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A Letter to Trump: Some Advice for Week 2

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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Dear Mr. President,

I don’t think I ever congratulated you on winning the election. My bad. I know your first week in office has been rough. I hope your second will go a little better. And all the weeks after it too.

I hear that you are a historically minded man. With that in mind, I would like to offer some advice. By a pretty cool coincidence, your second week in office will include three anniversaries in which you might find some helpful lessons.

Jan. 29, 1917 (100 years ago): Secretary of War Newton Baker announced that U.S. troops under General John J. Pershing were in the process of withdrawing from Mexico. Remember that one? President Woodrow Wilson sent the Army across the border to chase Pancho Villa, who had raided a U.S. border town. Actually, the bigger problem was that Villa was threatening American investments in northern Mexico. He executed some U.S. workers. People were angry. Wilson had to do something.

As I'm sure you're aware, Mr. President: It’s really, really important to think big decisions through. Doing something just for the sake of being able to say you’re doing something is usually a bad idea. It sure didn’t work for Wilson. Pershing’s military expedition eventually numbered 12,000 men. Americans cheered when the troops went in. But it cost a lot of money and a lot of casualties, and they never caught Villa.

It also made the Mexicans really, really mad. You know, invasion of sovereign territory, imperialist neighbor to the north -- stuff like that. In fact, they were mad for a long time. (Say, a century.) Plus, the War Department told Wilson that if he wanted to go to war with Mexico (yes, people were talking about that), the “Pershing line” wouldn’t do any good anyway. The U.S. should either launch a full-scale invasion or get out. Wilson decided that negotiating with the Mexican government was better than trying to look tough. I’m just saying.

Feb. 1, 1967 (50 years ago): Gary Davidson announced the formation of the American Basketball Association, to compete with the National Basketball Association. Now, founding a new sports league is tricky and usually fails. (I’m sure you remember your experience with the New York Generals.) But the ABA worked. People mocked the jazzy upstart and its three-point line and its red-white-and-blue basketballs, and those tiny but loud arenas in towns the big sports leagues forgot and -- well, you see my point here, right? Sort of like your campaign.

So, Mr. President, here’s the thing to keep in mind. The ABA was raucous and fun and had lots of supporters. But in the end it couldn’t stand on its own. Constantly picking fights with the NBA turned out to be an unsustainable strategy. The two leagues merged in 1976. You see where I’m going here, right? Sure, the Republican Par-- oops, sorry, I mean the NBA -- became the dominant partner after the merger, but the league adopted a lot of the jazzy appeal of the upstart, and was a lot better and more popular for it. (Yes, you’re right, the NBA should have kept those red-white-and-blue basketballs, at least on weekends.)

Feb. 1, 1992 (25 years ago): President George H.W. Bush and Russian President Boris Yeltsin made a joint declaration that the Cold War was over. We were all going to be friends and stuff. But you know what? The realists were right. The Cold War only looked ideological. Trouble is, a lot of it was geopolitical. Spheres of influence, natural resources -- you get the idea. So this whole best-friends-forever thing was doomed from the start. The Russian economy collapsed, but the Russian Bear kept on growling. The West expanded NATO, just in case. Because you never know what the Bear is going to do, and a lot of the folks who lived near its den were scared, broken economy and all. Then Putin was elected, oil prices went up, the economy took off, and the Russians got mad: “We thought we were all going to be friends and stuff.”

As a matter of fact, they’re still mad. Putin talks about this all the time. This is what he said a couple of years ago: “You guys broke your promise not to expand NATO so we guys took Crimea. Live with it.” That’s a loose translation. But you get the point. Now, I know the two of you were like fraternity brothers or something, but before you follow him down this particular rabbit hole, be aware. There was never an agreement not to expand NATO. Okay? So the West didn’t break its word. This is Putin flexing his muscles. And that hacking stuff during the election? More flexing. Like I said. Geopolitics. So when you guys get together, which I figure will be soon, the way to make America great again isn’t to go all “We’re best friends and stuff again.” It’s to flex back.

Anyway, that’s my advice for your second week. Oh, and I know you’re busy, so there’s no need to send a personal reply. Twitter will be just fine.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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Stephen L. Carter at

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