The Perils of Unintended Consequences for Trump and the Democrats
First, a cautionary tale from the past
In the mid 1940s, during World War II, my father, a combat pilot, was standing on the tarmac of a military base in England, talking with one of his colleagues. As the two men talked, they watched a young pilot walk out to a twin-engine P-38 that was parked on the ramp. The pilot climbed into the airplane without doing a walk-around inspection — a common and important ritual that allows a pilot to assess any potential problems with the plane. As my father and his friend watched, my dad noted the young pilot’s failure to inspect the plane. “I think I would have done a walk-around,” my dad said to his friend. His friend nodded in agreement.
The P-38 pilot then started the engines, and as the second engine caught and started to run, it sounded, according to my father, “a bit rough.” “I think I would shut that down and have a look,” my father said to his friend. His friend nodded in agreement. Nonetheless, the pilot ran both engines up, determined he was satisfied with their performance, and began to taxi to the runway.
As the fighter taxied away from my father and his colleague, both men heard the questionable engine hesitate and falter before resuming its normal roar. “I think I’d taxi back and call it a day with that one,” my father said. His friend nodded in agreement. The plane continued to taxi to the run-up pad at the end of the runway.
Still time to call it quits
At the run-up area — a position just off to the side of most runways — the pilot did one thing right: he cycled both engines, running them up as a pilot should to check things like proper oil temperatures and pressure, the voltmeter, fuel tank and fuel pump settings, flaps in takeoff position, correct propeller pitch cycles, magneto performance, etc. There is a pre-takeoff list almost all pilots follow. However, during his run-up, that same troublesome engine balked again before resuming its steady rumble. “I think he’s got a problem out there,” my dad noted. “He should bring it on back.” His friend nodded in agreement. The young pilot chose to continue to the end of the runway and proceeded to start his takeoff roll, both engines climbing up to full power. Until one stopped as the plane was a few feet in the air.
“He needs to close both throttles,” my dad said. The pilot did not, and the plane, now in an asymmetric condition with one engine running at full power and the other engine dead, swerved from its line of flight and careened into the ground next to the runway. My father’s friend turned to my dad and said, “You teach a hard lesson.”
Unintended consequences will bite you hard
It was the lesson of unintended consequences, usually not so unforgiving as my father’s story concluded, but, from time to time, pretty damn unforgiving, not unlike the chain of events that led up to the destruction of a Ukrainian airliner by an Iranian/Russian surface-to-air missile strike.
The tipping point
In my opinion, the chain of events leading to today’s headlines — documenting the sad, mean, bizarre, unhinged, and often un-decodable actions and pronouncements by Mr. Trump — began on June 16, 2015, when Trump, having descended to the media scrum via a golden escalator from his lofty Trump Tower, announced his candidacy for president. That was a tipping point in American history — a moment when millions of Americans, standing, as my father and his friend did 70 years ago, on the sidelines, shaking their heads and saying, “I don’t think that’s going to fly.”
Throughout the campaign that followed — notably across the span of the Republican debates — we got front-row seats to the Trumped-up debacle that signaled the demise of the Republican Party as it was once known. We watched and listened, slack jawed and gobsmacked, as Trump’s opponents fell by the way despite Trump’s ugly attacks on the candidates themselves (think Ted Cruz’s father, or Trump’s characterization of Carly Fiorina’s face), a brutal broadside of a Vietnam War hero and an attempt to publicly shame Gold Star families; despite his boorish and crude language demeaning a disabled reporter and women in general; despite his obvious lack of any leadership credentials, military service, knowledge of history, appreciation for the fundamental founding documents — the Declaration and the Constitution.
Almost every day of the campaign, we watched him taxi out on his Trump 757, and we said, over and over, “I can’t imagine how that is ever going to fly.” The cascade of missteps, logic-based assumptions, denials, presumptions of the existence of a self-righting process, and, to a great degree if we are honest with ourselves as Democrats, hubris, led to one of the nation’s greatest examples of unintended consequences.
We should not have been surprised…but we were
Despite a majority popular vote of 65,853,524 for Hillary Clinton (compared to Trump’s 62,984,828) and an overall pro-Democratic Party percentage of 48.2%, the pro-Hillary tip of the scales could not overcome the added weight of the frustrating rules of the Electoral College. I was sitting in a bar in Canberra, Australia, watching the election night results unfold in mid-day, Aussie time.
