Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other.
Millions of words have been written about Trump’s motivations and psychology, why he does or doesn’t say or do this, that, or the other thing. Some find him playing complex games of four-dimensional chess, some treat him as a case of arrested development—no impulse control, filters, or guard rails, lacking a coherent worldview, making it all up as he goes along.
The correct answer is neither of the above. Surprisingly, little of the speculation refers back to what he’s written. The Art of the Deal casts some light. If you want a rough-and-ready summary, read Chapter 2, “Trump Cards: The Elements of the Deal.” Trump is an entrepreneur, businessman, and promoter to the core, which may be why so many politicians and pundits—most of whom have little or no actual business experience—don’t get him.
His book was published in 1987, after a string of successful real estate projects, and brims with optimism and self-confidence. His aphorisms are common sense essentials for success: control costs; stay focused on both the big picture and the details; don’t negotiate without leverage; buy low; use other people’s money to limit personal risk; persist; work hard; be tough; never stop promoting; jump patiently through government hoops; use the media for leverage, and push back hard against perceived injustices. Trump was enthusiastic about his newest venture, Atlantic City casinos. He liked gambling’s bedrock—the odds in the house’s favor—and he liked the glitz. However, the flush of success and the ebullience at the time (the stock market crashed after publication) probably affected his judgment.
Trump defenestrated much of his own common sense and got his head handed to him in Atlantic City. In 1991 and 1992 three of his casinos filed for bankruptcy. They were competing against themselves and had taken on far more debt, much of it at high interest rates, than they could support. Trump had personally guaranteed $900 million and had to sell a yacht and the Trump shuttle airline to reduce his liability to $500 million. It was the closest Trump has come to personal bankruptcy. He also reduced his stake in the financially restructured casinos and hotels that came out of bankruptcy. There would be two more Atlantic City bankruptcies, in 2004 and 2009. (Trump Plaza Hotel, a Manhattan property for which Trump admits he paid too much, filed in 1992.)
Trump is not a political philosopher. Short of revolution, intellectual or otherwise, we’re not going to get a reversal of the statist tide. However, many of his supporters hoped he would apply his business and entrepreneurial sensibilities and the lessons he had learned to governance. Washington is ripe for fundamental accountability, cost control, competence and performance standards, ground-up reappraisal of myriad programs and payments, fiscal reform, and reduction in the debt that’s threatening national insolvency. If we can’t have a revolution at least maybe Trump the businessman would steer the ship of state away from the Category 5 hurricane into which it’s headed Unfortunately, on current trend the federal government will be an Atlantic City, multiplied bigly, not a Trump Tower or Wollman Skating Rink triumph.
For the Commander in Chief, the nation’s troops and arsenal must cast the same spell as glittering casinos and house odds once did on the real estate developer. The military is on a long losing streak of inconclusive or lost wars that have sparked the terrorism they’re ostensibly meant to squelch, created political instability, wounded and killed hundreds of thousands, and driven millions more from their homes. Between the military, veterans benefits, intelligence, and homeland security the US government spends around $1 trillion a year. Nobody pretends this money is spent cost effectively. The Defense Department has never been audited, but estimates put waste in the multi-trillions since the Reagan defense build-up. The first question any conscientious businessman would ask: Why do we keep pouring money down this rat hole?
That’s not the question Trump has asked. Instead, he wants to increase the military’s budget by $54 billion, spend $1 trillion over thirty years to upgrade the nuclear arsenal, escalate old wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and northern Africa, and perhaps start new ones elsewhere. It’s as if, when his three Atlantic City casinos were failing in the early 1990s, he decided to borrow more money and build more casinos. Bankruptcy indicates there’s something wrong with your business plan. You can’t put the Defense Department into bankruptcy, but its business plan is fundamentally wrong, which makes throwing more money its way improvident waste.
Businesses that are losing money often restructure or jettison unprofitable divisions and operations. When they hit rock bottom, they may have to rethink their entire business to survive. When did “defense” of the United States become defense of “US global interests”? Are those interests anything more than US-based multinationals’ profitability, the care and feeding of defense and intelligence contractors, corrupt skims, and the maintenance of puppet governments in every one of the world’s capitals? Surely many, probably most, of the US’s 800-plus military outposts around the world, including some at home, could be closed with no loss to US security. Trump pushed his supporters’ buttons when he asked why the US was picking up the defense tab for Europe, Japan, and South Korea. Does he still intend to put that cost-saving question to them, or has that fallen by the wayside? They are certainly wealthy enough to pay their own way.
The US spends more on its military than the next seven nations combined. Trump’s $54 billion increase is greater than the military budgets of the United Kingdom, Germany, and Japan, equals France’s, and is only $12 billion less than the budget of supposed existential threat Russia. Downsize defense, intelligence, and homeland security to the mission of protecting the US proper and you could cut spending by at least half, or half a trillion dollars. That isn’t chump change, even for the world’s biggest and most indebted spender, and the US would still be spending more than China and Russia combined. The US has friendly allies to the north and south, and the world’s two biggest oceans to the east and west. These advantages don’t make the US invulnerable to nuclear attack, but they certainly make any kind of land-based invasion dauntingly difficult, probably impossible. That half a trillion saved, by the way, would offset the half a trillion that the US will pay this year in interest on its debt, the first time we’ve reached that “milestone.”
How long before we hit a trillion? The greatest threat to the security of the United States isn’t Russia, China, North Korea, or Iran; it’s national debt and unfunded pension and medical liabilities. Benjamin Franklin once said, “Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other.” If Trump continues to throw money away on the bloated and ineffective military, he’s learned nothing from Atlantic City. That’s beyond foolish.
MAKING FUN OF THE BEYOND FOOLISH