In 1968, Richard Nixon was rumored to have a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam if elected president. It turned out that the secret was something Nixon called the “Madman Theory”. The idea was to make the North Vietnamese and the Soviets believe that the man in the White House was out of control and that if he didn’t get what he wanted he would do something wildly destructive, even suicidal, like drop an atom bomb on Hanoi, setting off a global nuclear conflict. If it were done convincingly, Nixon reportedly thought, “Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.”
Sure, you could say Nixon was a megalomaniac, a Machiavellian schemer, a paranoid who kept enemies’ lists and used all the levers of power to even the score with those who dared oppose him. He went so far that, back in 1974, two pillars of an economically independent mainstream press – The New York Times and The Washington Post – brought him down by exposing the Watergate Hotel break-in, the “dirty tricks” of the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP), and, most crucially at the time, the cover-up which was run straight from the oval office, complete with threats to expose ghosts from the murky past of CIA director Richard Helms if he didn’t cooperate.
But Nixon was not a madman and his strategy failed, largely because of popular opposition to the Vietnam War in the United States and around the globe. How were the North Vietnamese (and their Soviet allies) to swallow the idea that he would use a nuclear weapon in southeast Asia when it was so obvious that he feared – as any sane man would – the political retaliation of his own electorate? Indeed, though he had the nation’s nuclear arsenal on full alert and B-52s running patterns over Moscow, it must have been obvious that Nixon was never going to use a nuclear weapon in southeast Asia. One is tempted to suppose that Ho Chi Minh and Leonid Brezhnev could see right through him, like expert poker players with a wealthy mark, flattering him into thinking he had a chance, never letting him know they could read him like an open book. They let Nixon dance dangerously on the precipice and roll his eyes and scream profanities and foam at the mouth until he gradually self-destructed, squandered his political capital in a futile domestic struggle, and then, in the end, withdrew the United States military, leaving the puppet regime in South Vietnam to collapse.
In 2016, however, Americans will be presented with the possibility of electing an actual, real-life madman – Donald Trump, a man many clinical psychologists see as a textbook example of narcissistic personality disorder, a condition characterized by super-sized ego, a fragile self-image, a lack of empathy, and a willingness to lie and falsify in order to get what he wants. It’s easy to see why someone with these traits would be a dangerous choice for president, but it’s also easy to understand how these traits will make him a formidable opponent in November, with the weight of the Republican Party behind him, validating his delusional idea of himself as a great man and his novel approach to the political process which involves contempt for things like truth and facts and history.
We have seen how everyone from mainstream pols to populist leaders of the Tea Party and religious right – not to mention charismatic media personalities like Megan Kelly – can be made to look lazy, foolish, hypocritical, dishonest, inadequate, ugly, or out of control when they insist on those dreary and pedantic details of the real world, while “the Donald” (as the media has affectionately dubbed him) wants to talk about how great America is going to be once he builds his big wall and makes his big deal.
Completely consistent with his undiagnosed but nonetheless obvious disorder, the only area Trump seems to have a problem with is truth. What does Trump actually know about the health care system, about the economy, about immigrants? What’s his plan for international relations? For defeating ISIL? What is his platform, beyond mass deportation of illegal immigrants and creating a public register for Muslims? If his opponent in November is Hillary Clinton, however, that may not actually matter.
Oh, there is no doubt that Hillary can beat the Donald on the facts in a head-to-head debate. But who’s going to be debating facts? As the New York Times reports (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/29/us/politics/hillary-clinton-donald-trump.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=first-column-region®ion=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&hp), Clinton has already begun to realize, it isn’t about the facts. If the Republican primary debates are any indication, there won’t be much discussion of issues in a Trump-Clinton contest. When asked about education or foreign policy, Trump will be talking a lot about Bill’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. Whole sections of debate will focus on Benghazi, on classified emails over private servers, on Whitewater, on targeting IRS audits at Bill Clinton’s political opponents, on the death of Vince Foster in 1993, on Filegate and Travelgate and [fill-in-the-blank]gate, at the expense of social security, trade, regulation of the financial sector, climate change, state secrets, intelligence overreach and the never ending “war on terror”. Instead of talking about police violence and race relations, we will likely be talking about Hillary’s looks, too. Or perhaps Trump will take his cue from David Brooks’ column in the New York Times and focus on Hillary’s lack of leisure activities to explain why her approval numbers are so low. Doesn’t she know how to have any fun?
Think of it: we will even be treated to a multi-millionaire who inherited his fortune and probably never worked an honest day in his life accusing the Democratic candidate of being in bed with big money interests conspiring against him. (And he will be right.) Does anyone think for a second he will not take up Sanders’ call for the release of transcripts of Clinton’s speeches to Goldman, Sachs?
Say what you want about Trump, he never comes off as mealy-mouthed or “political” or hypocritical. He will have a field day with Hillary. He will make her seem uptight, obtuse, humorless, hypocritical and dishonest. He will make her appear to be what many of us feel she truly is, and exactly what the American voters of both parties have clearly demonstrated they don’t want in 2016 – an ambitious, not to say ruthless Washington insider.
Everyone will forget that Donald Trump is out of his mind. At least until his finger is on the button.
At the time of this writing and despite a huge war chest and PAC money, despite crucial institutional support (not to say bullying) from the Democratic Party machine, Clinton is only a few hundred pledged delegates ahead of Sanders. She should realize that, whatever her failings or strengths, her candidacy is simply unable to generate the kind of groundswell in public support needed to overcome the onslaught of Trumpery she is bound to face in the general election.
A good poker player knows when his mark has drawn a good hand and folds his cards early. Faced with the prospect of a real madman in the White House, there is only one reasonable course of action for Clinton: withdraw now and endorse Bernie Sanders for president.