President Donald Trump’s 41-minute speech to the United National General Assembly Tuesday was a muscular defense of the centrality of American sovereignty, a warning shot to rogue nations around the world and a reminder that the US would no longer make deals not in its own self interest.
It was, in a word, Trumpian. And nothing more typifies that adjective than this paragraph from Trump’s speech:
“The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.”
Pick two phrases in particular out: “Totally destroy North Korea” and “Rocket Man.”
Let’s tackle “Rocket Man” first.
Trump first used this phrase to describe North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un over the weekend on Twitter. “I spoke with President Moon of South Korea last night. Asked him how Rocket Man is doing. Long gas lines forming in North Korea,” he tweeted just before 8 a.m. ET on Sunday. “Too bad!”
That comment – which was read in most quarters as a taunt of a man who has repeatedly displayed not only unstable tendencies but also progress toward obtaining a nuclear weapon – caused considerable controversy heading into the United Nations General Assembly meetings this week.
Surely Trump wouldn’t speak in such terms about the leader of North Korea in as formal a setting as the United Nations – and with the entire world watching, right?
Trump is, at root, a provocateur. He likes causing controversy. He likes stirring the pot. He likes freaking out the squares. And, he likes using his 30+ million followers on Twitter as a sort of focus group for his lines. “Rocket Man” got a big response – so he wanted to use it again!
There’s no question that someone within his speech writing team (or his broader foreign policy circle) made clear to Trump that using the words “Rocket Man” would likely dominate the coverage of the speech and would likely be seen as a provocation to North Korea. That’s, of course, what he wanted. And so, he said it. (It is dominating news coverage.)
(Sidebar: It’s easy to lose sight of the number of things Trump does on a daily basis which would be considered hugely outside the bounds of normal presidential behavior if any other president did them. We shouldn’t. Imagine George W. Bush calling North Korea’s leader “Rocket Man” at the UN. Or Barack Obama. Or Bill Clinton. Or any president not named Donald Trump.)
Now for the “totally destroy North Korea” line.
This isn’t the first time that Trump has employed similarly threatening language about the North Koreans. Remember that last month he promised “fire and fury like the world has never seen” to be used against North Korea if they continued their missile tests and pursuit of nuclear weapons. The promise to “totally destroy” an entire county seems to take things even a step further.
Why say it – either time – then? Because it sounds tough. Because, in Trump’s mind, it’s the opposite of how Obama handled North Korea – and the world’s dangerous nations more broadly. Obama coddled these countries in Trump’s view. No longer. They need to know that if they don’t start complying, there are going to be real and lasting consequences – namely, well, total annihilation.
That every expert has acknowledged that a US military operation against North Korea would set off chaos across the Korean peninsula and potentially drag China into the conflict is, to Trump, besides the point. Sounding tough – no matter whether or not we can back up that tough talk without starting a world war – is an end in and of itself.
Trump is all about the 50,000-foot perception. And he believes that by giving that speech to that group using words like “Rocket Man” and “totally destroy,” he sends a signal that he is tough, unafraid and keeping all options on the table. And that makes it a victory for him whether or not the consequences from his words are anything close to what he hopes they will be.
That’s Trumpism – pure and unadulterated.