As the World Turns Again

Time zones are difficult. At six in the morning in Los Angeles it’s three in the afternoon in Paris, and flying back here from Paris was always odd. Leave late in the morning, fly eight or nine hours, watch the sun come up a second time over the Pole, and then touch down in Los Angeles in late morning of the same day – as if no time passed. That was always unsettling, and now it’s Monday evening here in Los Angeles, but it’s Tuesday morning, the next day, in Singapore, and Kim and Trump are still talking.

No one knows what will come of this. In a few hours there will be joint statements, and tomorrow’s news will have already happened, today. That’s unsettling too, but there’s not much that can be done about that. Wait. There will be hope that everything is fine now. Some will say that is certain now. There will be outrage that Trump left Canada saying all our allies were really our enemies, a threat to our national security, and that they ought to welcome Russia back in the fold – because Russia never did anything all that bad to them or the United States after all – and then Trump went off to meet with a guy he really respects – the murderous thug, with nukes, who runs North Korea. No good can come of this.

Others will say this may be a charade of sorts – there’s nothing of substance here – but that’s a good thing. Kim is happy. He was treated as an equal by the President of the United States. There were flags on stage to prove that. There are pictures of that, and Trump treated him with far more respect than he did Angela Merkel or Emmanuel Macron or Theresa May and certainly Justin Trudeau. They’re weak leaders. He is not.

Trump validated that – he even gave him a thumbs up – but of course Kim won’t give up his nukes. He’ll only say he’s thinking about that. The United States will now press him on that, over and over, for months and years. He’ll continue to say he’s thinking about that, but that’s fine. As long as Trump treats him as a far better person and a far better leader than Merkel or Macron or May or Trudeau, Kim will be happy. A happy Kim is unlikely to use his nukes. That’ll do. Trump did a good thing. China and South Korea and Japan can work out the regional issues – their problem, not ours. The United States can walk away now.

Trump understands Kim. They’re the same person. Respect them, don’t question them, or pay the price – each will lash out viciously. Trump gave Kim the respect Kim demands – Kim is one of the big boys now, along with Putin. Kim gave Trump something even better – the chance to do what Obama never could do – to show them all. Trump can sneer now:

President Trump shook hands with Kim Jong-un of North Korea on Tuesday and hailed the start of a “terrific relationship,” a momentous step in an improbable courtship that has opened a new chapter for the world’s largest nuclear power and the most reclusive one.

Brash, impulsive leaders who only a few months ago taunted each other across a nuclear abyss, Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim had set aside their threats in a gamble that for now, at least, personal diplomacy can counteract decades of enmity and distrust.

In a carefully choreographed encounter, Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim strode toward each other, arms extended, in the red-carpeted reception area of a Singapore hotel built on the site of a British colonial outpost – the first time a sitting American president and North Korean leader have ever met.

Posing before a wall of American and North Korean flags, Mr. Trump put his hand on the younger man’s shoulder. Then the two, alone except for their interpreters, walked off to meet privately…

“I feel really great,” Mr. Trump said. “It’s gonna be a great discussion and I think tremendous success. I think it’s gonna be really successful and I think we will have a terrific relationship, I have no doubt.”

Yes, Obama could not have done anything like that – scruples about human rights or something – and then the bullshit began:

Later, as the two leaders reconvened with top aides, Mr. Trump declared of the nuclear impasse, “Working together, we will get it taken care of.”

Mr. Kim responded, “There will be challenges ahead, but we will work with Trump.”

Whether they will succeed is, of course, highly questionable. Their negotiators failed to make much headway in working-level meetings beforehand, leaving Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim with little common ground ahead of what could be months or even years of talks.

Nothing was solved here, but they were both happy, and each unlikely to lash out, and that’s something, as is this:

There were other reminders of the bizarre turns this story has taken: On Tuesday, the former pro basketball player Dennis Rodman, who befriended Mr. Kim during multiple trips to Pyongyang, turned up in Singapore to give a tearful television interview about his role in trying to thaw relations between the two countries.

Mr. Trump, meanwhile, refused to let go of his rancorous clash with European allies over trade. On Monday morning, from his hotel, he unleashed a fusillade of angry posts on Twitter about what he said were the predatory trade practices of Canada and several European countries.

“Sorry, we cannot let our friends, or enemies, take advantage of us on Trade anymore,” the president said in a tweet. “We must put the American worker first!”

Something odd is going on here, and Jeffrey Goldberg offers this explanation:

Barack Obama, whose foreign-policy doctrine I studied in depth, was cerebral to a fault; the man who succeeded him is perhaps the most glandular president in American history. Unlike Obama, Trump possesses no ability to explain anything resembling a foreign-policy philosophy. But this does not mean that he is without ideas.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve asked a number of people close to the president to provide me with short descriptions of what might constitute the Trump Doctrine. I’ve been trying, as part of a larger project, to understand the revolutionary nature of Trump’s approach to world affairs. This task became even more interesting over the weekend, when Trump made his most ambitious move yet to dismantle the U.S.-led Western alliance; it becomes more interesting still as Trump launches, without preparation or baseline knowledge, a complicated nuclear negotiation with a fanatical and bizarre regime that quite possibly has his number.

