a scale that demanded a new category: world war. When war ended four years later, Europe lay in ruins: the kaiser gone, the Austro-Hungarian Empire dissolved, the Russian tsar overthrown by the Bolsheviks, France bled for a generation, and England shorn of its youth and treasure. A millennium in which Europe had been the political center of the world came to a crashing halt.

The defining question about global order for this generation is whether China and the United States can escape Thucydides’s Trap. The Greek historian’s metaphor reminds us of the attendant dangers when a rising power rivals a ruling power—as Athens challenged Sparta in ancient Greece, or as Germany did Britain a century ago. Most such contests have ended badly, often for both nations, a team of mine at the Harvard Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs has concluded after analyzing the historical record. In 12 of 16 cases over the past 500 years, the result was war. When the parties avoided war, it required huge, painful adjustments in attitudes and actions on the part not just of the challenger but also the challenged….

It’s one of those Big Ideas that explain the importance of so many others. It explains why President Obama, and Hillary Clinton before she went all Bernie, rightly saw the Trans-Pacific Partnership as so important — you know, the thing Trump killed without a thought the moment he took office.

Still, knowing all that, when I heard the author mention how “Thucydidean” Trump was being, I thought, “OK, now I hear it. I see what all the anti-intellectuals are on about…”

10 thoughts on “‘Trump the Thucydidean’ — OK, yeah; I hear it…

  1. Bryan Caskey

    Jim Mattis would be able to speak intelligently about Thucydides. It’s becuase the Warrior Monk has read it. I know because it’s on the Marine Corps reading list.

    The only problem is that he’s is a bit busy right now to do a book club. He’s busy keeping other people up at night.

    I love that Mattis says this completely deadpan. No wry smile. No emotion. He’s not bragging. He’s not joking. He’s saying it with the same tone and inflection like I would say: “I bought some milk at the grocery store.”

    Just doing the job. No flash, to flamboyance. He’s the opposite of Trump.

    I was thinking that if everyone keeps focusing on Trump and Russia for a year or so and ignores what Mattis is doing in the middle-east, Mattis is going to convene a press conference in the future and just announce: Hey, you know that problem with ISIS. Yeah, I solved it. I’m going to go back to Washington State to do some fishing if you need me for anything else.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      See, now, that’s what we all HOPE will happen. We look at these areas where Trump has appointed someone competent, and we hope Trump is too busy chasing the next shiny object to take note of what they’re doing, and maybe they can get things done.

      But the odds are against it. For instance, I was just listening on NPR to a discussion of the fact that Bannon and others in the White House are making noises about maybe abandoning Afghanistan and leaving a vacuum for the Taliban and international terror groups to flow back into, and aren’t listening to the generals who don’t want 16 years of fighting and dying to go for naught.

      Or something could happen like this: You’re cooking along, doing a great job, and some know-nothing like Mick Mulvaney just erases your budget, with no reference to or concern about the great job you’re doing or the stakes involved, because those guys don’t know or care.

      The odds are just too great that at some time in a four-year term, Trump is going to wander into the room where you’re doing great things and trip and destroy it all — like the doctor breaking all the instruments with which the captain was doing all those careful observations for Humboldt, all the way around the world…

    2. bud

      The focus on ISIS is misguided. The real problem is the Israeli mistreatment of the Palestinians. Until that thorny issue is fairly resolved we’ll always be dealing with some terrorist outfit. The actors names change but the underlying issue remains unchanged.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Yeah… ya know, if you think THE problem, the crux of all the trouble, in that part of the world is the terrible, awful, mean Israelis, we’re going to have trouble reaching an agreement…

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    Another thing that helps me in seeing things as a Trumpista does: Reading The Guardian.

    I’ve been looking at it more and more since The Wall Street Journal caught on that I hadn’t renewed my subscription and cut off my iPad app.

    Before, my morning routine was The State, The Washington Post (to which I subscribe at about an eighth of what the Journal charges) and the WSJ, followed by whatever else Twitter pointed me to. Now, it’s The State, The Washington Post, and The Guardian.

    And lemme tell ya, The Guardian is everything conservatives, and Trump supporters, THINK the MSM in this country is — just an exploding volcano, a veritable Krakatoa of aggressive political correctness.

    Some headlines from today’s edition:

    “Jessica Chastain: The portrayal of women in films is disturbing”
    “Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race”
    “Wonder Woman review — glass ceiling still intact as Gal Gadot reduced to weaponized Smurfette”
    “The gender wars of household chores: a feminist comic”

    I find myself thinking, this IS a general-circulation newspaper, right? Not The Nation or Mother Jones…?

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Oops, I forgot this one: “It was quite a week for toxic masculinity.”

      That’s latest installment of a regular column called “The week in patriarchy”…

      1. JesseS

        Didn’t realize they were still running “The week in patriarchy”.

        I always have to remind myself that it’s the Manchester Guardian and it’s editorial stance is either 5 years ahead in the future or 20 years off in an over idealistic, illiberal, alternate reality.

  3. Brad Warthen Post author

    Ooh-ooh-ooh! Mr. Kotter, call on me!

    When I wrote this, I couldn’t remember the exact quote from the radio interview that set me off on this train of thought, and the audio wasn’t yet available. So I wrote around it…

    Well, the audio is up now, and what the author said was “Trump is an expression of this Thucydidean dynamic…” It’s at 19:50 on the recording.

    See what I’m on about?

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