Donald Trump is not just a former casino owner, but a gambler, and to win the presidency he’s initiating a bold gambit that puts the future of the world at risk. Given his unfavorability numbers and the division in the Republican Party—as evidenced by the unwillingness of major figures like Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush and John Kasich to endorse Trump—the GOP nominee needs a game-changer. He could hope for something beyond his control, like a new Hillary Clinton scandal. But there are also things he can do, chief among them use his status as the nominee to stir up domestic and international chaos, so that Americans turn to him as a strong man who can restore order.
Trump’s chaos strategy is key to understanding his campaign. He’s already done much to provoke chaos on the domestic front. With his taunting of protesters and his racist rhetoric, he has thrown matches into the tinderbox of a divided nation, igniting the violence we’ve seen at his rallies. Though it’s gotten less attention, he’s doing the same internationally: deliberately using provocative language that could stir up diplomatic, or even military, crises.
The best way to understand Trump’s interview Wednesday with The New York Times is to realize that his purpose is to embolden America’s enemies by suggesting the country is so weak that they can challenge it. Trump makes two major contentions in the interview: First, that the U.S. is so riven by internal problems that it has no right to lecture authoritarians like Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The second contention is that a President Trump would be willing to abrogate America’s treaty obligations (in both Europe and Asia) if its allies don’t start paying more for their own defenses.
Taken together, these contentions amount to saying that the U.S. is a paper tiger, that it might seem like a global power but it is softer than it looks, that it is prepared to retreat into Fortress America rather than uphold the international order it created in the 1940s during World War II and the early Cold War. Imagine if you are a leader in China, Russia, or North Korea and you heard the nominee of a major party make these claims. Wouldn’t you think that they give you a green light to start pushing America around?
The luridness of Trump’s own words makes this scenario likely. Here he is talking about the United States:
Just look about what’s happening with our country. How are we going to lecture when people are shooting our policemen in cold blood. How are we going to lecture when you see the riots and the horror going on in our own country. We have so many difficulties in our country right now that I don’t think we should be... We’re not in a position to be more aggressive. We have to fix our own mess.
Trump’s words about the Baltic States, in an exchange with Times reporter David Sanger, are worth quoting at length:
I was just in the Baltic States. They are very concerned obviously about this new Russian activism, they are seeing submarines off their coasts, they are seeing airplanes they haven’t seen since the Cold War coming, bombers doing test runs. If Russia came over the border into Estonia or Latvia, Lithuania, places that Americans don’t think about all that often, would you come to their immediate military aid?
I don’t want to tell you what I’d do because I don’t want [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to know what I’d do. I have a serious chance of becoming president and I’m not like Obama, that every time they send some troops into Iraq or anyplace else, he has a news conference to announce it.
They are NATO members, and we are treaty-obligated ——
We have many NATO members that aren’t paying their bills.
That’s true, but we are treaty-obligated under NATO, forget the bills part.
You can’t forget the bills. They have an obligation to make payments. Many NATO nations are not making payments, are not making what they’re supposed to make. That’s a big thing. You can’t say forget that.
SANGER: My point here is, Can the members of NATO, including the new members in the Baltics, count on the United States to come to their military aid if they were attacked by Russia? And count on us fulfilling our obligations —
TRUMP: Have they fulfilled their obligations to us? If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.
HABERMAN: And if not?
TRUMP: Well, I’m not saying if not. I’m saying, right now there are many countries that have not fulfilled their obligations to us.
The implication of these words is clear: America is so weak that it cares more about collecting fees than upholding treaty obligations. And these words come from the presidential nominee of one of the nation’s two major parties. Given what Trump is saying, why wouldn’t Putin try to provoke a crisis in the Baltic or some other NATO ally?
Trump’s chaos strategy is unlikely to work. There’s ample reason to believe that in a crisis, people are more likely to turn to the reassuringly mainstream, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose poll numbers went up after the terrorist shooting in Orlando. But Trump doesn’t have many options, and he believes he’s the best person to govern in a chaotic world. So he’ll continue to stir up trouble that could cause international strife whether he wins in November or not. Trump’s legacy will be a much more dangerous world.