Sometimes bad people do good things. And only those who hold the absurd notion that the small, impoverished country of North Korea is an evil devil incarnate don’t see that Donald Trump meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un is a good thing.
The main complaint, as exemplified by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, is that the United States gave away too much. That’s ridiculous. North Korea is going to temporarily stop nuclear weapons development and the sanctions remain. The “too much” is the de facto legitimization of the North Korean government that a visit from a U.S. leader entails; as Peter Baker put it in the New York Times, “they did not want to reward Pyongyang with the prestige of such a meeting unless there was substantial assurance of a breakthrough.” That’s ridiculous. The Old Testament proverb that “pride goeth before a fall” applies to those who think that a presidential visit has tangible value at a negotiating table as much as it did to the planners of the Vietnam and Second Iraq wars.
Another concern is that it’s Trump who is going, so we can all hold our breaths like parents of a poorly socialized four-year-old in expectation of bad behavior: saying the wrong thing, snubbing the hosts with cultural faux pas, getting pissed off, and making idle threats. But that sounds like the way he treats our allies, not autocrats like Putin, Xi and bin Salman. Who knows? Trump may come away with some good ideas for his military parade. The bigger threat of course is that he gives away the store, as he has proven to be a terrible negotiator in government.
The last objection is that if the negotiations fail, it will bring us closer to war, as that will demonstrate to Trump that his view that war with North Korea is the only answer is correct. That’s what Victor Cha, former national foreign policy advisor to Bush II, is saying. But should we then wait for Trump to conclude that negotiations don’t work without even trying them? Yes, it would be nice if Trump and Kim followed diplomatic niceties and first had their people work out the details of what would be discussed before agreeing to a sit-down, but doing so would not have guaranteed a successful outcome, especially with two people as erratic and publicity-seeking as Trump and Kim. The sudden surprise and the big splash is more their style.
Besides, negotiating is always better than saber-rattling or bomb-dropping, no matter who is doing the negotiating. Period.
Let’s not, however, confuse this development with Nixon going to China, as many Trump admirers want to do. Just hold in your mind for one minute three words and you’ll see the difference. The words are: China. North Korea. A country with more than a billion people versus a country of 25 million. What is the difference in trade potential with China in the 1970’s versus with North Korea today? The potential impact of a war with either? The significance in terms of the international balance of power?
The question at this point should not be whether a Trump trip to North Korea is a good thing, but if Trump has achieved a diplomatic success by his tough talk? Is the Trump bluster—pushing our weight around with threats of military intervention and trade wars—a more effective tool than diplomacy and alliance building?
To answer that question let’s first analyze what happened. Trump made violent threats and Kim responded by launching rocket tests. Meanwhile, sanctions kept up their slow torture of the North Korean economy. Trump shut up for a few months and Kim came to the table after much traditional courting by the South Koreans. Those facts don’t make a good case for Trump’s brand of speaking loudly and wielding a big stick.
I am going to propose some other reasons that Kim decided to halt North Korea’s nuclear arms development while still under sanction and to meet with the United States. Some combination of all these reasons probably compelled Kim to act. Spoiler alert—I think it’s the last one mentioned:
The Olympics made Kim recognize the advantages of being part of the society of world nations and the global economy, and not an isolated outlier constrained by economic sanctions.
The sanctions worked and Kim realizes that he has to bend to the will of the rest of the world.
Kim has run out of money for further development of a North Korean nuclear capability for a while.
Russia put pressure on North Korea to get serious about negotiations with South Korea. Russia is interested in building a natural gas pipeline through North Korea to supply South Korea with natural gas. That would explain both South Korea’s overtures and North Korea’s willingness to listen and talk. Sounds like the type of deal that’s getting done a lot lately, like the new Trans-Pacific Partnership—done without the United States.
So I don’t think Trump’s actions instigated Kim, but recent events do represent a turnaround in what he’s been saying for a long time: that negotiations have failed and we have to take further action. Maybe now that he’s ready to talk to Kim—even if it’s for no other reason than to see another parade and hear the cheers of another crowd of people in a foreign land—Trump might recognize that using sanctions and negotiations to stop countries from developing nuclear capabilities is a good thing and change his mind about the Iran nuclear deal. Of course, first he would have to get over his racist notion that if a black man did it, it couldn’t be good.
People generally act for one of four reasons: 1. The facts lead them to the action; 2) Self-interest; 3) Their belief system; 4) Something emotional, such as anger, pride, jealousy, shame, hatred or fear.
From the very start of his unsuccessful career as a business person and through his successful career playing one on TV to the current day, Donald Trump has never been guided by facts. But in this regard, he is not alone. The Republican Party from its very beginnings as a voice for the abolition of slavery have been guided by self-interest, essentially creating crony capitalism during the Civil War and the Gilded Age that followed it. In recent years, the Republicans have allowed their belief system and self-interest to trump any use of facts in such areas as environmental, economic and health policies.
