Summit, Success, Suckers (and grifters)

So, I haven’t been writing much about Our Only President, because (a) why would I put myself through that, and (2) why would any of you read that. Particularly since there are many people writing very well about this administration. National political reporting is at a tremendously high level right now, and frankly punditry (or analysis, if we are feeling positive) is as good as I remember it. I don’t feel as if there’s a gap for me to fill, even in my own day.

But today, it turns out, I actually don’t find my opinion already in the various analyses of Our Only President’s triumphant summit with the Only Leader of North Korea. So, what the hell, here goes:

Let’s start with my take on the man from two years ago, because nothing I have learned since then has changed my mind on his character: he thinks everyone is either a grifter or a sucker. I’ll say it in more positive terms, if you like: his particular political genius lies in his ability to utterly reject conventional wisdom, expert analysis or even settled fact, and that derives (imao) from that fundamental character trait of believing that everyone is either a chump or on the make—that whatever somebody is telling him that he doesn’t like, he can reject. Either it’s wrong because the guy’s an idiot or it’s a lie because the guy’s a grifter.

Now, let me be clear: I personally don’t believe that. I think that’s a terrible way to live, and I think he’s squandered a lot of the potential effectiveness of his job by rejecting stuff that was actually correct. But it’s also true that a lot of the crap that he decided not to believe was actually not true. He did not, in fact, have to release his tax returns. He can, in fact, use the Presidency to promote his business. The Republican leadership will, in fact, back up his obstruction of justice (at least for a while). He has been wrong a bunch of times, but he has been right a bunch of times, too.

So, here we are: everybody told him it would be very, very difficult to have a summit and come to an agreement with Kim Jong Un. They were grifters or suckers, because it turns out that it wasn’t that hard at all. Right?

The US has given up a bunch of stuff to get it, but, and this is the analysis that I haven’t seen elsewhere, the stuff that we gave up is considered to be important only by grifters and suckers. We’ve strengthened a dictator’s grip on his country—so what? We’ve agreed to stop the military exercises with South Korea—who cares? We’ve agreed to some security guarantee of some unspecified kind—that doesn’t mean we actually have to do anything, does it? We’ve given up the leverage that not agreeing to a summit gives us—what’s the use of that leverage if we don’t have a summit?

Is he wrong? How the hell would I know? But it seems to me that what we’ve given up in this deal is almost all intangible, in one way or another, and the value of that those intangibles is inherently speculative, as all leverage is. I don’t think we’ve gained anything of value, mind you, but if we haven’t given up anything of value, then maybe it isn’t a bad deal, after all. And I do try to keep in mind that a lot (not all, but a lot) of the intangibles that Our Only President rejected as worthless or at least way overvalued turned out to be in fact way overvalued.

I mean, to be fair, my expectation, as occasional Gentle Reader David Bernstein put it back in May, was that Kim Jong Un would literally walk out of the summit meeting with Donald Trump’s pants, so perhaps my expectations were low.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

3 thoughts on “Summit, Success, Suckers (and grifters)

  1. Chris Cobb

    I think that your characterization of Trump as considering people only as grifters or suckers is a useful insight into his mindset. I’d suggest that a third characters is also important in his assessment of people: bosses. Chumps listen to grifters because they’re chumps and the grifters are smarter than they are. Grifters listen to bosses because bosses are stronger than they are. Trump’s relationships with authoritarian leaders (and Putin especially) don’t fit into the grifter-chump model that explains so much about how Trump treats other people. What bosses say is right because they are strong enough to force people to accept what they say. By this interpretation, Trump is a big-time grifter and a small-time boss who is trying to become a bigger boss. His modus operandi has been to be a grifter with respect to those external to his organization and a boss with respect to those within his organization. His goal would appear to be to use the Presidency to make himself Boss of the U.S. instead of just Grifter-in-Chief.

    1. Vardibidian Post author

      I think that’s probably fair, although it’s not entirely clear to me how much he sees the Boss model you describe as being a kind of grift, bullying rather than bullshitting.

      Or maybe, now that I come to think about it, it’s me that thinks of a Boss as just being a kind of grifter. It’s obvious to me that Putin sells his Strong Leadership as a kind of grift, and that his actual ability to force people to agree is based on having successfully convinced other people to believe that he has that ability. It may be the Shakespeare-lover in me: Richard III is a grifter first, then a Boss, then a chump. Mark Anthony is another grifter who wants to be a Boss, and Malvolio is another, in a way. Claudius, too.


  2. Chris Cobb

    Well, from a rhetorical perspective, yes, lies and threats are both modes of persuasion, and they can be used in complementary ways with each other, as well as with other modes of persuasion to get people to go along with what you want or to believe/affirm what you want them to believe/affirm. The fully equipped tyrant should have be able to use lies and threats effectively to reinforce each other.

    When leaders rise in a context of political corruption, anyone who becomes a boss must also be/have been a grifter. This is consistent with Shakespeare’s representations of tyrants. Only in the context of war/anarchy can someone get to the top using only coercive tools. Coriolanus is the tragedy of a man who fails to become a boss because he is hopeless as a grifter. If you begin your look at Richard, Duke of Gloucester, prior to the opening of his big grift gambit in Richard III, you see that he doesn’t begin as a grifter: he begins as a soldier and enforcer. Before he adopts his campaign of manipulation and disinformation, he fights for his father and his brother, killing Prince Edward and King Henry.

    Morally and psychologically, however, lies and coercion are quite different: they are operationalized by different kinds of material and emotional power. It appears to me that the psychological difference figures importantly into Trump’s social behavior. Trump treats people who have arbitrary power to incarcerate, torture, or kill people with more respect than people who get by only with lying. Yes, Putin sells “Strong Leadership” as a kind of grift, but he also has journalists and political opponents murdered, and he has a vast espionage apparatus at his disposal. The ability to use force to compel obedience to lies changes the game: It’s a different proposition to reject what a Boss has to say because he is a liar than it is to reject what a Grifter has to say because he is a liar: the Boss can break your legs or ruin you financially. It seems to me that Trump understands this, lusts after the power to enforce his lies, and shows deference to people who hold that kind of power.


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