I own a 1999 Dodge Ram truck with 130,000 miles on it. I use it for hauling trash, for helping out friends with furniture to move and for pulling the family ski boat and a buddy's horse trailer. As a city boy with a job where I sit most of the day, I often joke that the truck keeps my testosterone from dipping too low.
A few months ago I was looking at a website that sells accessories for trucks and very briefly contemplated buying some fender flares before realizing what an embarrassment it would be. What are fender flares, you ask? They are bulging crescents of molded material accented with fake bolts that attach to each fender on the arc of the wheel well. Here's part of the manufacturer's description: "Add [our] fender flares to give your truck a beefier, off-road look … the bolt-on style will make your truck stand out and look aggressive. … Turn your truck into a road warrior with a set of … fender flares!"
In other words, they are a cosmetic enhancement for a truck to make it look beefy, aggressive and fit for a warrior — and to make that image rub off on the driver of the truck.
That is a long way of getting around to observing that President Trump's speech last Thursday in Warsaw was akin to fender flares. The words he spoke about defending the values of Western civilization sounded tough. They sounded noble. They sounded robust. Yet, they were mere imagery contradicted by Trump's actions.
After six months in office, Trump has demonstrated a much greater affinity for autocrats from oppressive societies than he has for freely elected leaders from democratic countries. His "America First" policy has turned into an excuse to renege on solemn commitments made with allies of the United States, even as he easily and eagerly forgives and forgets the malign acts of governments in Russia, China, Turkey and the Philippines.
The president of the United States has long been called the leader of the free world and Trump was trying to play that part on the stage in Poland, but, to be leader, you need to lead — and you need followers. At the end of the G-20 summit of heads of government from around the world last week in Hamburg, Germany, Trump was clearly the odd man out and that put the United States on the periphery, rather than at the center, where it has been at least since the end of World War II.
Chris Uhlmann, political editor for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, sent out a commentary from the summit that quickly went viral because it summed up what so many people in the free world democracies think about Trump. In Hamburg, Uhlmann said, Trump had shown "neither the desire nor the capacity to lead the world." The American president not only ended up as the lone dissenter on a communique about the Paris climate change accord, Uhlmann pointed out, but Trump made no effort to rally other countries for a united stance against North Korea's nuclear provocations.
"We learned that Mr. Trump has pressed fast forward on the decline of the U.S. as a global leader," Uhlmann said. "He managed to diminish his nation and to confuse and alienate his allies. He will cede that power to China and Russia — two authoritarian states that will forge a very different set of rules for the 21st century.
"Some will cheer the decline of America, but I think we'll miss it when it is gone.
"And that is the biggest threat to the values of the West which he claims to hold so dear."
Trump pretends to be a macho man, a master deal maker, the smartest person in the room. In reality, he is a lazy student of policy who goes into meetings with international leaders having no particular goal but to be liked. He acts on impulse and bad advice, giving China the upper hand on trade in Asia and leaving Europeans with the task of preventing climate calamity. He is a petty bully who picks on female journalists but appeases bigger, smarter bullies like Vladimir Putin.
Trump is not the leader of the free world; he is a human fender flare.