The Fear Factor

It was Arbor Day – because, in 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt issued his “Arbor Day Proclamation to the School Children of the United States” about the importance of trees. Forestry deserves to be taught in our schools. It isn’t, but the idea is to plant a tree on this day. Or, if not, hug a tree. Everybody likes trees, and no one is afraid of trees, but this day also turned out to be North Korea Day in America. The threat of nuclear war hung in the air, or maybe global thermonuclear war. No one likes that strange little man with the bad haircut who runs North Korea and everyone is afraid of him. He’s developed nukes. He’s developed missiles. If those nukes get small enough and those missiles big enough he can wipe out every city on the west coast of America – and he says he will, because no one respects him – and then they will respect him.

He’s a difficult person, and no one doubts his intentions, as unhinged as they are. We’d retaliate. He and his strange little country would be gone in a flash – a big flash – but his calculation seems to be that the threat of losing Los Angeles and San Francisco and Seattle will keep us in line – and we will respect him, and maybe give him South Korea or something. This is an impossible situation and fear is appropriate. Fear him, or alternatively, fear Donald Trump.

He seems unhinged too, as this report in the Atlantic seems show:

President Trump says “there is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea.” The comments, which were made to Reuters in an interview, come two days after senior members of his administration, in a joint statement, tried to defuse tensions with the communist state, saying the U.S. remained open to talks.

Trump suggested in the interview that while he would “love to solve things diplomatically … it’s very difficult.”

Trump seems to be saying a second Korean War is probable, but then Trump may not speak for the United States government:

North Korea’s recent missile tests, which are in violation of its international obligations, coupled with its nuclear program, have angered the Trump administration. It prompted Rex Tillerson, the U.S. secretary of state, to say as recently as six weeks ago that the U.S. would not talk to North Korea until it renounced nuclear weapons; Vice President Mike Pence to declare as over the Obama-era policy of “strategic patience” with North Korea; and to warn Pyongyang “not to test [Trump’s] resolve” after the U.S. fired missiles at a target in Syria in response to a chemical-weapons attack by the Assad regime and dropped the “mother of all bombs” against ISIS in Afghanistan.

That language fueled speculation that the U.S. was preparing for a military operation against North Korea. But earlier this week, Admiral Harry Harris, the head of U.S. Pacific Command, told the House Armed Services Committee the U.S. should act appropriately “in order to bring Kim Jong-Un to his senses, not his knees.” Those remarks were followed by a joint statement from Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.

What were they saying? Don’t listen to Trump, listen to us? This gets confusing:

Amid the tensions, the U.S. has also tried to assuage the concerns of its two main allies in the region, South Korea and Japan, both of which are seen as possible targets of any North Korean aggression. The U.S. has sent an aircraft carrier and a nuclear submarine to the region. Earlier this week, the U.S. military began moving parts of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to South Korea. The U.S. and South Korea say THAAD is meant to deter North Korea, which routinely fires missiles that are capable of hitting targets in the South. The system is expected to be operational by the end of this year. Trump, in his Reuters interview, said he wanted the South to pay $1 billion for the system.

What? He wants to squeeze them for cold hard cash, because they’re in a bind? That’s our hardware, operated by our people, for our own reasons. The demand is humiliating, even if Trump changes his mind – but they will respect Trump (and America) damn it! Everyone will. Trump here sounds a lot like that that strange little man with the bad haircut. Be afraid of both of them.

But war is coming:

The president also appeared to walk back his previous criticism that China wasn’t doing enough to contain its clients in North Korea. He said Chinese President Xi Jinping, whom he met in Florida earlier this month, “is trying very hard.”

“He certainly doesn’t want to see turmoil and death,” Trump said. “He doesn’t want to see it. He is a good man. He is a very good man and I got to know him very well. With that being said, he loves China and he loves the people of China. I know he would like to be able to do something, perhaps it’s possible that he can’t.”

What are you going to do? No one likes the answer to that question, and there’s this:

Trump also said he hoped Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, was a rational actor, and appeared sympathetic to Kim’s assumption of power in 2012 after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il.

“He’s 27 years old. His father dies, took over a regime. So say what you want but that is not easy, especially at that age,” Trump said. “I’m not giving him credit or not giving him credit, I’m just saying that’s a very hard thing to do. As to whether or not he’s rational, I have no opinion on it. I hope he’s rational.”