That was the task, and Goldberg found this:

Trumpian chaos is, in fact, undergirded by a comprehensible worldview, a number of experts have insisted. The Brookings Institution scholar Thomas Wright argued in a January 2016 essay that Trump’s views are both discernible and explicable. Wright, who published his analysis at a time when most everyone in the foreign-policy establishment considered Trump’s candidacy to be a farce, wrote that Trump loathes the liberal international order and would work against it as president; he wrote that Trump also dislikes America’s military alliances, and would work against them; he argued that Trump believes in his bones that the global economy is unfair to the U.S.; and, finally, he wrote that Trump has an innate sympathy for “authoritarian strongmen.”

Wright was prophetic. Trump’s actions these past weeks, and my conversations with administration officials and friends and associates of Trump, suggest that the president will be acting on his beliefs in a more urgent, and focused, way than he did in the first year of his presidency, and that the pace of potentially cataclysmic disruption will quicken in the coming days.

So, Wright was right, but Goldberg wanted more, because things have become dire, and Goldberg got this:

The third-best encapsulation of the Trump Doctrine, as outlined by a senior administration official over lunch a few weeks ago, is this: “No Friends, No Enemies.” This official explained that he was not describing a variant of the realpolitik notion that the U.S. has only shifting alliances, not permanent friends. Trump, this official said, doesn’t believe that the U.S. should be part of any alliance at all. “We have to explain to him that countries that have worked with us together in the past expect a level of loyalty from us, but he doesn’t believe that this should factor into the equation,” the official said.

In short, Trump believes loyalty is for suckers, a trap that limits the nation, and there was this:

The second-best self-description of the Trump Doctrine I heard was this, from a senior national-security official: “Permanent destabilization creates American advantage.” The official who described this to me said Trump believes that keeping allies and adversaries alike perpetually off-balance necessarily benefits the United States, which is still the most powerful country on Earth. When I noted that America’s adversaries seem far less destabilized by Trump than do America’s allies this official argued for strategic patience. “They’ll see over time that it doesn’t pay to argue with us.”

In short, screw everything up, on purpose, or for no purpose, just to remind everyone not to mess with us. Maybe we’re nuts, and certainly we’re mean, and we’re immensely powerful, so back off – sit down and shut up.

That’s a plan, but then there’s this:

The best distillation of the Trump Doctrine I heard, though, came from a senior White House official with direct access to the president and his thinking. I was talking to this person several weeks ago, and I said, by way of introduction, that I thought it might perhaps be too early to discern a definitive Trump Doctrine.

“No,” the official said. “There’s definitely a Trump Doctrine.”

“What is it?” I asked. Here is the answer I received:

“The Trump Doctrine is ‘We’re America, Bitch.’ That’s the Trump Doctrine.”

That official was serious:

I asked this official to explain the idea. “Obama apologized to everyone for everything. He felt bad about everything.” President Trump, this official said, “doesn’t feel like he has to apologize for anything America does.” I later asked another senior official, one who rendered the doctrine not as “We’re America, Bitch” but as “We’re America, Bitches,” whether he was aware of the 2004 movie Team America: World Police, whose theme song was “America, Fuck Yeah!”

“Of course,” he said, laughing. “The president believes that we’re America, and people can take it or leave it.”

Goldberg sees that now:

“We’re America, Bitch” is not only a characterologically accurate collective self-appraisal – the gangster fronting, the casual misogyny, the insupportable confidence – but it is also perfectly Rorschachian. To Trump’s followers, “We’re America, Bitch” could be understood as a middle finger directed at a cold and unfair world, one that no longer respects American power and privilege. To much of the world, however, and certainly to most practitioners of foreign and national-security policy, “We’re America, Bitch” would be understood as self-isolating, and self-sabotaging.

Goldberg sides with most practitioners of foreign and national-security policy:

What is mainly interesting about “We’re America, Bitch” is its delusional quality. Donald Trump is pursuing policies that undermine the Western alliance, empower Russia and China, and demoralize freedom-seeking people around the world. The United States could be made weaker – perhaps permanently – by the implementation of the Trump Doctrine.

The administration officials, and friends of Trump, I’ve spoken with in recent days believe the opposite: that Trump is rebuilding American power after an eight-year period of willful dissipation. “People criticize Trump for being opposed to everything Obama did, but we’re justified in canceling out his policies,” one friend of Trump’s told me.

This friend described the Trump Doctrine in the simplest way possible. “There’s the Obama Doctrine, and there’s the ‘Fuck Obama’ Doctrine,” he said. “We’re the ‘Fuck Obama’ Doctrine.”

