By David K. Shipler
One of the most significant passages in President Trump’s speech withdrawing from the Paris climate accord was this: “At what point does America get demeaned? At what point do they start laughing at us as a country? We don’t want other leaders and other countries laughing at us anymore.”
Laughing? If he actually believes that, then the lines provide a quick insight into one origin of his confrontational impulses. Being laughed at is to be humiliated, and a readiness to think that it is happening when it is not is a hallmark of an inferiority complex and an imagined sense of victimhood.
We have heard this before, as in Trump’s graduation speech at the Coast Guard Academy: “Look at the way I’ve been treated lately—especially by the media. No politician in history—and I say this with great surety—has been treated worse or more unfairly.” Suffice it to say that Trump’s grasp of history is a touch shaky.
Victimhood is a major theme of the Trump Doctrine, and it’s what won him a good share of voters last November—working-class Americans who were, in fact, victims of an economy that had left them behind. In Trump’s rhetoric, however, the country as a whole shares their victimhood, as a victim of raping immigrants, rampaging terrorists, job-stealing trade deals, and the like. Now, to top it off, the world has been laughing at us.
Trump’s point was that the climate accord placed greater burdens on the US economy than on others’, much to the delight of competitors. The same line was taken in a briefing the next day by Scott Pruitt, the global-warming denier who heads the Environmental Protection Agency. But who is laughing? It could be argued that Trump’s own antics have made the country a laughing stock, but more reasonable reactions—at least in Europe—are horror and worry as the world’s leading economy and superpower sacrifices its leadership and dependability.
It’s a quirk of Trump’s that he never seems to adjust course to get more people to like him. He needs to be liked, but he can’t bring himself to be likeable, except by his hardcore base. Withdrawing from the climate accord, as he had pledged to do during his campaign, was politically aimed at his base, and at the hard right officials he’s brought into his administration. He spurned even his daughter Ivanka and unleashed a barrage of harsh words from around the globe.
Did he mind the attacks? It’s hard to tell. On the one hand, he hates to be hated. On the other, he seems to revel in confrontation and relish a need to be the victim. It is a dangerous combination for a man with the nuclear codes.
As soon as I heard him say that countries were laughing at the US, I was taken back to Moscow more than three decades ago. In the bad old Soviet days, domestic tragedies were kept out of the news, so nothing was reported in the Soviet press about a terrible fire in the gigantic Rossiya Hotel, near Red Square. When a West German television crew, filming outside the hotel, had its film confiscated by a police lieutenant, the correspondent asked why.
“We do not want to let foreigners laugh at our misfortune,” said the cop.
Imagine the corrosive sense of vulnerability, the complex sense of victimhood, that would have led to a ranking officer imagining that foreigners would laugh at the misfortune of a hotel fire.
I’ve long thought that the American hard right resembled orthodox Soviet thinking more closely than is usually recognized. The affinity for order, for a strong hand at the top, for a single truth, for jingoistic patriotism, for caricatures of the outside world—all these attributes and more characterize both political cultures.
Some of these currents run strongly through Russia still. So perhaps Vladimir Putin would sympathize with Donald Trump’s worry that the world was laughing.