Last week, President Donald Trump added Venezuela to the list of countries upon which the United States might unleash its military might.
The threat came out of nowhere. The South American nation had not even been on the president’s radar screen before the statement. The Pentagon was even more surprised by the announcement than the Venezuelan government. Lately, the U.S. military has had its hands especially full as North Korea ramps up testing and development of its missile launch and nuclear capabilities and issues threats of its own. This at a time when the United States is actively waging war against several other enemies, including ISIS, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, anti-government forces in Iraq—with the occasional raid against Syria and a permanent threat to Iran, should it go nuclear, thrown in.
Against this background, Trump’s statement that “military options” were being considered against Venezuela sounds insane even for Trump. The other foes listed above, such as North Korea, pose some risk to U.S. security, although in most cases a relative smaller one than the United States sometimes pretends. North Korea is a real threat, but Venezuela poses zero threat. Why even go there?
One dubious accomplishment of Trump’s southern detour was to undue the progress President Obama had made in improving relations with Latin America. In a few words, Trump conveyed that the United States was back to the business of lording it over the region and disrespecting sovereignty. Consequently, the leaders of thirty Latin American countries quickly denounced the threat.
Even in the case of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, the “Supreme Leader,” would have to be suicidal to attack even a far-off U.S. territory like Guam. The United States could easily pulverize North Korea, albeit at great cost to the lives of Koreans north and south. The U.S. president’s threat to bring upon North Korea “fire and fury like the world has never seen” is a typical Trump burst of bombast and exaggeration. But, as the leaders of the United States principal allies recently pointed out, such verbal escalation is detrimental to diplomacy. And diplomacy is the only solution possible with an acceptable cost.
So, what in the world is Trump doing? To a great extent, he doesn’t know what he is doing. He is like a child that has been given an awesomely powerful toy. It’s no fun unless you play with it and find out what it can do. That’s a dangerous game, especially if you consider Trump’s impulsiveness. There’s also an excess of bravado on both sides of the Korea thing. And, as World War I showed, when there is great international tension an enormous tragedy can be set off by a small incident.
Yet, while Trump is erratic, there is the possibility that his actions are not totally irrational after all. The independent work of a sociologist and an economist suggests an alternative explanation. Unlike what the classical and neo-classical economists thought, people don’t always behave rationally. There is a strong symbolic component in behavior. In this case, for example, Trump’s base loved his fire and fury comment; they ate it up.
While the majority of people around the world and in the United States deplored the literally inflammatory language, the image of the United States “going in with guns blazing” appealed so much to many of the kind of people who voted for Trump that a t-shirt with the phrase “Fire and Fury” was soon on sale on the internet.
This kind of “signaling” behavior is often used by politicians and others, as when Republicans in Congress voted time after time to repeal Obamacare knowing Obama would always veto it. But Trump uses it to a far greater extent than average and in arenas such as foreign policy, in which such posturing has been rare in the past as it carries great danger.
One might explain much of Trump’s actions through the lenses of signaling, although never forgetting the man’s sheer ignorance, irrationality, and serial dishonesty. A lot of Trump’s signaling is meant to convey the answer to an implicit question always floating in the air in this country’s polarized political culture: “Which side are you on?”
By kicking off his campaign denigrating Mexicans, for instance, Trump was signaling whose side he was on not only regarding race and ethnicity but also on the divide among cosmopolitan whites who value diversity and nationalists who would rather America go back to being white again, not only in race but also in culture, meaning mostly in language and religion.
Trump not only governs through ways that to those outside the cult of white American nationalism seem whimsical and bizarre, he also thinks he remakes reality through pure exercises off his will. Getting Mexico to pay for the wall. Repealing Obamacare. For Trump, those were easy. They turned out, to his chagrin and my delight, to be the opposite.