One of the odder theories to emerge during Donald Trump’s presidency—and this was, it should be said, a Golden Age of odd theories—was that the president’s erratic behavior, bombastic social media presence, and general incoherence were, in fact, strategic. Trump, in this way of thinking, was a twenty-first-century iteration of Nixon, who embraced what his former chief of staff Bob Haldeman referred to as “the Madman Theory.”
“I call it the Madman Theory, Bob,” Nixon supposedly told Haldeman. “I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, ‘for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry—and he has his hand on the nuclear button,’ and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.” Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, Mohammed bin Salman might all be tough cookies, to use one of Trump’s favorite phrases, but all could be kept in line because of a simple fact: The American president was unpredictable and volatile and therefore had scrambled normal diplomacy.
Trump’s foreign policy preferences, and the mythology that’s been erected around them to massage them into coherence, have reemerged in a few ways in response to the Ukraine crisis. This has largely been a tautological pursuit, with various pundits asserting that the fact that Putin has decided to invade Ukraine—or at least to invade a previously occupied part of Ukraine—now must mean something. After all, Putin didn’t invade Ukraine while Trump was president. Therefore, Trump must have done something that Biden isn’t! Madman Theory is back!
Meanwhile, Trump’s apologists have offered their own revisionist ideas of Trump’s foreign policy acumen, with a particular fixation on the notions of “strength” and “appeasement.” The message couldn’t be clearer: We need a more aggressive foreign policy than Biden is willing to offer.
The Washington Post’s Marc Thiessen argued that “Putin respects strength and disdains weakness. Biden is projecting weakness—and weakness is provocative.” The National Review’s Kyle Smith argued that “Biden and whoever is giving him orders about what he’s allowed to do are running the administration like a woke blog,” allowing a big tough man like Putin the opening to do what he wants. (Smith blames the impending invasion, in part, on the Justice Department’s decision to investigate violent threats made against teachers, school administrators, and school boards.) The Federalist’s Ben Domenech, who correctly notes that the idea that Biden’s ability to instantly change the diplomatic order was overstated, argued that the result was catastrophic: This “could very well be the administration that lost the post–Cold War world order that had been maintained, carefully and not without error, for more than thirty years.”
These are particularly specious claims, especially given that Trump’s recklessness (or toughness, depending on your perspective) was never really applied to Russia or Putin, to whom Trump tended to be pliant and obliging. (On Tuesday, true to form, Trump complimented Russia’s leader for his “genius” and “savvy,” going so far as to suggest that the United States should emulate Putin’s moves on our own “southern border.”) Trump’s interest in Ukraine seemed limited to the country’s ability to help him dig up dirt about Joe Biden’s son—Trump was impeached for holding up a $400 million arms package in exchange for this quid pro quo, something that hardly suggests someone committed to the country’s sovereignty, let alone to deterring Putin’s aims.
But in practice, the often incoherent approach of the former president wasn’t so much a deliberate attempt to give our would-be adversaries pause about what destructive feats he might conjure up as much as it was a product of the incoherent approach he took in every pursuit. Trump, moreover, hardly ever threw himself into a “madman” act—his decision to order drone strikes against Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani was a lone example of what seemed like an unexpected demonstration of belligerence (the strikes were actually several months in the making). More often, Trump got cozy with the globe’s preeminent strongmen and made it abundantly clear that he had little interest in the traditional alliances that were erected to constrain them.
His indifference to diplomacy came from the fact that he was indifferent to it conceptually. Alliances were foolhardy in great power politics, in his estimation; brute strength was the only thing that mattered. For the U.S., what mattered most was to use that brute strength in ways that directly materially benefited the U.S.—let other countries deal with their own problems themselves. Or, more likely, become pawns of other, stronger powers. In this way, Trump was at least consistent: His aversion to offering concessions, even when positive-sum outcomes were possible, was his stock-in-trade as a businessman who’d rather lose than sacrifice anything in a deal.
In his 2020 book, The Room Where It Happened, John Bolton—who is, in fairness, an unreliable narrator—suggested that Trump firmly believed that Ukraine should be led by people favorably disposed to Russia. As for NATO, Trump seemed bent on stoking hostilities with its member nations, undermining the alliance at every turn. It’s hard to imagine that Trump might have fashioned some better result in the Russia-Ukraine conflict—nor is it a given that his command would do more to protect either the people of Ukraine or the post–Cold War order. Indeed, Trump’s policy was to better enable the region’s kleptocrats, which did substantial damage to that order, greatly contributing to the problem the Biden administration now faces.
Biden is handling the situation in Ukraine the way he promised to on the campaign trail: with diplomacy, a focus on previous alliances, and a commitment not to deploy American troops into situations that could result in quagmires or much worse. (On this last point, he and Trump are more or less aligned.) The actions that Biden and America’s European allies have taken seem to have worked, at least in the short-term. Putin has moved ahead slowly; for the moment, a full-scale invasion of Ukraine has not occurred. Given Putin’s territorial ambitions and the strident way he laid claims to former colonial holdings, the long-term situation remains dire. But every recent administration has dealt with this problem without finding a lasting solution.
The biggest problem that Trump’s apologists seem to have with Biden thus far is an aesthetic one: He’s doing things in an old-fashioned way, aligned with his campaign promises, and not in the volatility-courting method of his predecessor. While much work remains to be done, the Biden administration can at least claim that some progress has been made in bringing the kleptocratic strongmen furthering conflict in Europe to heel. Of course these accomplishments are likely lost on Biden’s detractors. Many on the right simply want a strongman of their own, a bellicose, shouty man who will puff out his chest, in spite of the fact that Trump was never that guy when it mattered.