Commentary | 11 January 2019

The Ineffable Hulk, Trump is always one temper tantrum from disaster

Originally published in Sydney Morning Herald

Originally published in Sydney Morning Herald

You have to hand it to Donald Trump. He has remarkable verbal agility, even if he seems to combine it with functional illiteracy. For several years President Trump has dismissed all criticism as "fake news", a catchy phrase that has undermined the free press in America and has now been adopted by dictators around the world.

Last month he riffed on that reference, tweeting about the "Fake News Universe" in which CNN and others dwell. The universe in which Trump himself seems to dwell is not the Fake News Universe, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is a mad world of extreme danger, ridiculous plot twists and ludicrous characters. And of all the Marvel characters, The Donald is especially reminiscent of The Hulk.

The Hulk is the destructive green alter ego of Bruce Banner, a mild-mannered nuclear scientist. When Bruce Banner gets angry, he transforms into a super-sized raging monster. No one is accusing Trump of being a nuclear scientist. However, before he took office many believed his Hulk-like characteristics could be controlled.

A senior Australian official told me after Trump’s election that the American system would "wrap its arms around him" and normalise him. Appointees would run the country. It is not working out that way. The Hulk cannot be tamed.

Certainly, there have been instances where Trump looks like a conventional president, for example when he ordered air strikes against the al-Shayrat airfield in April 2017, in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. Sometimes he can string together a few weeks of appearing normal.

But then, usually at a moment of stress or anger, Trump snaps and transforms into The Hulk. He veers from his talking points and says and does awful things. Recall his discreditable response, only a short time after the al-Shayrat air strikes, to the murder of a young woman in Charlottesville by white supremacists.

On foreign policy, The Hulk is dominating Bruce Banner. Trump’s international instincts are shockingly unorthodox: he is partial to isolationism, allergic to free trade, sceptical of alliances and attracted to strongmen. Repeatedly his presidential garb has split open at the seams to reveal his true character.

He junked the Iran nuclear deal and pulled out of the Paris climate accord. He dissed the collective security guarantee of the NATO treaty. He withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and levied tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese imports. He dubbed himself "Tariff Man", which sounds like a particularly lame character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

And he pandered to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and emboldened an international league of strongmen, including the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Italy’s Matteo Salvini and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman.

The Hulk has not completely driven America’s behaviour in the world, of course. The Trump influence on US foreign policy has been checked by opposition from within his administration. Agents of the Deep State – a little like Marvel's law-enforcing agents from S.H.I.E.L.D. – have prevented the President from doing irreparable damage to America’s foreign relationships. However, these agents have progressively left the administration. The last two – defence secretary Jim Mattis and chief of staff John Kelly – are now gone.

As the constraints fall away, we will increasingly be left with the rage-fuelled behaviour of the Big Green Stupid. The stinging defeat in the November 2018 mid-term elections will not help. Given the likelihood of gridlock in Washington, the President may well get Trumpier in his foreign policy – or, if you like, Hulkier – because he has more elbow room on the world scene.

In other words, we may see even more of The Hulk in the future. Certainly, photos from the White House reveal that the President is bulking up.

Like all comic book characters, of course, The Hulk has a weakness. He is not exactly bright. He can barely put two words together. Equally, President Trump lacks the patience, focus and discipline to effectively implement his will. He is not really interested in developing policy. He is interested in being seen to win.

So far, this has limited the harm he has been able to do to US interests and the world order. However, we should not be too sanguine. President Trump is yet to face an externally generated crisis. Most of his problems have been self-made.

President Barack Obama came to office in the midst of a major financial crisis. Imagine if another crisis of that scale occurs, and our last line of defence is The Hulk?

This week Donald Trump made the case for a border wall in a televised address to the nation. He was unusually subdued – Banneresque, you might say. Then came the inevitable transformation. In a meeting with Democratic congressional leaders the next day, Trump reportedly slammed his hand on the table and stormed out when they refused to fund the wall.

The Hulk is only ever one temper tantrum away.