I’d cast my absentee ballot before my trip to New South Wales, and I was confident that the American, pro-Hillary ex-pat party that was gearing up in that bar would be a rousing, cheerful event. By late-afternoon in Canberra, as it became clear Trump had Electors (not the popular vote) sufficient to win, at least one of the engines on the Democratic plane of certainty had failed, and the Party was shambling off its runway and into the weeds of ennui and shock. One by one, my Aussie hosts and party attendees came up to me and asked, “How did this happen?” It’s taken me a long time to work on that question.
The Democrats failed to check all the boxes
The hard truth points to the unintended consequences of not making absolutely sure that the Democratic Party had covered all its bases; of not considering the emergence of a Trumpian-class of voters; of ignoring the signs that, despite his obvious persona as a bully, boor, and liar, he had a following that didn’t care; of not factoring in the animus Hillary evoked in so many voters whose ballots were not so much “for” Trump as “against” Clinton (and, to a degree, in favor of sending an anti-Obama message to the Democratic Party); and, in the end, of not recognizing and acting to deflate the multi-paned bubble of racial, economic, civil, and educational tension inside which Trump voters live and grumble.
A perverse outcome was, in hindsight, inevitable
The law of perverse unintended consequences holds that one precipitous action following another will lead to a cascade of unforeseen (and often unforeseeable) actions resulting in the failure to achieve an intended outcome. Salubrious outcomes do happen, but it’s not smart to bet on that.
So it was that the precipitous action by Trump to assassinate Qasem Soleimani, absent a clear threat and defensible strategy, led to the retaliatory launching of Iranian ballistic missiles, which led to heightened state of readiness by a too-quick-on-the-trigger surface-to-air rocket installation, which led to the radar painting and mis-identification and unintended destruction of the Ukrainian airliner. It may be a cold analysis, but I put this cascade of failures and the deaths of innocent passengers not only on Trump’s shoulders, but on the collective shoulders of Trump’s advisors, Congressional enablers, and his hardest-core supporters who egg him on at every Trump rally.
To be fair, no one on Trump’s pre-Soleimani-hit briefing team expected the president to say, “Hey, let’s step back and think this one through.” Like Fonzie’s hard-wired inability to say “I was wrong,” Trump’s genetic default position is to never say, “Maybe this is a bad idea.”
The echoes of past failures have yet to fade
I hear the cry of Republicans who will have me hark back to April 1961, and John Kennedy’s ill-considered and globally-embarrassing order to proceed with the Bay of Pig’s invasion, or Jimmy Carter’s Iranian desert debacle, “Operation Eagle Claw,” nineteen years to the month after the Bay of Pigs. I won’t even begin to go to the Gulf of Tonkin (Johnson), the Watergate break-in (Nixon), or Iran-Contra (Reagan), “No New Taxes” (George H.W. Bush), Lewinsky (Clinton), or the run-up to the invasion of Iraq (George W. Bush). No one is arguing that poor White House decision-making began with our current president or is the sole provenance of Republican presidents.
But what can be argued is that under Trump — as a result of the Democrats’ failure to offset the Trump base’s pre-election Macedonian cry for relief from what they perceived (and continue to believe) to be an effete, intellectual, uncaring Democratic Party threatening, through Hillary Clinton, to further disengage them from any participation in national affairs — more poor and dangerous decisions by Trump are now savaging the nation’s founding principles and undermining our standing in the world.
There is still time to choose wisely
Which brings me back to the unintended consequences of electing a man who has never had any intention of learning about the presidency, of caring deeply about anyone or anything that does not promote his personal wealth or ego, of seeking to understand the value of compromise, of reaching out to the opposition with any kind of olive branch, or of considering the personal and political benefits of admitting ignorance and asking for help. The absence of all of those attributes in a president is a guarantor of a continuation of lost opportunities and thundering cataracts of unintended consequences of the kind that brought the Ukrainian airliner down.
Unlike the hapless pilot at the front of this article, the Democrats can still choose to turn around and taxi their troubled craft back to the ramp and work on the engines that might just fly them out of this mess. We are not so far down the runway that good sense can’t finally prevail. Yes, the nation is close to that critical point where Trump’s win in 2020 could wreck us irreparably, but I think the Democrats have a chance to deny him that victory if they learn from the lessons of past failures and resolve to do the hard work they neglected in 2015 and 2016.