‘Racist dog whistles began during his presidential campaign: Mexicans and other Latinos were criminals and rapists; African-Americans knew what to make of that’
IT’S REASONABLE to assume that, in nuclear talks with Kim Jong-un, one’s overriding objective would be avoidance of a conflagration which, beginning with East Asia and West USA, could – directly or indirectly, quickly or over a period of radioactive years – kill or maim much of the world.
But Trump is a narcissist, and the narcissist is above all concerned with himself. To what extent would his image be burnished if he showed everyone he could persuade Kim to strike a statesmanlike stance in the interest of humanity?
Suddenly, Trump was smiling publicly – a rare event – at the thought (floated by Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president, and Boris Johnson, the former British foreign secretary) of winning the Nobel Peace Prize. (In that case, shouldn’t Kim logically get it also? Remember Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin?)
Even better, he would match, if not surpass, the person over whom he never ceases to obsess, Barack Obama. Unsurprisingly, the day after the Singapore summit he would tweet: “President Obama said that North Korea was our biggest and most dangerous problem. No longer – sleep well tonight!” In only one morning, Trump the peerless had transformed “rough guy” Kim into a pussy cat. And upstaged Obama. Ask Trump.
But there is something for which I give him credit. On May 24 he cancelled the summit because of North Korea’s “tremendous anger and hostility…” But he left the door open: “If you change your mind,” he told Kim, “please do not hesitate to call or write.”
For him, it was an unusually subtle move. He knew Kim badly wanted the favourable publicity and respect, national and international, that such a meeting would bring him and North Korea, and he called Kim’s bluff. The very next day, North Korea announced that it wanted “to sit with the US side.”
I said in my previous article that Kim bested Trump in Singapore. This, I think, was due not so much to Kim’s negotiating skills as to Trump’s overweening self-absorption, which generally sidelines a proper understanding of his brief (on whatever subject) in favour of triumphant, if not triumphalist, declarations. Two prime casualties of this approach are solidity of planning and action, and the confidence that others should repose in him and his country.
For instance, in 2015 a carefully designed nuclear accord was reached between Iran and the developed world. It has now been cavalierly shunted aside by Trump (but remember it was Obama who at the time led the western countries). Why then would you expect North Korea to purr trust in America and abandon its nuclear programme? Are you surprised that Pyongyang has now accused Washington of “gangster-like” and “regrettable” behaviour?
Trump says he wants to “make America great again.” Many of us think we know what he really means by that. But he has brought a coarseness and an overall policy simplism which, ironically, are at odds with his declared aim, and are badly damaging America at home (his perfervid political base notwithstanding) and abroad.
Racist dog whistles began during his presidential campaign: Mexicans and other Latinos were criminals and rapists; African-Americans knew what to make of that. The whistles have swelled to a cantata of contempt: immigrants are “infesting” America, itself a land of immigrants (you do appreciate what “infesting” means?), and children are torn from their parents. The unwelcome originate not only in Latin America but also in “shithole” countries of black Africa and the Caribbean. Why aren’t those nice, blond, blue-eyed Norwegians coming instead? As for Muslims of whatever hue … well.
The country’s institutions – the judiciary, Congress, the foreign service etc – are under siege. The media in general are said to wallow in “fake news,” a phrase which has mightily commended itself to autocrats everywhere. Harmful trade wars are initiated, alienating foreign partners and powerful domestic supporters like the brothers Koch, and driving Harley-Davidson partially offshore. US-manufactured baby formula is apparently preferable to breast milk. Nafta is an anti-American aberration; climate change is unimportant, as must now also, after Kim, be human rights.
Long-time US friends are disrespected: Theresa May is too “schoolmistressy,” it seems; Justin Trudeau is “weak and dishonest;” NATO and Angela Merkel … well. The EU Council president warns bluntly that America now “(doesn’t) have that many (allies).” But Vladimir Putin is treated with kid gloves, and Kim “wants to see wonderful things for his country.”
Trump is a bully, and he gravitates towards others of his ilk. The nagging worry is that, whatever their differences of ideology, intellect and politics, Trump, Putin and Kim are cut from essentially the same psychological cloth.
We’ll see what happens over the next few months with North Korea. And, of course, China.