Can Trump Be This Stupid? (Not a Trick Question)

Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump listens to a question during an interview after a rally in Virginia Beach, Va., Monday, July 11, 2016. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Steve Helber/AP

We have news tonight that tomorrow, in advance of his big immigration speech in Arizona, Donald Trump will travel to Mexico City to meet with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. This is such an outlandish idea it is not easy to make sense of it or predict its outcome. But a few key points are worth bearing in mind.

It’s a general rule of politics not to enter into unpredictable situations or cede control of an event or happening to someone who wants to hurt you. President Nieto definitely does not want Donald Trump to become President. He probably assumes he won’t become president, simply by reading the polls. President Nieto is himself quite unpopular at the moment. But no one is more unpopular than Donald Trump. Trump is reviled. Toadying to Trump would be extremely bad politics; standing up to him, good politics.

Put those factors together and Peña Nieto has massive and overlapping reasons to want to embarrass Trump. At a minimum since he’s probably not eager to create a true international incident, he has zero interest in appearing in any way accommodating or helpful. The calculus might be different if Trump seemed likely to be the next US President. Mexico is a minor power with the world colossus on its doorstep. But a Trump presidency seems unlikely. Far likelier, Peña Nieto will need to build a relationship with Hillary Clinton. These factors combined make for an inherently dangerous political situation for Donald Trump, especially since the atmospherics of this meeting will be the backdrop for Trump’s evening speech which is itself an incredibly important moment and one in which he has set for himself what is likely an impossible challenge.

And there’s more!

Trump is apparently traveling to Mexico with Rudy Giuliani and Sen. Jeff Sessions as his minders. People with the political nimbleness and cultural awareness to manage and massage a good outcome? I should say not. They’re also traveling on one or two days notice. It will show.

Remember that the central force of Trump’s political brand is dominance politics. Trump commands, people obey. Trump strikes, victims suffer. It will be extremely difficult for him to manage anything like this in the Mexican capital. He comes with a weak hand, no leverage and the look of a loser. All Peña Nieto needs to say is no.

Again, when you’re in a campaign under constant scrutiny you do your best to control every situation, reduce the risk of unpredictable, embarrassing or damaging events. You try not to cede control to others. You especially try not to cede near total control to someone who has every interest in the world in harming you. The maximal version of that ‘big thing you’re not supposed to do’ is precisely what it looks like Trump is doing.

I’m seeing comments tonight on TV either that Trump has little to lose (so great idea!) or that this is a wise move because it gives Trump a venue in which he can look presidential. President Obama tours the world; Hillary Clinton did so as Secretary of State. Now Trump gets a chance to do the same and even the score.

This strikes me as silly, a game effort to avoid saying that obvious: that this is really dumb.

Trump’s Razor helps here. It’s tempting to assume that there’s some angle Trump has here, some plan or understanding with Peña Nieto to make this not as silly a decision as it appears to be. I’m tempted because how could they think this was a good idea? Trump’s Razor tells us to resist this temptation. “The stupidest scenario possible that can be reconciled with the available facts.” I think that’s what we have here. It’s as stupid as it looks. Who knows? Maybe Trump will handle this deftly and it’ll be a huge success. But Trump’s Razor has yet to fail me. So I’m going to stick with it.

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