Many hope that Trump is rational, and Kimberly Dozier says that’s the word at the White House:

When President Donald Trump predicted Thursday that there could soon be a “major, major conflict” with North Korea, critics were quick to write it off as yet another needlessly provocative and un-presidential outburst from the man occupying the Oval Office.

But aides and close associates of Trump tell a very different story. They say there’s an intentional communications strategy at work, designed by the president himself: Trump knocks opponents off-balance with unexpected tweets or comments that upset the status quo, setting up the shot, then his cabinet secretaries come in as “sweepers,” laying out the new policy in more detail, calming the situation, and landing foreign policy goals.

That’s a nice theory, but there was this:

North Korea’s 33-year-old ruler may not have acted exactly the way the White House wanted, firing off a medium-range missile that broke apart a few minutes after launch as dawn approached on the Korean Peninsula Saturday morning, local time.

The White House response was terse: “The Administration is aware of the most recent North Korean missile test. The President has been briefed.”

Shortly afterward, Trump tweeted as if talking to a recalcitrant child: “North Korea disrespected the wishes of China and its highly respected President when it launched, though unsuccessfully, a missile today. Bad!”

Ah, but there’s a plan there too:

The insult to Kim is intentional – the curt statements a sort of “time out” for a toddler, rather than rewarding a tantrum with parental attention or an overblown U.S. official reaction, a senior administration official explained to The Daily Beast Friday. The tweet is the equivalent of saying, I’ll treat you like the child you are.

It was Trump’s idea for his secretary of State to issue similarly-laconic statements after Kim’s last provocative weapons in early April, much like the brevity of the Friday evening White House statement. Tillerson’s response was only 23 words long, including the maddeningly vague: “The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.”

That may have been a bad idea:

“That’s a great strategy when you say I’m going to build a wall. But when you have that kind of Art of the Deal messaging strategy, I’m just afraid it’s a dangerous game to play,” said Republican communications consultant Alice Stewart. “If there’s a method to his madness, I will be relieved, but dealing with a madman, you have to be very careful.”

Trump doesn’t do careful, on purpose:

Trump has studied other presidents known for using unpredictability to keep their opponents off balance, consulting with Henry Kissinger, former aide to President Richard Nixon, about how “Tricky Dick” used that seeming capriciousness to great effect.

He did? Nixon kept the North Vietnamese off balance. They did sign a peace treaty, and then ignored it, and they won the war. Gerald Ford pulled the plug on the whole thing years later. Nixon was long gone, having resigned in disgrace. Unpredictability is overrated:

U.S. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), the Ranking Member of the Armed Services Committee, said that Trump’s version of Nixon “madman” approach was more crazy than crazy-like-a-fox.

“The President’s posturing through tweets does not inspire confidence from our allies,” he said in a statement this week. “Instead of communicating in 140 characters, the President needs a more thoughtful and strategic messaging campaign.”

Trump left that to others:

In Tillerson’s remarks to the UN Friday, he again called on China and others to tighten sanctions, as well as threatening to enact “third party sanctions” against those who support the regime or its weapons programs. That was a not-so-veiled message to China that the U.S. may take unilateral action against Chinese banks or companies that keep doing business with the regime.

Tillerson also made sure to stress the U.S. is not looking to change the regime, nor did he insist on total denuclearization as a prerequisite for possible talks.

“North Korea must take concrete steps to reduce the threat that its illegal weapons programs pose to the United States and our allies before we can even consider talks,” he said.

Someone had to be the voice of reason:

“We are not setting preconditions we can’t achieve,” the senior administration official said of the message. “If I make denuclearization the predicate of my policy, I’m going to fail,” the official added of Tillerson’s thinking. Instead, they want to see Kim Jong Un come up with moves of good faith that could restart some form of talks.

The hope is that Pyongyang would eventually follow the example of Muammar Gaddafi, who gave up nuclear weapons in 2003 and was welcomed back into the international community – perhaps an unfortunate example given how Gaddafi ended up – dead at the hands of rebels backed by a NATO- and U.S.-backed civil war.

Kim Jong Un may understand that, but Philip Rucker notes that Trump wasn’t finished:

President Trump threatened to terminate the U.S. trade agreement with South Korea in an interview Thursday night, declaring that the five-year-old accord with a key ally was “a horrible deal” that has left America “destroyed.”

