Confusion Politics: Trump, Merkel and the EU
If 2016 was the year of post fact and fake news, then perhaps we are entering a 2017 that will be dominated by “confusion politics”. Last Wednesday, President-Elect Donald Trump tweeted in regard to a leaked and unsubstantiated FBI dossier on his relationship to Russia:
The reaction in the media has been well covered, but the reaction in Germany was interesting. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, German Minister for Foreign Affairs was asked what he made of the US President-Elects comparisons to Nazi Germany. He replied:
“To be honest, about your question about the comparison with Nazi Germany, I am as perplexed as you are, I can’t interpret that.”
You know you have a problem when a man with a doctorate in law has trouble understanding what you are talking about.
Steinmeier is not the only one who is “perplexed” by the incoming President. Politicians and commentators around the world are continually having to come to grips with a new world of politics and diplomacy conducted on the hoof via Twitter. The trend began in the days following Trumps victory in Novembers US election. The Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe, the first foreign leader to meet the 45th President was left in confusion over arrangements for a meeting in New York. Abe’s officials admitted that “There has been a lot of confusion” when questioned about the specifics of the meeting. In the same week, British civil servants were left scratching their heads when, during a phone call with Prime Minster Theresa May, Trump suggested “If you travel to the US you should let me know.” This is hardly an emphatic invitation to another world leader for a state visit.
The trend for confusion and incoherence has only increased since November, which has sometimes seen major companies stock prices drop on the turn of a tweet. Boeing and Lockheed Martin saw a direct impact when Trump complained about them publicly, while internationally, Toyota saw a similar stock fall in January when Trump targeted them for building a car plant in Mexico. Although these tweets sometimes seem poorly informed or downright irresponsible, it could be argued that they are all part of a strategy to return jobs to the US. This of course doesn’t necessarily explain Trump’s recent target, German car manufacturers, with BMWs largest plant in the world located in Spartanburg, South Carolina. This apparent strategy, if we can call it such, doesn’t account for the interconnected nature of the global auto-mobile industry either.
Perhaps Trump is simply testing the water. George Lakoff, cognitive linguist and professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, has identified a clear strategy to Trump’s tweets:
- Pre-emptive Framing: use of tweets to frame a discussion or argument before anyone else.
- Diversion: tweets that distract media and public from potentially damaging news.
- Trial Balloon: An attempt to see what impact an idea or concept has in the public domain.
- Deflection: Attacking the messenger or news outlet reporting disparaging stories.
Using this strategy Trump is able to dominate the narrative, while also trialling ideas and combating any criticism. What may appear at first to be incoherent, thus becomes a clear and targeted strategy for total social media dominance.
Yet, even when you think you understand what is going on, something will come along to throw you sideways, in this case last weeks news conference. With fake supporters applauding and cheering his every word, a pile of fake documents sitting on a table next to him and Trump himself verbally body checking news outlets he considered fake news, it was perhaps one of the most confusing political events any of us have ever seen. It defied explanation.
As did his first interviews to British and German news outlets The Times and Die BILD-Zeitung. Claiming on the one hand to “like” and “respect” Angela Merkel and then going on to describe the German Chancellor’s decision during the refugee crisis as a “catastrophic mistake”. Furthermore, the refugees entering Germany were “illegals”, possibly a blunt attempt to impress his anti immigrant supporters back in the US or as an example of his complete misunderstanding of the situation, who knows? He then turned to the UK and suggested Brexit was motivated by the arrival of refugees, saying that without them “you wouldn’t have a Brexit,”. Trump is not the first person to misconstrue refugees and economic migrants and sadly won’t be the last.
More galling and baffling for Germans were his direct attacks on the EU as he opinioned:
“I believe others will leave. I do think keeping it together is not going to be as easy as a lot of people think.”
Like a drunken brawler returning for seconds, he revisited international affairs in the same interview, this time describing NATO as “obsolete” because it hadn’t taken terror head on, however he stated that NATO is “very important to me”. I’ll let that sink in. It is obsolete, but at the same time important. Like the wedding suit I no longer fit in.
When asked for comment, Merkel declared that “We Europeans have our fate in our own hands,”, which I guess is the only thing anyone could say to such a confusing interview from a fellow national leader. At first look, this appears to be the Trump we knew on the campaign trail; bullish, badly informed, but willing to throw his two cents at anyone who will listen. The strategy is non existent, save to make sure that Trump is front and centre in any news cycle. Or at least that is what it appears, but perhaps there is another explanation.
In the short documentary on Non-linear Warfare, Adam Curtis looks at the strategy of confusion advocated by Vladimir Putin’s personal advisor Vladislav Surkov. Surkov has promoted a strategy of confusion that ensures that no one can attack or criticise Putin’s regime because it cannot really be defined. Surkov undermined peoples perceptions of the world by directly funding opposing political groups and even opposition parties. He then announced that he was doing exactly that. By following this tactic, no one really knows what is real or what is fake. Total political confusion.
This has shades of the era of fake news that we now inhabit and furthermore explains the levels of uncertainty that have only increased with the election of Donald Trump. He is continually in flux, holding diametrically opposing views and can never be pinned down because of his ability to change the narrative through his use of twitter. News outlets are continually outmanoeuvred, while the rest of us have little to no idea what he believes and what he doesn’t. This might create a vision of a president that doesn’t know what he’s doing, but that only helps as we cannot form a coherent opposing strategy. Knowledge used to be power, but perhaps true power is confusion.