The Real Foreign Policy of ‘Alice in Wonderland’
Jared Kushner cited Lewis Carroll’s classic as the key to understanding Trump. He’s right—just not in the way he thinks.
One of the strangest revelations in Bob Woodward’s latest book on Donald Trump’s presidency, Rage, is that Jared Kushner suggested to Woodward that the way to understand his father-in-law was to meditate on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This was, apparently, intended as praise. But groveling flattery is hardly new among Trump’s courtiers. What makes the remark stand out is that it’s also almost entirely true, especially as applied to U.S. foreign policy—though perhaps not in the way that Kushner intended.
Some of the parallels lie on the surface of Carroll’s narrative: Alice’s progress throughout the story, after all, consists largely of negotiations with irascible megalomaniacs (even if the Queen of Hearts has neither Novichok nor chainsaws for the dismemberment of corpses at her disposal). But there is a much deeper connection between this children’s fantasy and foreign policy in the age of Trump.
References to Alice in Wonderland are generally used as a shorthand for anarchy, which is apparently how Kushner intended it, with the implication that Trump was uniquely positioned to navigate those conditions. But when you reread the book and its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, it’s obvious that this is not what’s going on at all. There is a tight internal logic that regulates the actions of the characters. It is just completely detached from the logic of the world beyond the rabbit hole. It pays attention only to words, and not to the things in the world that they usually point to.
In Through the Looking-Glass, Humpty Dumpty, for example, says that words mean only whatever he wants them to mean—but this is not exactly true. Lewis Carroll thinks like a man setting clues in a British cryptic crossword. The obvious meaning is never the one that is useful. Inside the looking-glass world, meanings are chosen precisely for their incongruity with the outside world, rather than “contrariwise” (to quote Tweedledum). The application to the self-described business titan Trump—or even Britain’s own “world-beating” Prime Minister Boris Johnson—is too obvious to belabor.
Kushner seems to have meant his reference to the Cheshire Cat—“whose strategy was endurance and persistence, not direction,” in the presidential advisor’s words—as an endorsement of the apparent lack of planning or direction in Trump’s actions. Whatever obstacles she encounters, Alice always makes it through to the end. Or perhaps, in his reference to Alice and the Cheshire Cat, he was describing his own cautious approaches to another threatening orange enigma.
The Cat only grinned when it saw Alice. It looked good-natured, she thought: still it had very long claws and a great many teeth, so she felt that it ought to be treated with respect.
“Cheshire Puss,” she began, rather timidly, as she did not at all know whether it would like the name: however, it only grinned a little wider. “Come, it’s pleased so far,” thought Alice, and she went on. “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where——” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“—— so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”
This exchange from Alice in Wonderland surely captures much of Trump’s attitude toward, for instance, the Middle East, where his previously stated positions (with his emphasis on withdrawing from the region) only haphazardly intersect with his policies. He doesn’t much care where he goes so long as he gets somewhere—and in a work of fiction there is no distinction between word and deed: Whatever destination you announce you’ve reached, you have gotten to. Outside the rabbit hole there are Kurds, Syrians, Iraqis, Palestinians, and so forth to whom this isn’t fictional at all. But down the rabbit hole they don’t exist at all. They are only words to be twisted into any shape that’s useful for the moment.
In a similar way, there are vast quantities of bloviation that can be boiled down to a single remark made right at the beginning of the first book as Alice is falling down an apparently endless rabbit hole and trying to find her feet. Like anyone else pitched from New York real estate into geopolitics, “Alice had not the slightest idea what Latitude was, or Longitude either, but she thought they were nice grand words to say.”
If the foundational principle of the looking-glass world of Carroll’s sequel is that reality obeys words, rather than the other way around, almost everything about Trump’s foreign policy becomes clear: not least that it is almost as bewildering from the inside as it is from the outside.
In Alice in Wonderland, Alice is sometimes huge, sometimes entirely insignificant; only very occasionally is she the same size as the other characters. Surely this is how American power must feel to Jared Kushner. As the British writer Anatol Lieven pointed out in a recent issue of Prospect magazine: “For all America’s overwhelming superiority on paper, it has turned out that many countries have greater strength than the U.S. in particular places: Russia in Georgia and Ukraine, Russia and Iran in Syria, China in the South China Sea, and even Pakistan in southern Afghanistan.”
Alice would sympathize. When the White Rabbit asks her to go into the house to fetch a pair of gloves and a fan, she rushes in as eagerly as an American government bringing democracy to Afghanistan—and once inside, she drinks, of course, from the bottle she finds on the table. “‘I know something interesting is sure to happen,’ she said to herself, ‘whenever I eat or drink anything; so I’ll just see what this bottle does. I do hope it’ll make me grow large again, for really I’m quite tired of being such a tiny little thing!’”
In no time at all she finds she is so large that she is entirely trapped within the house. She is able to kick out anyone else who tries to enter, but she’s entirely unable to get her leg out of the chimney or her arm out of the window. Only when the pebbles that the actual owners of the house throw at her are miraculously transformed to cake that shrinks her can she escape—and then she is chased into the woods by a furious mob and threatened by a gigantic puppy before talking on equal terms with a hookah-smoking caterpillar all of three inches long.
This inability to maintain a size at which the world makes sense is coupled with an astonishing tactlessness. Alice dearly loves her cat Dinah, so she tells a mouse all about it. When the mouse is offended, she talks about a terrier instead, which is a wonderful rat-killer; at this the mouse flees again, only returning after she promises not to speak of cats or dogs again. But she has learned nothing from this, and as soon as she has an audience of birds she starts to tell them in turn what a wonderful animal her cat is.
Truly to understand what links the world of Alice in Wonderland with the Trump presidency you have to perform one final imaginative inversion and picture not just what Wonderland looked like to Alice, but how Alice seemed to the inhabitants of Wonderland—and how happy they must have been to see her go.