During an Oval Office interview about trade policy in North America, Trump served notice that he is looking to disrupt an important partnership in the tumultuous Asia-Pacific region as well – even with Seoul on edge because of North Korea’s escalating military provocations.

Trump sharply criticized the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, known as Korus, which was negotiated and signed during the George W. Bush administration. The latest version was ratified by Congress in 2011 and took effect in March 2012 during the Obama administration.

“It’s a horrible deal. It was a Hillary Clinton disaster, a deal that should’ve never been made,” Trump said, referring to the then-secretary of state who became the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee. “It’s a one-way street.”

No one knows why Trump brought that up, other than they will respect Trump (and America) damn it! Everyone will. Trump again sounds a lot like that that strange little man with the bad haircut. Be afraid of both of them, or not:

South Korea’s Trade Ministry said Friday that it has no plans to renegotiate the agreement, the Associated Press reported.

South Korea’s Trade Ministry seems to have assumed that Trump simply wanted to rag on Hillary Clinton again – harmless enough and not their concern – but Anna Fifield reports this:

The South Korean government reeled Friday over President Trump’s sudden insistence that he expects Seoul to pay $1 billion for a missile defense system that many here do not want, the latest in a series of slights against one of the United States’ leading allies in Asia.

Trump’s remarks come at a particularly sensitive time on the Korean Peninsula: Not only have tensions with North Korea risen to their highest level in years, but South Koreans are heading to the polls next month and could elect a president whose ideas about how to deal with North Korea are very different from Trump’s.

That would complicate things, if they weren’t complicated enough already:

“So far the reaction in South Korea to all these things that Mr. Trump has said has been surprisingly restrained, but I think that’s because South Koreans are still trying to figure out what kind of character he is,” said David Straub, a former U.S. diplomat dealing with the Koreas and author of the book Anti-Americanism in Democratizing South Korea.

“They know he’s an unusual president and they’re discounting a lot of what he says, but eventually remarks like these will have a serious effect,” Straub said.

They are figuring out what kind of character he is:

This followed his assertion that Korea was once part of China – which angered many South Koreans – and his phone calls to Beijing and Tokyo over the North Korean problem but not to Seoul.

South Korea is between presidents after the impeachment of Park Geun-hye last month, but many people here took offense that Trump did not call their acting president on an issue involving the Korean Peninsula.

Who’s the madman here? Should we be afraid, generally? Andrew Sullivan says he is much less afraid of Trump than he was a year ago:

His rhetoric, his unfettered far-right agenda, his love of violence, and his loathing of constitutional limits during the campaign were indeed things to be terrified by. They still are. But those of us who were worried that the Constitution might not hold, and that liberal democracy was teetering on the edge of implosion, have so far, mercifully, been proven wrong.

The system works:

The Founders turn out to have constructed a system designed to confront exactly this kind of despotic figure – and it has held up well, even with total GOP control of House and Senate, even in this dangerously liquid, hyper-democratic modern world. The press has done its job of fact-checking, exposing, and opposing those in power (yes, Mr. Bannon, that is one part of its function in a democracy). The courts have resisted strongly. The opposition has seen a dramatic uptick in political and civic engagement. Even Trump’s own congressional party has splintered, impervious to the charisma of their hood ornament. The American public has not been swept up in a nationalist fervor and has tilted against much of Trump’s agenda – on health care and immigration in particular.

Yes, the Trump base remains invested in their antihero. In the poll of polls, he hasn’t dropped below 40 percent for more than a fraction of his time in office. And yes, he still taps into the most powerful currents in the world right now. But his overall popularity is still shockingly low for a newly elected president. And his sad lack of substantive legislative achievements has revealed the talk-radio politics of the far right are incapable of forming a coherent governing agenda.

Sullivan is actually surprised:

I keep thinking of how Obama kept predicting during his eight years of frustration that at some point the “fever would break” on the right. It never did. But history is an ironist. It turns out that the only way the fever could ever have broken is if the GOP actually got complete control of the government and … couldn’t do much of anything. The bluff has been extravagantly called. It’s one thing to rail against the “disaster” of Obamacare; it’s quite another, it turns out, to replace it.