That’s it? Kim knew that. Trump legitimized Kim, making Kim a sudden reasonable and respected world leader, making Kim very happy, and, as a byproduct of that, making the world a bit safer too. Kim legitimized Trump. This was the Fuck Obama Summit. Obama could never have done anything like this – scruples about human rights or something. Trump could sneer, but as a byproduct, the world might be a bit safer too.

Everyone wins, but Josh Marshall has a different view of the Trump Doctrine:

Look at how Trump treats the people who work for him. Almost without exception he treats them like crap. Michael Cohen is the archetypal example: total and extreme subservience which is repaid with a litany of slights and insults and indignities. But we see it with basically everyone in Trump’s orbit: insulting behavior, outbursts to let them know who’s boss. To work for Donald Trump is to surrender dignity. We’ve all marveled at how freely people seem to make this bargain.

When I was first studying up on Trump someone told me that there was a basic bargain in Trump’s world. If you worked for Trump you accepted this sort of bullying, often sadistic, always crazy behavior. If you did, you got to live the Trump lifestyle. Money, the high life, all the perks. Big money, low dignity. Plenty of people made that bargain.

I think some of what is at work in Trump’s diplomacy. Allies should fall in line, be appreciative. If we say we need a bigger cut, they should give us a bigger cut. The top dog gets the win. And for Trump to know he won, he needs to see you lose. This all makes alliances on the NATO or G-7 model very difficult. I don’t think it’s mainly that. I think Trump wants to break up the Western alliance and cater to the strategic interests of Russia. But this is also part of the equation.

Charles Lane sees that too:

Shocked and baffled by the results of the 2016 presidential election, America’s traditional allies in Europe and Japan fell back on two forms of conventional wisdom about President Trump.

The first view was that Trump’s seeming-unreasonableness was just a mask for his inner pragmatism: He may brag and bully, but what he’s really about is the art of the deal. You can do business with a businessman.

“He’s a negotiator,” an ambassador from Europe told me, hopefully, a few days after the 2016 election. If the United States got a nickel every time someone used that phrase, there would be no national debt.

The alternative notion was that Trump was, indeed, a mercurial egomaniac but could be swayed by flattery and ceremony. Japan’s Shinzo Abe, who rushed to be the first world leader to visit President-elect Trump in the United States, tried it. So did France’s Emmanuel Macron, who rolled out the red carpet and military pomp for Trump in Paris, and then showered him with bonhomie during a state visit to Washington.

Now that Abe, Macron and company have been through the disastrous Group of Seven meeting this past week in Quebec City, they must face this terrible possibility: What if nothing works? What if Trump cannot be appeased?

That’s the question here:

There’s been too much denial about the fact that Trump is not, and never has been, a pragmatist, or even merely a showboat. He has an ideology. You almost want to grab the allies by the lapels and scream: “What part of ‘America First’ do you not understand?”

Still, Lane sees nothing new here:

“My job at the White House is to help the president get jobs, good jobs, manufacturing jobs to the working men and women of America,” trade adviser Peter Navarro said on Fox News Sunday, “and we can’t do that unless we upset this existing world order, which basically is tremendously biased.”

Let me repeat that: American policy is to “upset this existing world order.”

Trump’s is a crude ideology, but it is hardly a new one. Its roots lie in the right-wing resistance to U.S. involvement in the wars of Europe and East Asia before Pearl Harbor.

Trump’s hostility to alliances, meant to keep the United States as a stabilizing presence in those regions after World War II, descends directly from that inward-looking, reactionary strain of prewar American politics, which turns out not to have been destroyed during the 20th century after all.

For the time being, it’s the world’s despots – whether friendly to the United States, hostile or somewhere in-between – with whom Trump seems most eager to deal: Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia and, of course, North Korea.

That means that the summit was inevitable. One despot to another:

Everything appeared to be going smoothly for “Fox & Friends” host Abby Huntsman during a live segment Sunday morning as the network provided coverage of President Trump’s arrival in Singapore for his coming summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Then, as she chatted with former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci, Huntsman referred to the leaders as “two dictators,” which threw the Internet into a frenzy.

“Regardless of what happens in that meeting between the two dictators, what we are seeing right now, this is history,” she said as footage of Trump exiting Air Force One at Paya Lebar Air Base in Singapore played.

Oops. Or maybe not:

Scaramucci, unlike viewers, seemed unfazed by Huntsman’s gaffe and continued to talk about the significance of the summit. His non-reaction prompted even more mirth on social media.

Later on the show, Huntsman apologized, acknowledging she had made a mistake.

But this was an honest mistake:

Many described Huntsman’s words as a “Freudian slip,” while others claimed the network, known for its favorable coverage of Trump, had finally told “the truth.”

“This gaffe is probably the most honest thing ever said in the program’s history,” one person tweeted.

Does it matter? These two understood each other. Trump is happy and sneering again. He did what Obama couldn’t do. Ha! Kim is happy – he’s a big boy now – and a happy Kim is a safe Kim. And millions won’t die tomorrow. And it’s already tomorrow somewhere in the world.

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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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