Politics & Policy

His Grace, Donald Trump

President Trump on the phone in June (Reuters photo: Carlos Barria)
The president’s conversation with Malcolm Turnbull offers a troubling window into his mind.

‘I’m the world’s greatest person that does not want to let people into their country.”

So proclaimed Donald Trump to Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull in a January phone call, according a transcript published Thursday by the Washington Post. Presumably, he meant that he was the most recognizable immigration restrictionist in the world, although he may also have been complimenting his own virtue, crowning himself a great man of history on the strength of his restrictionism.

What is so striking about Trump’s language is that it shows his own view of his authority and of his policymaking to be more royalist than republican. Law and order itself? That is nothing, compared to protecting the sovereign’s image and obeying his personal wishes.

The contrast between these two men was also enlightening. Turnbull acknowledges the political realities confronting Trump, but speaks of the majesty of the law itself, not the ruler. He tries to explain how Australia’s consistent pattern of immigration enforcement accomplishes two things at once: 1) It insulates Australian immigration law from the pressure that such laws always face when facts on the ground make a mockery of them; and 2) It has a humanitarian benefit for potential migrants because it discourages the unscrupulous human smugglers who rush in to take advantage of the market opportunity that lax enforcement creates. It’s a policy with a logic that Turnbull and other Australians have been saying will eventually become obvious to Europe as it continues to struggle with its own migration crisis.

“So we said if you try to come to Australia by boat,” Turnbull explained to Trump, “even if we think you are the best person in the world, even if you are a Noble [sic] Prize winning genius, we will not let you in.” He then tried to return to the point that this discourages people-smugglers, only to be interrupted by Trump, speaking with what the reader can only imagine must have been a note of admiration in his voice: “That’s a good idea. We should do that too. You are worse than I am.”

In these words are a whole worldview.

This is the backhanded way that Trump talks about his own position on immigration. He practically admits that he does not think his own policy is good or just in its own right. In fact, he comes close to letting on that he thinks it is immoral.

Perhaps he believes that being a restrictionist is necessary all the same. Sometimes, a king has to greet lawlessness with mercy; other times, he has to show strength. It can depend on the sovereign’s mood or on what is most expedient in a given moment. Trump is simply being tough. He’s misbehaving himself, but in the national interest. He looks up to Turnbull, because Turnbull has managed to be an even “worse” guy than he has.

It must be a burden for Trump’s counterparts across the world to deal with his overly familiar and overly personal form of diplomacy. Turnbull tries to talk Trump down, noting that the agreement they are discussing — essentially a swap of refugees between our two countries — is already in place, implying that any trouble that came from their conversation could be blamed on the Obama administration. Trump says the deal to accept migrants is bad for his image. As if Australia were just one more television studio’s makeup room, and its head of state responsible for keeping the shine off Trump’s chin.

Whatever his faults, President Obama never commented on his personal relationships with foreign leaders in real time. He soberly reflected on the “shared interests” between one nation, which he represented, and another, which his counterpart did. By contrast, Trump says he “gets along” with leaders as individuals, or “has a great relationship” with them.

You are in Trump’s graces, or you are out of his graces. One week, China is trying to help with North Korea, and Beijing gets a kind tweet. A few weeks later, North Korea fires a few missiles into the Sea of Japan, and Beijing gets an unkind tweet.

The people who held their noses and voted for Trump in the hopes that he would bring sanity to American immigration policy should have new doubts after reading the Post’s transcript about whether he has the stamina or strength of will to see the job through. If there was no real principle behind Trump’s restrictionism — if he was just telling his voters what they wanted to hear during the campaign — then he is just as likely to abandon the position as hold onto it in the future.

We all know he is capable of turning on a dime. Even in the campaign, he went from saying that Mexico was sending “bad hombres” our way to whining that he had to hire foreign workers because America was too hot for Americans to work in during the busy season at his Florida hotels. If anything is clear about the man at this late date, it’s that no stance is truly non-negotiable.

Everyone acknowledges that Trump is a wildcard. He may believe he’s a king, and act like it. But look again: He’s actually a Joker.

READ MORE:

A Leak That Really Hurts

Trump: The Series — the Comedy We Want Invites the Tragedies We Don’t

Trump’s Circular Firing Squad

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