So a troubled and uncertain world has snapped to an even more enhanced state of attention this past week as the resident American and North Korean bad boys—Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un—have been hurling threats and insults across the seas. Trump ostensibly ad-libs the phrase “fire and fury” while chatting expansively with reporters at his golf course. In true Trumpian fashion, he takes special care to repeat the phrase, clearly enunciating each syllable, so enamored with his words he is, and so cognizant that they will land on every news website and newspaper in the world by the next morning.
Kim then warns darkly of setting an “enveloping fire” around Guam, whereupon Trump proclaims the nuclear arsenal he controls “locked and loaded.”
And then Fido lifted his leg and let go a thick stream.
The troubling reality is that North Korea, an impoverished third world nation in every other way, has come of age as a nuclear power despite decades of relentless diplomacy and economic sanctions.
Donald Trump’s bellicosity is of course nothing new. Whether his target is Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton, James Comey or Kim Jong-un, he goes for the jugular every time, as nasty as he can summon himself and his consistently base instincts to be. This is a man whose subtlety is measured only by the relative weight of the sledgehammer he will use to smash your skull. (Speaking only metaphorically there; his aggression is all rhetorical and legal via his army of lawyers.)
What’s new is that no one in Trump’s world has ever dared to sound quite as nasty and ridiculous as he has—until now. (One exception: poor Marco Rubio, who tried to tangle with Trump on his own degenerate terms by impugning his manhood in that ill-fated debate, which Trump took as an opportunity to boast about the size of his penis. Par for the course for Trump, whereas Rubio was so ashamed of himself, and his family so embarrassed for him, that he wound up apologizing and vowing never to stoop to such a gross level again. Trump went on to be elected president of the United States.)
But now in Kim, Trump has finally met his match in trash talking, verbal punching-and-counterpunching. Two schoolyard bullies, turning out to be spiritual doppelgängers, taking each other’s measure.
And here is my (surprising, at least to myself) take on this matter: I’m not at all sure Trump isn’t pursuing the right tactic in trying to stare his doppelgänger bully down. It’s not that he’s pursuing some grand chess-like strategy, either, because Trump really only knows one way, no, make that two ways, to try to get over on people: either wholly insincere flattery (“…It took guts for Director Comey to make the move that he made”) or withering ad hominem attacks (“I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job”).
But where Trump isn’t necessarily off base here is in two areas, I think:
1) Clearly, America’s and the international community’s previous efforts at diplomatic niceties paired with crippling sanctions (which mostly rain down on the long-suffering North Korean people) have done nothing to prevent Kim and the father who preceded him as dictator from becoming a nuclear power. So one must ask: Why would diplomacy cause him to stand down now, particularly given that his missiles may finally have the ability to carry their payloads to San Francisco and beyond?
2) Kim and Trump both know what all bullies know: you can push people around until a bigger and tougher bully than you moves onto your block. Then the resident bully saves face (and his power and perhaps his life) by finding another block.
For all their ham-handed rhetoric, bullies are survivalists who tend to make rational calculations on their chances to live another day. They know that the bully with the biggest muscles (and guns) runs the show, and in this case, Trump has the biggest and baddest guns.
Trump knows it, Kim knows it, and Trump knows that Kim knows it.
And as crazy as Kim may frequently appear to be, I see him instead as fox-crazy and thus as sane as you or me. It’s not for lack of cunning sanity that he out-maneuvered a host of powerful competitors to seize and consolidate power in the viper’s den of North Korean politics. That accomplishment does not bespeak an “unstable and even hysterical man” as New York Times columnist David Brooks labeled him (mistakenly, I believe) on the PBS Newshour on Friday.
Brooks suggested that “the last thing you want to do” is provoke such a man, but I see Trump, as some of Trump’s associates have also suggested, as speaking in the only language that Kim truly understands and is impressed by. It is not so much provocative as simple and direct. And it won’t lead to nuclear war because Kim is neither insane nor stupid.
And again, what has diplomatic roundaboutness done to calm the waters around the Korean Peninsula over the decades? It’s true, we have yet to engage in another war there since the early 1950s, and one could argue that is an accomplishment and proof that diplomacy has worked. But the troubling reality is that North Korea, an impoverished third world nation in every other way, has come of age as a nuclear power despite decades of relentless diplomacy and economic sanctions.
While the diplomats talked, the Kims kept arming. Jong-un is only too happy to keep the diplomats talking now.
“Blah blah blah,” they say, as sanctions tighten, his people get hungrier and even more docile, and he keeps living a life of luxury as the world’s latest pre-eminent bad boy. And make no mistake: he was paying close attention when his predecessors in that position, the nukeless Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein, met their dismal fates. Rationalist that he is, he took note and has continued to pursue nuclear arms with utter fervor and disdain for international pleas and norms.
And here he is, thriving in his own way by going toe to toe with the leader of the free world.
The Chinese, for their part, issued their usual bland pronouncement urging all parties to “speak and act with caution and do more things that are conducive to de-escalating the tense situation and enhancing mutual trust among parties, rather than relapse into the old path of showing assertiveness and escalating tensions.”
Building trust? In Kim Jong-un?
I have zero trust in Kim for all eternity, and I trust any sane person would feel the same way. And I harbor only slightly more trust in Trump. What I trust much more is the U.S. Constitution’s rule of law and democratic norms that still inhibit Trump’s maneuvering room. Kim labors under no such restraints.
So I think the chances for de-escalation via “mutual trust-building” are essentially zero. One needs some indication of good intentions to build trust—I’d suggest talking to the thousands of human beings Jong has imprisoned and/or offed over the years that he has seized and consolidated power.
Unfortunately, they have no voice to tell us to beware.
Now: is there a chance that bellicose rhetoric could escalate tensions and cause someone to do something stupid and thus set off a conflagration, in a way that could be avoided by continuing with even-tempered back room diplomacy? Only a fool would think that not a possibility.
Perhaps the more careful and well-trod rhetoric of diplomacy is always the way to go, though we need only go back to the repeated diplomatic efforts extended toward Hitler that slowly turned into appeasement as that Bully of all Bullies, suicidal coward that he turned out to be, gobbled up more and more of Europe. (“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Socialist.”…)
And let us not forget that a far more ominous situation in 1962 was resolved only when President Kennedy steeled his nerves and gave Nikita Khrushchev an ultimatum that he had better cease and desist from placing missiles 90 miles off American shores.
Kennedy didn’t use any Trumpian rhetoric, nor did Khrushchev emulate Kim, but while the diplomats cabled like mad, Kennedy stared down Khrushchev with a willingness to engage in nuclear war. No bluster, just an actual threat. Talk about an ultimate bullying moment.
In the end, Donald Trump may finally have landed on a situation tailor-made for him, given the spiritual-behavioral kinship he shares with Kim Jong-un. Two men who perfectly understand each other in the ultimate playground pissing match, each lifting his leg in turn, bluffing and blustering in ways long familiar to them both.
Meanwhile, just beneath the surface, each one is keeping simple score, well aware of who will come out on top, and what each needs to do to bring the situation to his own form of face-saving conclusion.
Until next time, that is, when the power, for whatever historical dialectical reasons, may have changed, and the leg-lifting will begin anew.
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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. Some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
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Kennedy-Khrushchev arm-wrestling from the public domain