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The Art of Misdirection

Donald Trump’s attack on transgender rights is an attempt to create political chaos. It’s from an all-too-familiar playbook

Donald Trump’s attack on transgender rights is an attempt to create political chaos. It’s from an all-too-familiar playbook

Donald Trump used misdirection in business and entertainment. He is doing the same in politics.

Misdirection is the central craft of magicians and hucksters. Get people distracted, turn their senses toward a sound, statement, or sight…while doing something else without detection. The military calls it tactical deception.

As a 15-year-old hanging out in Atlantic City, I learned about misdirection from a guy running a shell game on the boardwalk. I still can’t figure out how the pea moved from the middle shell. Although years later I picked up a few tricks of my own.

Military misdirection is done by getting your opponent to overestimate or underestimate your capacity. Or getting them to commit to one direction while you identify weaknesses in other areas.

Misdirection is getting harder to do on the battlefield and in civilian life, though apparently it still works in martial arts and on the boardwalk. Technology and social media make it hard for anything to remain invisible, let alone quiet, for very long. There are no surprises. There are more contending narratives and many more discredited authorities, but fewer surprises. When everyone is a publishing company, film production house, and news channel, misdirection is not what it used to be. Too many eyes, ears, and voices!  

Many conservatives only cared about paying for transgender operations—not the transgendered’s service in the military. 

Which brings us to the most recent misdirection from the White House: Eliminating the rights of the transgendered to serve in the military.  

The Presidency has been in chaos since Donald Trump’s inauguration. Not only have we had no major legislation passed, we’ve got the Russian investigation, the recent resignation of Sean Spicer, and the difficulty of hiring top people into what now might be a career ender.

But it gets worse: Trump throws Attorney General Sessions under the front wheels of a bus while his mini-me—Anthony Scaramucci—throws Chief of Staff Reince Priebus under the back wheels of the same bus. Can you imagine dinner with these guys? Think Red Wedding in Game of Thrones.

If you embarrass or undercut a senior staff person in public it tells everyone who works for you that your loyalty is suspect and your self-control non-existent. Other members of your team reevaluate their loyalty. It is harder to recruit new people.

Going after Jeff Sessions does not sit well with a large part of Trump’s conservative values voters including Republican senators who made it clear there will be no new Attorney General going through a nomination process this year. And going after Reince Priebus does not play well with the establishment Republicans.

You say none of this matters to Trump. Well that may be so—unless he wants to get something done like tax reform or infrastructure. No man has ever been less equipped to govern in a system of co-equal branches of government than Donald Trump. You govern by building bridges and giving away credit. Trump is a bridge burner and he hoards credit. He will get very little done.

Our strongest allies from the U.K. to Israel allow transgender military service. Would we rather go in the direction of the most retrograde powers—Russia, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia—where there are bans (and much worse) for gay persons not only in the military but also in many aspects of civilian life? In Saudi Arabia and Iran the “wrong” sexual orientation can still turn into a death sentence.

What was Sessions’s crime in Trump world? He recused himself from the Russian investigation. Sessions was following protocol from a 1978 post-Watergate rule that bars employees from involvement in probes if they were involved in the organization that might be investigated. Sessions was part of the Trump campaign team. They are being investigated. He did the right thing. Had he not recused himself, he would have had a different problem.

So in light of this, Trump plays to part of his base by showing that he can be tough on the transgendered when it comes to military readiness. Really? You can imagine the discussion he had with himself: Should be safe, lots of people complained about the bathroom issues, I can get some play on all this, Ok, let’s tweet.

But it is not working all that well. In fact, it’s a dud.  

First, many conservatives only cared about paying for transgender operations—not the transgendered’s service in the military.

Secondly, the military was ready to accommodate trans service persons. There are about 6,000 transgender persons in the military out of 1.2 million active duty personnel. It just does not mean very much. And those within the military who were against it do not matter. You can consult with them, but this is a civilian controlled military. You get to choose.

No man has ever been less equipped to govern in a system of co-equal branches of government than Donald Trump. You govern by building bridges and giving away credit. Trump is a bridge burner and he hoards credit. He will get very little done.

Third, our strongest allies from the U.K. to Israel allow transgender military service. Would we rather go in the direction of the most retrograde powers—Russia, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia—where there are bans (and much worse) for gay persons not only in the military but also in many aspects of civilian life? In Saudi Arabia and Iran the “wrong” sexual orientation can still turn into a death sentence.

Inclusivity within the military has always been a way to achieve full citizenship. The film Lincoln opens with two African American soldiers speaking to Lincoln, one of them arguing about unequal treatment within the military. There is a reason the film begins with that dialogue. Sacrifice—something Trump has not done very much of—and citizenship have always been connected.

Fourth, Trump has made himself smaller by picking on a tiny minority without a loud voice whose lifestyle is now being slowly accepted more widely. The fights we pick define us in immeasurable ways.

Fifth, cities and other localities who have been on the forefront of accommodating sexual preferences are coming out strongly against the transgender military ban. Don’t be surprised if local and state police forces adopt more explicit pro-transgender service policies and create opportunities for those denied military service today.

The most novel and frightening analysis I have ever heard about Trump says that he really does not care about getting anything done. That the entire presidency is best viewed as performance art. He cares about being noticed and discussed. As long as he has everyone’s attention, he is victorious. All of the detail of legislation and foreign policy briefings mean nothing.

The political question is at what point does his inability to govern become too much for the Republicans? When do they make the political calculation that staying on the Trump reservation harms their personal political options? We see evidence of some of that today.

Anthony Scaramucci was hired to clean house to protect Trump from leaks and bolster the most loyal of his political guard. But besides that, there is no agenda that Scaramucci is capable of moving forward. He is a smart Wall Street guy who likes to tell everyone that he grew up in Queens. Okay…and?

Of course a weak Democratic Party, unable to define an economic growth strategy as opposed to an economic redistribution policy, makes it possible for Republicans to maintain at least one house of Congress. Neither party seems especially capable of governing.

If the unemployment rate continues to fall and the stock market keeps growing, then who knows? Trump is damaged, the Republican brand is floundering, but individual Republican candidates may be just fine. Stranger things have happened in times of chaos and misdirection.

Header Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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