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Trump’s Behavioral Legacy

“Karma” is a Sanskrit term meaning “action” or “deed,” and in its classical religious (Hindu or Buddhist) rendering, it predicts that the behavior of an individual, past or present, influences their future fate. Leaving aside the spiritual dimension of this outlook, one can see that, just from a behavioral point of view, there is a logic to such a causal prediction. For instance, if you are an arrogant or angry person, you will create a different type of environment around you than will a kind-hearted and thoughtful person. Your environment will attract others who, for whatever reason, feel comfortable being close to your sort of person. The nature of this entourage will, in turn, reinforce your surrounding environment. Taken as a whole, that environment defines your world as you go forward.

Of course, plenty of things might intervene to change this equation. Both nice people and bullies do, on occasion, get into serious accidents or die from sudden illnesses. Of the massive numbers of refugees spilling out of places like Syria and Libya, many were and are quite decent folk whose lives have been overtaken for the worse by events utterly beyond their control – and utterly independent of the “karma” that might have produced for them a different fate.

An Example

Let’s take an example that most people will recognize – President Donald Trump. Judging from his public behavior, we see Trump is shallow, opinionated, self-centered and arrogant. Such a person’s behavior should produce a life that is equally shallow and populated by some pretty distasteful companions. As we shall see, this is generally the case. However, random events have also intervened. Trump was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth, which has allowed him to buy his way to fame, all the way to the presidency, while maintaining a battery of lawyers whose job it is to fend off the negative legal consequences of his behavior. Here money serves as a lucky random variable, the negative equivalent of which would be being hit by a bus or being diagnosed with some fatal disease.

The semi-biographical tale told in Trump’s 1987 bookThe Art of the Deal, reads like a Horatio Alger “morality play” and makes the good fortune of birth seem like a personal achievement. The book hit the New York Times best-seller list, and many Americans took to Trump’s story, seeing it as a guide to how they too could get rich. Thus, The Art of the Deal’s popularity helped make an idealized Trump a well-known person. It therefore can be seen as a step in the direction of the White House.

Trump has claimed The Art of the Deal as one of his “proudest achievements.” Actually, it wasn’t exactly his achievement.  The book was ghostwritten by someone else, the professional writer Tony Schwartz. By the time of Trump’s 2016 presidential election campaign, Schwartz regretted his having been Trump’s ghostwriter. He said he had “put lipstick on a pig.” On the other hand, Trump’s claim to authorship is what he (Trump) would call “an innocent form of exaggeration” for the sake of “effective promotion.” But there is something both distasteful, and in character, about this  fabrication/exaggeration. It reflects someone who is probably unable to tell the difference between truth and his own opinion. The result is almost certainly “bad karma.”

Telltale Friendships

One’s personality also broadly defines one’s friendship circle. This is another factor which, if paid attention to, can shed light on who someone really is. So who is Donald Trump drawn to and who is drawn to him? Domestically we know who these companions are (e.g., Stephen Bannon), so here we shall focus on some of the foreign leaders that Trump finds compatible.

Much has been said of Donald Trump’s affinity for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu is a pugnacious personality, a strong nationalist who cares much more about the ethno-religious purity of Israel than its alleged democratic heritage. He is at the forefront of Israel’s illegal expansion into Palestinian territory and has given full rein to the bellicose, racist settlers who lead the way in this endeavor.

Nonetheless, according to Trump, Netanyahu is “my friend” and the leader of “our cherished ally Israel” with which we have “an unbreakable bound.” Trump goes on to repeat the standard mythology that both he and Netanyahu hold “shared values” such as “advancing the cause of human freedom, dignity and peace.”

This latter bit is propaganda – a longtime, standing example of “false news.” The Israelis have spent the last 70 years destroying the cause of Palestinian freedom and dignity at the price of regional peace. And the U.S.?  Last week Trump’s Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, said that the U.S. “no longer would condition its foreign relationships on countries adopting American values such as human rights.” Of course, it can be argued that such a condition has rarely existed in the practice of American foreign policy and that, like Israel, values such as human rights are not among those Americans themselves  practice domestically with a lot of consistency. Nonetheless, Tillerson’s confession made nonsense out of the American part of Trump’s declaration.