Trump isn’t even the first elected official to make decisions on purely primordial emotions. Although based on their belief that people of color are inferior to people of European descent, the decision by Republicans in Congress to block everything that President Obama wanted to accomplish was essentially emotional, the operating passion being hatred of the black man. Another example: it was Kennedy’s testosterone-fueled need to prove his manhood—at heart, an insecurity—that led to the Bay of Pigs fiasco.
How Trump differs from all those who have come before him on the national political stage is the degree to which he lets emotions guide him. Yes, self-interest and a flawed value system come into play, but the means by which Trump protects his self-interest or advances his value system usually reduces to a full-throttled expression of an emotion: hate, rage, fear, insecurity, the will to dominate. That Trump is guided by his emotions represents a far greater danger than his fascistic beliefs, his unrelenting unethical conduct in pursuit of self-interest or his propensity not just to ignore the facts, but actively to create lies in their place.
These past few days have seen Trump make two enormous mistakes that will hurt hundreds of millions of people, both on purely emotional grounds. The more reported blunder was to announce steep tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. While giving a small boost to these two mature industries, the tariffs will hurt a number of other industries and primarily will apply to our closest allies such as Canada. Moody’s Analytics has already figured out that 119,000 American jobs will be lost because of the tariffs. (Add that to the 30,000 jobs lost by undoing the Clean Power Plan and Trump is about one-fifth of the way towards reducing jobs to match the decrease in the workforce that will result from sending the Dreamers to the country of their parents’ origin.) The only Americans who won’t be paying higher prices for something or another because of these new tariffs will be those who never use anything containing steel or aluminum. In other words, everyone will suffer. And that’s before the trade war that likely will ensue as our pissed-off allies react.
Most mainstream media have reported that Trump made the tariff decision on the spur of the moment, in a wild fit of caged-animal rage in reaction to the news that his son-in-law was in deep doo-doo and that the Mueller investigation was rapidly getting closer to proving that Trump and his advisors cooperated with the Russians to help Trumpty-Dumpty in the last presidential election and then attempted to conceal their treasonous collusion. Little details like the fact the Trump Administration encouraged Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to cut off diplomatic relations with Qatar after Qatar refused to loan his son-in-law hundreds of millions of dollars have tightened the noose around Trump’s own neck.
His reaction has been a blinding anger that confidential sources say made him do the equivalent of coming home and kicking the dog after a brutal day in the office. In this case, Trump’s dog are other countries, but in his rage he never bothered to have someone run the numbers and recognize that the dogs he kicked are his best friend and that he’s also hurting his own country. Or perhaps he knows and doesn’t care. Trump, and virtually the entire roster of elected Republicans, manifest a mean-spirited disregard of groups that they dislike or are not likely to vote for them. Establishing these new tariffs was a brassy expression of power that enabled Trump to reassert his manhood—at least to himself.
Less prominent is another recent instance of Trump lashing out in anger and hurting the country. The New York Times has reported that Trump is pushing Republicans in Congress to oppose funding for a new rail tunnel between New York and New Jersey because it’s an important project to New York Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer. Trump is engaging in a childishly emotional game of tit-for-tat, getting back at Schumer for blocking Trump’s nominees. Unfortunately in thwarting Schumer, Trump also hurts tens of millions of people in the financial and economic heart of the country. It affects the transportation network over the entire eastern seaboard from Boston to Washington, D.C., since every Amtrak train passing from New York to New Jersey uses the current tunnel, which is in a deteriorating condition that led to extensive scheduling changes last summer to accommodate repairs. The Obama Administration rated building the new tunnel as the single most important infrastructure improvement facing the country.
But Trump doesn’t care about what happens to the 25-million New York metropolitan area, the eastern seaboard or the rest of the country. He only cares about himself and placating whatever emotion is controlling his unconscious and conscious mind at any given moment. Gaining revenge and assuaging his anger with the symbolic blood of his adversary are all that matter to him.
What will happen when Mueller gets even closer? Or issues an indictment against Kushner, his sons or himself? The big fear is that Trump’s rage will cause him to order the dropping of a nuclear device on North Korea. What will the generals do? Will they obey the order or take the engaged madman into custody? And what will the GOP do? Republicans have made a devil’s bargain with Trump, overlooking his ethical lapses, emotional outbursts, erratic behavior and likely crimes to pursue its faith-based vision of an unfettered market. But will they follow him into nuclear war?
Equally as horrifying a thought as dropping the big one is the possibility that Trump tries to install an autocratic regime. In recent days, he has stressed his lack of respect for the American tradition of law at least twice. He hinted he wanted to end due process to take guns away from people with mental illness. More significantly, he speculated at a Republican donor function that maybe the United States would try to have a president for life, as China appears to be doing with Xi Jinping. How will his advisors, the military and other Republicans react when he wants to declare Marshall Law, let’s say, after the Democrats sweep into Congressional power in November or Mueller issues an indictment? Will they put the Donald under lock and key or will they continue to follow him? After all, the two fundamental principles of the U.S. military are chain of command and civilian control, while an autocratic regime would keep the Republicans in power.