Let’s savor this quote while we can, people. “I may be wrong. I mean, I may stand before you in six months and say, hey, I was wrong. I don’t know that I’ll ever admit that, but I’ll find some kind of an excuse.”
That’s what President Donald J. Trump told the press conference that wrapped up his June 12th Singapore summit with North Korea’s “Supreme Leader,” Kim Jong-un. In case you’re wondering, the clumsy splash you heard right afterward in faraway New York Harbor was Lady Liberty keeling over in a dead faint. Thanks to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke instructing the National Park Service to mount two TV sets tuned permanently to Fox News directly in front of her eyes, the old dame thought she’d seen and heard damn near everything by now.
Coming from Trump, it was a remarkable statement on more than one count, because the freakish idea that he could be mistaken about anything so rarely enters his head, let alone exits via his mouth. Rarer still was the acknowledgment that, if and when his bid to cozy up to Pyongyang goes kerflooey, he’ll just cook up some BS to distract us rather than admit his error. Trump being honest about his own dishonesty was the shock that tipped Lady Liberty and her new Fox News eyewear right into the drink, with a faint hiss as Sean Hannity’s valiant SpongeFox SquarePants face blinked out, in her case, forever.
The joint statement Trump and Kim signed was actually shorter on specific commitments than any number of prior agreements North Korea has routinely reneged on.
We can sympathize with our favorite green goddess. We were always fond of her before senility perhaps blessedly kicked in. But for once, believe it or not, we also know just how POTUS feels. We won’t be thrilled if our tentative take on Trump And Kim’s Excellent Adventure turns out to be as boneheaded as betting on the horse they rode in on to win the Preakness next year.
We aren’t going to call the Singapore summit a triumph of American diplomacy, because it wasn’t. (Any potential benefits down the road depend on patient follow-through, which isn’t a Trumpian specialty even on the golf course.) To whatever extent we feel sentimental about concepts the Trump era has already turned into anachronisms—America’s moral standing and authority abroad, for instance—we’d even go along with calling his fawningly effusive meeting with Kim a disgrace.
But disgraces aren’t the same thing as disasters, and this summit wasn’t a disaster. In any substantive sense, it was barely a summit, since no genuine negotiations were involved. The joint statement Trump and Kim signed was actually shorter on specific commitments than any number of prior agreements North Korea has routinely reneged on. Trump simply gave Kim what he wanted and those earlier agreements hadn’t, which was an extended ceremonial photo-op confirming his rogue regime’s legitimacy and putting him on an equal footing with the president of the United States.
To anyone who loves this country, which our president plainly doesn’t—his understanding of America’s actual greatness stops at Mar-a-Lago’s gate—it was hard not to wince at those massed North Korean flags side by side with Old Glory. Still, if that’s all it takes to buy Kim off, it’s just barely possible that Trump was shrewd to give it to him. For better and worse, he and Kim probably understand each other better than Trump understands any democratically elected leader. Justin Trudeau was only the latest victim of Trump’s slasher-movie antipathy to comity with people who are technically his peers.
Each of them sees in the other what he’d most like to be. Kim would kill—and in fact, has—to be a figure worth reckoning with on the international stage. Trump would plainly love to be the sort of unfettered despot who can suppress criticism and stick dissidents in slave-labor camps at will. Declaring the press “Our Country’s biggest enemy” immediately after the summit was the latest reminder of how turned on he always is by proximity to tyrants who share his view that the First Amendment is written on toilet paper.
Face it, they’re made for each other, which is at once appalling and pathetic. It’s pathetic because, unlike Vladimir Putin or China’s ultra-shrewd Xi Jinping, they’re both so blatantly, childishly needy. Karl Marx couldn’t make head or tail of the world we live in now, but Sigmund Freud would mutter that he’d been right all along and light a fresh cigar. Basking in nonjudgmental adoration is the validation both men covet above all, and Trump’s astounding (even for him) claim that Kim’s terrorized people “love” him proves that he doesn’t make any distinction between coerced love and the genuine kind. The appearance of it is all that matters.
Naturally, no matter what Trump affects to believe, Kim won’t denuclearize. Why should he?
Like it or not, the traditional term for what Trump offered Kim is “appeasement,” which has been the dirtiest word in the diplomatic lexicon since the 1938 Munich accord. It should hardly make any MAGA-lover’s heart swell with pride 80 years later. But even if he gave away the store, we shouldn’t fail to note that in this case the store was basically stocked with trinkets: flags, life-size cardboard cut-outs, postcards. Even the concession that blindsided and alarmed Seoul the most—Trump’s willingness to suspend joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises, for which he used the North Korean term “war games”—is probably more symbolic than real, although it will be a very different story if he actually withdraws our troops stationed there.
No matter how unpleasant it is to say so, giving Kim the Bright Shiny Things he craves (an appetite he shares with Trump, of course) may very well turn out to be a sensible price to pay for ratcheting down the dumbest, most irrational potential nuclear confrontation of our lifetimes. Naturally, no matter what Trump affects to believe, Kim won’t denuclearize. Why should he, considering that his nukes (and nothing else) are what got him his Singapore summit to begin with?
But the odds are that he won’t go back to his attention-getting mania for scaring the crap out of people anytime soon either. Since South Korea has the best reasons of all to be scared—52 million of them, to be precise—Seoul may be more grateful for even the temporary reprieve than its leaders will ever admit.
Then again, if they didn’t know it already, they’ve also learned what Europe realized some time ago: that Trump, for all his bluster, is presiding over a stark deterioration in America’s power and influence, as well as its moral stature, on the world stage. It might easily have happened without him, because we were overdue for the glue factory anyway. But nobody expected an American president to so enthusiastically hasten it, because Trump simply doesn’t understand why we have these foreign commitments at all and alliances of any sort confuse him. Not only did he go along with the charade that impoverished, benighted North Korea is a powerful player, but one reason he gave for cancelling the joint military exercises is that they cost too much, a perfectly amazing thing for an American president to say.
It’s also possible, as some have theorized, that Trump is moving a war he doesn’t want off the table to clear the way for one he does want—with Iran. If that’s so, we’re so screwed it’s not funny, partly because no other country in the world would back us. For all we know, those peaceable Canadians could end up flocking to Teheran by the thousands to volunteer to fight for the other side.