In his classic memoir "The Education of Henry Adams," Adams recorded the advice from a member of President Grant's Cabinet on handling members of the lower house of Congress: "You can't use tact with a congressman! A congressman is a hog! You must take a stick and hit him on the snout!" Adams counted it as rare wisdom.
If the century-later sequel to Adams' 1918 story about coming of age in a swiftly changing world turns out to be "The Education of Donald Trump," there are sure to be analogies to the Grant secretary's obstinate swine. The question is whether the president will be on the giving or receiving end of the figurative wallops and of the adult education they are supposed to convey.
The country and the world have a leader that nearly everyone recognizes knew little to nothing about how any of the three branches of government work, about foreign cultures and rivalries, about the conduct of foreign affairs, or even about the importance of those intricacies. It was refreshing, because he was going to learn quickly on the job and form a new dynamic for successful governance. Four months in, it's not going well.
Rudy Giuliani misled him about how the courts would rule on the matter of banning Muslims from our shores, everyone misled him about the ease of repealing and replacing Obamacare with something better, his Goldman Sachs advisers and Paul Ryan misled him on how easily he could cut rich people's taxes and pass a balanced budget, he misled himself on how easily he could bluff the Chinese into kowtowing or North Korea's infantile leader into cringing before U.S. power, and his scheming son-in-law fooled him into thinking that firing the FBI director in the midst of the Russian probe would make him a hero to Democrats and Republicans alike. The last one plunged the White House into a criminal investigation that threatens his presidency.
But then he went off for a flamboyant tour of the Middle East and Europe mapped by the same son-in-law that would give him the majesty of a conqueror. It was good for him mentally, considering the blue funk that all the domestic flops and the Russian investigation had put him in, and something of a public relations triumph, at least the Middle East phase. He read a charming speech about Muslims that reversed everything that he had ever said about the religion (his old campaign adviser Roger Stone said it made him "want to puke"), which satisfied the ruling oligarchs and perhaps the radical Sunni clerics who have sent murderous youth rampaging through the region and Europe. He called Islam "one of the world's great faiths," one bent on peace and brotherhood.
The speech may stand him in good stead when his Muslim ban reaches the Supreme Court, because it might offset his campaign tirades against Muslims that caused trial and appellate courts to hold that the ban on entrants from six Muslim countries violated the establishment clause. (No terrorist from those countries has attacked us, but none has a Trump hotel.)
In the long term, it is the most dangerous thing he has done. He might have won the hearts of two-thirds of the Islamic world by declaring Shiite Iran as the Satan of the region and the world's chief sponsor of terrorism. He called on nations to follow him and Saudi Arabia in subduing Iran and terrorism. Saudi Arabia won't spend a dollar or sacrifice a man fighting the Islamic State or al Qaeda. It has helped bankroll them.
It was an absurd proclamation, directly contrary to the moment of illumination early in his campaign when Trump said America had been mistaken in getting involved in the ancient Sunni-Shiite rivalries — something he perhaps heard Fareed Zakaria say on CNN. No Iranian was involved in the 9-11 attacks (15 of the 19 terrorists and Osama bin Laden were from Saudi Arabia and all were Sunnis) or any other on U.S. soil. All the big terrorist groups, including the Islamic State, al Qaeda and Boko Haram, are Sunnis whose goal is the destruction of Iran. Iran is America's most effective ally in fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Its beleaguered and divided democracy is an outpost in the autocratic Islamic world. It is not altogether wholesome because it supports Shiite rebels in Yemen and Lebanon that Saudi Arabia calls terrorists.
While Trump was consorting with the dictators and denouncing Iran, the rising tide of westernized Iranian youth were delivering a massive victory at the polls for the beleaguered regime against the U.S.-hating right. Although ultimate power still rests with the aging and weakening ayatollah, the election was a promising moment for the United States, Israel and the whole region. But if the president carries through with his threats and gets Congress to impose more sanctions and withdraw from the Iran treaty, the nuclear peril and terrorism will surge again and the frail hopes for a pacified Middle East in our time will disappear.
Take heart. Part of his education is to never follow through.