Trump Goes to Korea

So what happens if Donald Trump solves North Korea?  What happens if the economy continues to hum along without crashing?  What happens if Robert Mueller’s investigation returns no smoking gun?

What happens, in other words, if Donald Trump wins?  And what happens—heaven forbid!—if America wins along with him?

It’s a thought few liberals have deigned to contemplate seriously for any length of time, having convinced themselves Trump is the most singularly bumbling, ineffectual chief executive in recent decades—a man whose modus operandi remains (to quote Benjamin Wittes) “malevolence tempered by incompetence.”

After 15 months on the job, the incompetence speaks for itself—on a daily basis, in increasingly jaw-dropping ways—as, for that matter, does the malevolence, be it through Trump’s contempt for institutions like the press and the Justice Department or through executive actions against Muslims, immigrants or planet Earth itself.

What the left (and much of the right) hasn’t counted on, however, is the prospect that, in between all the bloopers, boners and practical jokes, Trump would stumble his way into some genuine achievements, succeeding both despite and because of the character traits that made him so undesirable—and unelectable—in the first place.

It’s easy enough to call President Trump a liar and a crook—not to mention an adulterer, a racist and a third-rate conman.  Just ask Michelle Wolf.

Far more compelling than Trump’s obvious faults are his less-than-obvious strengths, of which the most pertinent—at the moment, anyway—is his ability to so freak out America’s enemies that they decide bargaining with him might be preferable to war.

Such appears to be the case with Kim Jong-un, the murderous dictator of North Korea who surprised just about everybody this month by meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, during which the two leaders floated the idea of formally ending the Korean War, among other extremely promising developments.

This came shortly after Kim’s equally-surprising overture to Trump, who, with nary a moment’s hesitation, agreed to a similarly bilateral summit at some point in the near future, presumably to reconcile Kim’s nuclear ambitions with Trump’s threats to obliterate North Korea—“with fire and fury like the world has never seen”—should those ambitions be realized.

At this tentative juncture, we cannot help but wonder:  Did Trump’s bluster lure Kim to the negotiating table, as no previous U.S. strategy did?  Was this all a modern-day version of Richard Nixon’s “madman theory” at work—an elaborate game of “good cop, bad cop” with Trump playing both roles?  Will these extraordinary meetings produce a durable, long-term settlement that all sides can live with?  And if so, will Trump deserve credit as a great—albeit unorthodox—statesman and peacemaker?

Admittedly, by asking these sorts of questions, we are anticipating future events that may never materialize, with a cockeyed optimism that may be entirely without merit.  Amidst all the positive activity on the Korean Peninsula, we should never forget Donald Trump’s bottomless, lifelong capacity to get in his own way, coupled with his rank inexperience in all manner of foreign policy.  And that’s before factoring in Kim Jong-un, who presumably has his own nefarious agenda and may well be playing Trump and Moon for fools.

And yet—and yet, I say!—there has undoubtedly been enough forward movement with North Korea to give us a modicum of hope that a nuclear exchange is not the imminent danger it was during, say, the summer of 2017.  We owe it to ourselves—and to civilization as a whole—to root for some kind of accommodation that averts war and establishes a relatively stable relationship between the Kim regime and the rest of the world.  I haven’t the slightest idea what that deal might look like—nor, it would appear, does anyone else—but then history often hinges on moments that seem impossible until they suddenly become inevitable.  Just ask President Hillary Clinton.

Supposing the Korean standoff ends well and Trump emerges as the grand dealmaker he’s always claimed himself to be, what, pray tell, are American liberals to do with themselves?  More broadly, what would a truly empowered—and truly successful—President Trump mean for America as a whole?

Most likely, in my estimation, it would mean Nixon 2.0.:  A profound scumbag who, through luck and pluck, lodges several major policy breakthroughs but nonetheless remains a scumbag and is eventually brought down by the weight of his own corruption.

It certainly has a nice, odd symmetry to it:  Nixon goes to China, Trump goes to Korea.  Nixon is investigated for covering up interference in a presidential election, Trump is investigated for the same.  Nixon is forced to resign after the discovery of incriminating tape recordings.  And Trump…well, we’ll always have Twitter.

The essential thing, in any case, is to keep a sufficiently open mind to be able to hold two opposing ideas in your head at the same time—in this case, the idea that Donald Trump is both a wretched human being and, potentially—indeed, perhaps only on this one occasion—the right man in the right place at the right time.

In other words, we must be prepared to give credit where credit is due, knowing all the while there will always be a fresh new pile of blame just around the corner.

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