All the right’s political power, we can now see, depended on being in permanent opposition, and never having to actually implement something. Their tax cuts for the very wealthy are tone-deaf, their resuscitation of the Laffer curve surreal. They’ve got nothing on health care but a return to the highly unpopular status quo ante. And they are caught between Trump’s desire to borrow even more to finance his tax cuts and the GOP’s resolute insistence throughout the Obama years that the debt was an existential threat. It’s quite amazing to watch this unfold and unravel in real time.

And that’s a good thing:

My suspicion is that if Clinton had become president, the fever would not have broken at all; it would have intensified. Her incompetence and indecision would have given the GOP even more political oxygen; a Republican House would have stymied her even more effectively than it did Obama; her unfavorables would have gone through the roof; and it could have been an ugly death spiral for the Democrats. (The latest polls showing considerable dissatisfaction with Trump nonetheless show that in a rematch, he would actually do better today against Clinton than he did last November.)

Instead, we have a manifest and brutal exposure of the stark promises Trump made, and of the incoherence and shallowness of so much of the Republican agenda. I still would never have risked putting this menacing clown into the Oval Office. But in the long run, if catastrophe doesn’t strike, it might even be better for the future health of our politics that Clinton is not president. Maybe the American people are not so crazy after all.

Perhaps so, but Philip Bump reports this:

Donald Trump spent a great portion of 2016 insisting that being president would be easy – at least for him. Building a wall on the border with Mexico is easy. Beating Hillary Clinton would be easy. Renegotiating the Iran deal would be easy. Paying down the national debt would be easy. Acting presidential? Easy.

To a reporter from Reuters this week, though, Trump had a slightly different assessment of the presidency.

“I love my previous life. I had so many things going. This is more work than in my previous life,” Trump said. “I thought it would be easier. I thought it was more of a … I’m a details-oriented person. I think you’d say that, but I do miss my old life. I like to work so that’s not a problem but this is actually more work.”

It wasn’t the first time that Trump copped to the job being trickier than he anticipated. In November, NBC News reported that Trump had told former House speaker Newt Gingrich that “This is really a bigger job than I thought.” (Gingrich’s response? “…good. He should think that.”) Then there are individual issues. “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated,” he said at one point. At another, he revealed that it took a conversation with the president of China to realize that the situation on the Korean peninsula was “not so easy.”

Who knew? Everyone knew:

There’s an element of surprise in Trump’s comments, a hint of bafflement that having responsibility for the welfare of 320 million people entwined in a global economy and international relationships might end up being trickier than running a real estate and branding shop from midtown Manhattan. One group that probably wasn’t surprised that Trump wasn’t prepared? The majority of Americans.

At no point over the course of the 2016 campaign did a majority of Americans think that Trump was qualified for the job of the presidency. Polling from The Post and ABC News shows that the views of Trump as unqualified dominated throughout the campaign. The only group that consistently viewed him as qualified to hold the position were the working-class white voters that constituted the core of his support from early in his candidacy.

More to the point, polling from CBS News showed that, consistently, Trump was viewed as unprepared for the job. In June, July and September – before, during and after Trump began making his general election case – the majority of Americans thought he wasn’t ready to hold the nation’s highest position.

Asked by CNN and its polling partner ORC, most Americans viewed Clinton as more prepared than Trump by a wide margin, including among Democrats and independents. A much greater number of Republicans were willing to call Clinton more qualified than Democrats were Trump.

Put simply: The majority of Americans didn’t think Trump was ready to be president of the United States. Based on his comments about the job being bigger or harder than he thought, that it is more work, it seems safe to say that Trump has also now come to believe that he wasn’t prepared for the office.

Everyone knew, not enough people were afraid, so we get this:

On at least one point, though, he continues to be convincing himself that he’s up to the task. In the middle of his interview with Reuters, Trump paused to pass out copies of a map he had on hand. The map showed the United States, colored with the results of the 2016 election. “It’s pretty good, right?” he asked the Reuters team.

Beating Clinton, as it turned out, was indeed easier than most people had expected.

So you respect me now? Do you? Do you? That strange little man with the bad haircut who runs North Korea says the same thing. There’s only one thing left to do. Plant a tree. No one’s afraid of trees, and it was Arbor Day.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to The Fear Factor

  1. Rick says:

    Has it really been only 100 days? Jeez, it seems like it’s been an eternity! They say time flies when you’re having fun, which might help explain why it seemed so long.

