Michael D'Antonio: Trump is acting as if Kim Jong Un is another campaign rival
Undisciplined rhetoric is making him less relevant than other Washington leaders
Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” (St. Martin’s Press). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Faced with a challenge that he has, as usual, turned into a personal feud, President Donald Trump has coined a new catchphrase. His threat of “fire and fury,” directed at Kim Jong Un, is the nuclear equivalent of “Lock her up,” which Trump used against Hillary Clinton.
Coining slogans of this sort enables Trump to stoke the rage of his political base. It also heightens emotion in ways that make the world a little less safe.
During the campaign Trump’s rhetoric introduced the kind of threat – that he would seek the prosecution of his opponent – long deemed unworthy of an established democracy. His talk of imprisoning Hillary Clinton would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. Coming from Trump, it was just one of many transgressions that suggested he was unfit for office.
On the stump Trump was willing to go to unanticipated extremes because his prior work as an entertainer and promoter had taught him that when it came to his most ardent fans, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”
Trump’s fans, who became the base of his voting bloc, reveled in Trump’s unhinged rhetoric because, at least in part, it resonated with their own resentments. When he insulted elites, whom they felt had failed them, Trump claimed to be their voice and they were thrilled by what he said. Trump took office without the kinds of experience or skills that help a president work with Congress, or engage in diplomacy. The result has been abysmal – no legislative accomplishments to speak of beyond the confirmation of a Supreme Court justice and a White House staff that is divided and in many ways ineffective.
Views on North Korea threat
- 12 things Trump should know about N. Korea
- Trump's fiery rhetoric plays into Kim's hands
- How to turn the screws on N. Korea
- Reaction to N. Korea can't be nuclear
- Will Trump's hardball tactics work?
- China won't bail out Trump
- How to stop N. Korea's brazen impunity
- Negotiations with N. Korea won't work
In the case of North Korea, which President Obama warned would be his most challenging problem, Trump has acted as if Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un is another rival to be bullied. The difference, of course, is that Kim commands a massive, nuclear-equipped military force that threatens both America’s ally, South Korea, and US territories, like Guam, in the range of its missiles.
When he warned Kim that provocation could lead him to unleash “power the likes of which this world has never seen before,” Trump implied an attack exceeding the atom bombs that President Truman dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Consider the emotional impact Trump’s statement might have on his base, which loves his bombast, and the red line the president drew can be seen as part of his effort to shore up poll numbers that sit at historic lows. However now that Trump is President, his audience also includes Kim Jong Un, and leaders of countries around the world, including North Korea’s only major ally, China.
Faced with a choice between shame and escalation, Kim is likely to escalate. And should a miscalculation lead to fighting, China cannot be expected to abandon the leader who provides a buffer against US-backed Seoul.
With reaction in Congress and world capitals running decidedly against the President, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson struck a different tone, insisting that he sees no “imminent threat” and that “Americans should sleep well at night.” As he reassured the world by pushing America away from the line drawn by the President, Tillerson gave him a bit of face-saving cover by praising his “strong message”
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Tillerson’s interpretation of Trump’s outburst was the diplomatic version of a pat on the head for a President who seems more interested in manipulating his political base than in functioning as an effective leader. He is, in effect, telling the world that when it comes to geopolitics, the President is a figurehead and true leadership will come from the Department of State.
In domestic affairs, similar sentiments have been expressed by leaders in Congress who have been trying to advance a legislative agenda while the man in the White House busies himself on social media, where he criticizes fellow Republicans, and at campaign-style rallies.
Trump’s utter failure on Capitol Hill provides further evidence that he is making himself ever-less relevant. For those who care about the safety of the world, and the future of the Republic, this is one ray of light in an otherwise dark landscape.