In Mel Brooks’ classic parody of western movies, Blazing Saddles, an evil politician purposely sends an African-American sheriff to a small frontier town terrorized by a Wild West gang of bandits.
As the new black sheriff rides into the all-white settler town, complete with Gucci saddle bags, his reception is less than friendly. When the townsfolk, all last-named Johnson, pull their guns on him, the black sheriff surprises them by drawing his six shooter and holding it to his own head, saying, “ Drop your guns or the n---- gets it.” He then literally drags himself at his own gun point from the town square to his office, while one villager warns, “ Don’t nobody do nothing…he’s crazy!” Closing the door behind him, the sheriff cracks up laughing and says to himself, “ You are sooo good…and they are sooo dumb.”
As a parody of racist attitudes, Brooks’ comedy is genius. As a how-to manual for the conduct of American foreign and domestic crises … not so much.
Yet a quick review of several recent events in our national life seems to indicate that President Trump has been putting a gun to his own head and threatening to shoot … only to walk back his decisions and not pull the trigger, thus leaving the American people breathing a sigh of relief. But this pattern of behavior begs the question, is the President laughing at his ping-pong decision making and the confusion it sows? If so, that’s wrong because these are not laughing matters.
When Iran brazenly shot down an unmanned U.S. aircraft last week, the President convened his national security advisors on June 20. According to media reports, Secretary of State Pompeo led the group that advocated for an immediate military strike in reprisal, a move that senior military officers feared could potentially lead to a wider conflagration. Reportedly, the President made his decision to launch an attack that evening. Then, in a stunning series of early morning tweets on Friday June 21, the POTUS revealed he had changed his mind because he was informed that up to 150 Iranians could be killed, a possible consequence he considered “not proportionate” to the downing of a $200 million U.S. Navy drone. In saying this, the President was unclear if he was concerned as a humanitarian about innocent civilian Iranian lives, or if there was some mathematical calculation he made regarding lives lost compared to the cost of the downed aircraft.
The President continued to tweet and talk about this figurative pistol to his - and Iranian heads - throughout the weekend, alternating between imposing even more crippling sanctions, making Iran “great again,” and then clarifying that fake news had cited him incorrectly by saying that he called back the strikes, when in fact he had never approved their launch.
Pundits chattered relentlessly with only one thing clear – no one knew what the President really was up to nor what comes next. One can imagine him at Camp David laughing at all those sooo dumb Iranians and foreigners, not mention those low IQ Democrats.
Closer to home, the President told the nation on June 17 via his Twitter account that he had ordered Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) “ to begin the process of removing the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States. They will be removed as fast as they come in .,.” The start date was to be Sunday, June 23, with planned “family op” raids in major cities. Panic ensued in Hispanic communities across the nation, as many families chose to go underground, moving out of their homes and American citizen children once again faced the specter of losing their non-felon undocumented parents. Trump’s critics asked rhetorically, “where is our humanity?” while his core supporters urged him on.
Yet following a telephone call with Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, in which she beseeched the President to reconsider, he did. In a June 22 tweet just a day before the ICE dragnets were supposed to begin, Trump stated, “At the request of Democrats, I have delayed the Illegal Immigration Removal Process (Deportation) for two weeks to see if the Democrats and Republicans can get together and work out a solution to the Asylum and Loophole problems at the Southern Border. If not, Deportations start!”
The pattern is by now familiar; a pistol to the head, but no shot fired.
A few weeks ago, President peremptorily announced via his six-gunning Twitter feed that he had decided to impose import tariffs on Mexican products until our southern neighbor stopped the flows of Central Americans migrants through Mexico to the U.S. border to his subjective satisfaction. A twelfth-hour negotiation yielded an agreement that few experts believe can be effectively implemented by Mexico. But it was enough to get the President to back off, but with the predictable “make me happy or else” follow-up commentary.
Mexico now has to be wondering if POTUS’ tweeted comment on June 22 that “ Mexico, using their strong immigration laws, is doing a very good job of stopping people …” is genuine or just another example of misdirection? But beyond that, they and the American people have to wonder if the President’s tariff threat was an empty pistol all along or if he really was ready to pull the trigger on tariffs that would have been paid by American business and been devastating to business on both sides of the border?
The short answer is no one knows. But for a man who allegedly made a fortune in the casino world, President Trump appears to be an awful poker player. His supporters say that his tactics keep allies and enemies all on guard and off their game, which gives Trump the advantage in his skillful deal making. But even a beginning poker player knows that you can only call your own bluffs for so long before you wind up in that uncomfortable situation where you’re not sure who the sucker at the table is. When that happens, it’s usually you.