    Or it may be that, on virtually every one of those days, something would happen to make headlines, even if it was only something he said in a tweet, which helped remind us that old Tweetybird was still our president. But when I say “something would happen to make headlines”, I’m not saying something good or meaningful happened, I’m just saying something happened.

    According to ThinkProgress, of the 36 things Donald Trump had promised on the campaign trail to do “on Day One”, he failed to do 34 of them. Apparently the only two promises he kept were “Pursue a hiring freeze on all federal employees to reduce workforce size”, and “Issue a temporary moratorium on new agency regulations.”

    And incidentally, somewhere along the way, Trump had amended his definition of “Day One”:

    “…which I will consider to be Monday as opposed to Friday or Saturday. Right? I mean my day one is going to be Monday because I don’t want to be signing and get it mixed up with lots of celebration,” Trump said in an interview with the Times of London.

    (Forget all the celebration, as I remember the actual full Day One, the day after the swearing-in, Trump spent disputing the media’s estimates of the size of the crowd that came to watch. And was that not also the day he sent Sean Spicer to the briefing room to do his Melissa McCarthy impersonation? I forget.)

    Okay, but back to those first 100 days:

    Trump’s “Contract with the American Voter” listed 10 pieces of legislation in his “100-day plan,” and it’s a big deal that he and the Republican-controlled Congress have passed zero of the 10. He keeps saying he’s achieved far more in his first 100 days than any previous president, but other than the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and a tougher approach to undocumented immigrants, he hasn’t implemented many tangible changes to federal policy.

    And of those two, only one — deporting illegal immigrants, including some of whom he had promised he wouldn’t — is remarkable. The other, which is confirming a new Supreme Court justice, was no actual achievement on his part. The only people who opposed him had no power to stop him. Let’s face it, he could’ve done that in his sleep.

    And what was with that mysterious “tax plan” he sprung on everyone, including his own treasury department, a day or so before the 100 days ran out?

    My own theory is that, at some future time, since that was the first of those ten legislative promises that went missing, Trump will claim that as a “First 100 days” accomplishment of sorts in that he introduced the plan in his first 100 days.

    Or maybe he won’t, depending on whether or not he comes to realize, as we all do, that that would be just too stupid.

    And as for that other elusive promise, the famous “Wall”?

    Not only do I not want that useless and mostly ugly wall built at all, and not only do I not think we should pay for it, since I can think of many much better uses for the funds, but in fact, I don’t even want Mexico paying for the wall, and don’t really even understand the reasoning behind Trump demanding that Mexico, of all people, pay for it.

    I guess the argument is that our immigration problem is Mexico’s fault? Think about it. Is that not stupid?

    What does Trump assume, that Mexico wants its people flooding across our borders, getting low-wage jobs here and then sending some of it home to their families, instead of Mexico being able to keep their workers working inside their own country, where they can spend their earnings in Mexico, instead of in some foreign country — and also pay taxes locally on that income, instead of paying American taxes?

    Maybe Trump’s problem is that he’s too competitive, rather than cooperative, where there’s always got to be a winner and a loser, rather than two winners. Maybe he’s just not capable of understanding that cooperation with our neighbors was what NAFTA was all about in the first place, given that having a failed state right next door is exactly what we don’t need.

    And while I realize we’re not supposed to blame Trump’s voters for the trouble he’s getting us into, I can’t help it. I do. Still, I think I figured out the 96% of the Trump voters who are not disappointed in him after all:

    They never seriously expected, nor cared, what he might do when he got into office; they just like his attitude.

    Forget that talking tough doesn’t work all that well, they can’t stand having leaders who don’t do it. Forget that cutting taxes on the rich never seems to pay for itself, they just prefer to vote for someone who insists that it does. They’re not looking for smart leadership, they’re looking for bold leadership.

    It’s just that they got tired of all those namby-pambies of both parties that have been running the country and just wanted, for once, to elect some politically-incorrect-but-attitudinally-correct nitwit to the White House. What he actually does once he gets there is just details that don’t concern them, which is why they don’t seem all that upset by losing their Obamacare.

    There seems to be a disconnect in their brains between, on the one hand, the problems of their everyday lives, and on the other, the rockstar they proudly put in the oval office.

    It’s just possible that we are witnessing the ultimate failure of the whole concept of people ruling themselves.

    Rick

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