Next we come to another of Trump’s “friends” – Abdel Fattah al-Sisi the “President” of Egypt, who paid a visit to the White House on 3 April 2017. According to President Trump, al-Sisi is “my great friend and ally; he is “very close to me.” Trump finished up by telling the world that al-Sisi is “doing … a fantastic job in a very difficult situation.”

And who is this man, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, whom Trump so admires and to whom he feels so close?

Al-Sisi is a criminal.  He is the “Field Marshal” who pulled off a coup in 2013 against his country’s first honestly elected government and followed that up with a rigged election that made him “president” of Egypt.

Al-Sisi is a megalomaniac. He and his subordinates have constructed a cult of personality by instructing the Egyptian media to describe al-Sisi  as a heroic figure,  a “brave, special, free and patriotic Egyptian.”  To criticize him is to “slander this beautiful thing we have found in our lives.”

Al-Sisi is corrupt. He and his subordinates have been funneling both public and foreign aid monies into special accounts controlled by the military.

Al-Sisi is a hooligan. He has been busy destroying any person or group opposing him, including the largely pacifist Muslim Brotherhood, which has been declared “a terrorist organization.” Those who have protested against all this in the streets of Egypt have been beat up, arrested or simply shot down.

Nonetheless, al-Sisi is President Trump’s kind of guy, and the U.S. president stands with him. ”I just want to let everybody know, in case there was any doubt, that we are very much behind President Sisi.”

Finally, we take up the appreciative attitude Trump has taken toward Rodrigo Duterte, the President of the Philippines. In early May Trump extended an invitation to Duterte to visit the White House, remarking at the same time that the two presidents had engaged in “a very friendly conversation.” Duterte, like al-Sisi, seems to be just the sort of “get things done” kind of guy Trump is drawn to.  And it is equally clear that, in both cases, Trump is sufficiently devoid of ethics so that he doesn’t care how things actually get done.

Thus, President Duterte gets things done in his “war on drugs” by extrajudicial killings (that is, murders) of both “suspected drug dealers and users.” The resulting death toll has climbed into the thousands. If Duterte gets it into his head that you are corrupt, he may arrange to take you for a ride in his presidential helicopter and throw you out in mid-flight. It is reported that “in a brief call in December [2016] about the drug war,” then president-elect Trump told Duterte that he was waging his “war against drugs” in the “right way.”

There are others, of course, but this is a representative sample of the sort of people Trump likes – the type he “feels close to.” They seem to like him too.  Perhaps they are brothers under the skin.

The Larger Problem

Here is the larger problem. The U.S. president stands at the head of a government, the policies of which also have impact at home and abroad. These policies stand in for behaviors that shape the nation’s present and future by creating a sort of “national karma.” And, all too often, for ideological reasons or because of plain stupidity and ignorance, that “karma” is bad. The various “blowback” episodes of the last twenty-five years, including the 9/11 attacks, are testimony to this fact. In many ways Washington created the context for those attacks by its own violent policies and behavior.

Presidents, who stand at the apex of this process, can’t do much about the country’s historic capitalist and imperialist worldview and ambitions.  Most U.S. leaders don’t think a change at this level is even needed. Yet presidents can and do tinker around the edges, putting limits on the militarism or giving it encouragement.

There seems little doubt as to the nature of Donald Trump’s tinkering. He seems to have a special affinity for the brutal and the barbaric. And, as he gathers to his side many of the thugs presently masquerading as foreign leaders, he helps define America’s present and near future – racking up an ever-growing list of aggrieved victims who will continue to see the United States as an active ally of their persecutors. Behavior, as an individual and as a nation, defines the human world. The forecast for Trump’s contribution?  Bad karma.

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Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.

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