Miss Marple is an Agatha Christie character, a charming older English lady who investigates crimes while knitting and making amiable small talk. Miss Marple’s schtick is that she solves crimes by noticing similarities in the personalities of the people in the case and the people she knows in her tiny English town, and using that to figure out who committed the crime. A typical Miss Marple moment looks something like, “Well, you see, the look on his face reminded me of the butcher’s boy Pennyworth, who was let go after the butcher caught him substituting eye of round for sirloin, so I started looking for clues that he was the one who put the fake diamonds in the safe.” Case closed!
This morning I had a Miss Marple moment when I saw the photos of Donald Trump meeting with the foreign minister of Russia, mere hours after firing the man investigating his campaign for collusion with Russia. Some time ago, I worked with someone whom we will call Leslie (obviously not their real name). I often found myself confused when talking to Leslie, but for several months managed to rationalize whatever strange thing they had just said into something that made sense. Eventually, it became inescapably clear that they weren’t actually competent at their job. Their superiors went to work on getting them to leave the company with a minimum of damage to their mutual reputations.
At some point during this process, I realized that Leslie was so incompetent that no one could predict what action they would take. The company would head into a negotiation with Leslie and after several rounds of back and forth, Leslie would… ask for something that helped the company and hurt Leslie. ??? The company couldn’t make and stick to a plan of action because it couldn’t rely on Leslie to act in their own self-interest because Leslie couldn’t recognize what was in their own self-interest. The company had to improvise its way through what should have been a totally standard process of negotiating a resignation letter, final day, severance, etc.
Trump shaking hands with a Russian official reminds me of Leslie in that negotiation, and that makes me feel hopeful. Part of why I was terrified after the election is that, like many others, I was afraid that Trump (or his staff) merely seemed incompetent but was actually “playing eleven-dimensional chess” under the surface. Now it seems clear that Trump is incompetent in general, but good at some very specific skills (marketing, lying, and shameless opportunism, mainly). He was also supported by a hostile nation-state (Russia).
This collection of skills and support was good enough to get Trump elected, but probably won’t be good enough to keep him in office. In particular, if Russia has a plan to help Trump to become dictator for life, they can’t count on Trump acting in any predictable way and will constantly have to adjust and update their plan.
Similarly, my old co-worker also had the right skills to get the job, but not to hold on to it. It took determination and hard work by a lot of different people to get them out of the company, and it took longer than it would have if we’d been working with a more competent person, but in the end it worked out for the best. I feel hopeful that we will see the same thing with Trump and the majority of the U.S. government and people.
Of course, it’s a ridiculous to compare a billionaire president of the world’s most powerful country to some ordinary middle-of-the-road co-worker of mine. But that never stopped Miss Marple. Who am I to claim I’m better than a fictional detective?