Mad Hot Eisenhower

Donald J. Trump seems to be patterning his administration on the Eisenhower model, and why not?  Neither man was a professional politician. Trump is a businessman, a successful real estate developer and television entrepreneur, Eisenhower was a soldier, a victorious wartime commander and president of Columbia University. Both men were caricatured as unsuited to the presidency and, well, dumb. Similarities abound. The big difference is temperament. Ike had his genial grin.  Trump has his imperious scowl and his Twitter account.

As did Eisenhower, Trump is populating his cabinet – its most important positions, at least – with men who made their careers in the military-industrial and banking-finance complexes. Retired Marine Corps General James Mattis has been nominated to be Secretary of Defense; Steven Mnuchin and Gary Cohn, both of Goldman Sachs, as Treasury Secretary and presumed senior economic adviser.

Similar is next week’s widely anticipated choice of Rex Tillerson, 64, chief executive of Exxon Corp., for Secretary of State. Leave aside, for the moment, the issue of climate change, and Exxon’s battle with the great-grandchildren of John D. Rockefeller, the subject of two recent articles in The New York Review of Books. The promising thing about the prospect of a Tillerson appointment is the path it offers to normalize one of the most the most unsettling and confusing areas of contention of the presidential campaign – Trump’s conviction that Russia is not an “enemy” of the United States, as opposed to a rival for power. Tillerson, an executive with far greater experience in the matter, plainly agrees.  Exxon has several large-scale investments in Russia.

The contretemps flared sharply yesterday after The Washington Post published an account of a secret CIA assessment that Russia had intervened to help Trump with the presidency, rather than simply to undermine confidence in the electoral system.  The New York Times reported separately that hackers has broken into the Republican National Committee computers as well, but released only what they found in Democratic National Committee files.

Trump quickly disparaged the CIA findings and the press accounts of them.  “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” he said in a statement released by his transition team.  The president-elect’s skepticism put him at odds, not just with much of Washington’s national security establishment, but with Congressional leadership of both parties. Republicans and Democratic leaders in the Senate have announced plans to hold public hearings to highlight Russian meddling in the election.

The new CIA report is a leak from an administration clearly disappointed that Hillary Clinton didn’t win the election. You don’t have to be as dismissive as Trump to remember that CIA analysts have done a poor job generally of keeping track of the former Soviet Union over the decades, having first overestimated its economic strength, then failed to foresee the empire’s collapse. For a skeptical view of present-day claims that the Russian government engaged in especially aggressive conduct during the election, see The New Red Scare, by journalist Andrew Cockburn, in the December issue of Harper’s.

In fact, it is hard to say much of anything about Russia without reiterating a short history of the thirty years since Mikhail Gorbachev took over and instituted the deregulatory program he called perestroika, meaning restructuring.  The Russian economy clearly failed to enter the world economy as smoothly as did that of China.  Much responsibility must fall on the Russians.  But a share of the blame belongs to the United States and its policy of NATO enlargement.

Gorbachev’s government agreed to East German membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization following reunification on the strength of an oral promise, given by then Secretary of State James Baker, that there would be no further NATO expansion to the East.  Bill Clinton defeated George H. W. Bush in the 1992 election and, in 1997, presided over the entry into the alliance of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.  George W. Bush completed a second round of admissions, which included the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and initiated a third, which precipitated a brief Russian war on the border of Georgia in 2008. The Obama administration pursued the Bush plan, over Russian objections. When a newly-installed Ukraine government made overtures to NATO in 2014, Russia annexed Crimea. During the campaign, Hillary Clinton burnished her hawkish credentials.

Exxon’s Tillerson is a throwback to the tradition of George H.W. Bush. Administration officials from the first Bush administration have been critical of US conduct towards Russia all along, but none more than Jack Matlock, US ambassador during the last days of the Soviet Union.  The original Bush team’s claims to wisdom in foreign affairs were greatly impaired by the son’s ill-advised invasion of Iraq. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Trump Tower to recommend Tillerson.

What about Tillerson’s opinion on accelerating climate change – and those of the Exxon research scientists behind him?  That’s a subject for another day. Here it is  enough to say that the energy company says that it accepts most scientific judgments regarding greenhouse gas emissions and supports a carbon tax. Here, too, the Exxon exec may be a stabilizing presence in an administration that otherwise says it rejects those views.

Adam Smith famously observed that “There is a great deal of ruin in a nation.” Fortunately, there’s a fair amount of salvation, too, in the form of forward-looking vested interests. Trump is no Eisenhower, but, like Ike, he will enjoy powerful establishment support once in office.

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No irony is intended in the headline, but if the adjectives in the headline seem familiar to you, it’s because, like me, you have been watching “Mad Hot Ballroom”, a two-hour 2006 documentary about young New York City kids learning to dance. If you haven’t seen it, maybe you should.  It’s a beguiling piece of reporting that goes to the heart of the problem Harvard University’s Robert Putnam discussed in his 2001 best-seller, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Renewal of American Community.

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