Is the God-King playing a Nixonian madman, trying to provoke a war, or looking for someone, anyone, to beat up? (More)

“You tell them, ‘This guy’s so crazy he could pull out any minute.’”

One theory holds that the God-King’s tantrums are calculated negotiating gambits, based on reports like this from Axios’s Jonathan Swan:

In an Oval Office meeting in early September, President Trump gave his top trade negotiator, Robert Lighthizer, an Art of the Deal-style coaching session on how to negotiate with the South Koreans.
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“You’ve got 30 days, and if you don’t get concessions then I’m pulling out,” Trump told Lighthizer.

“Ok, well I’ll tell the Koreans they’ve got 30 days,” Lighthizer replied.

“No, no, no,” Trump interjected. “That’s not how you negotiate. You don’t tell them they’ve got 30 days. You tell them, ‘This guy’s so crazy he could pull out any minute.’”

“That’s what you tell them: Any minute,” Trump continued. “And by the way, I might. You guys all need to know I might. You don’t tell them 30 days. If they take 30 days they’ll stretch this out.”

This echoes President Richard Nixon’s ‘Madman Theory,’ where he instructed Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to tell North Vietnamese leaders that Nixon was crazy enough to use nuclear weapons. That insane bluff wasn’t simply about persuading foreign leaders, as The Atlantic’s Tim Naftali explains:

In a declassified “eyes only” memorandum to Alexander Haig on May 20, 1972, after ordering the mining of Haiphong harbor, Nixon explained who his domestic audience was: “The hawks are our hard core and we must do everything that we can to keep them from jumping ship [in reaction to arms-control talks with Moscow] after getting their enthusiasm restored as a result of our mining operation in the North.” The madman approach was not just for Hanoi. Nixon wanted his base to know he was tough, thus distracting attention from his simultaneous efforts to build bridges to Hanoi’s communist patrons in the Kremlin and the Forbidden City.

But Nixon’s ‘Madman Theory’ failed. The Vietnam War dragged on for three more years, ending in defeat and disgrace. One reason is that no one took Nixon’s bluff seriously, as Wired’s Jeremi Suri writes:

The paradox of American nuclear power is that the nation’s overwhelming arsenal is almost unusable. The damage created by a single nuclear strike would be so great, it would undermine most American strategic purposes. The public revulsion, even from Washington’s closest allies, would make the United States a global outcast. And American nuclear action would justify others contemplating the same, tearing apart 50 years of global non-proliferation efforts.

These are the circumstances that motivated Chinese leader Mao Zedong to call the United States a “paper tiger” during the Cold War. Mao never took American nuclear threats against his country seriously, as he proved when he attacked US soldiers on the Korean Peninsula, in Indochina, and in other settings. Mao believed that nuclear weapons constrained the United States more than its adversaries.
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The Nixon-Kissinger madman strategy failed because Soviet and North Vietnamese leaders, like Mao Zedong in China, recognized that the United States had much more to lose than gain from turning the Vietnam War into a nuclear conflict. Nixon could make Indochina unlivable, but he could not save the South Vietnamese government, or America’s reputation as a bulwark of freedom, by feigning madness. All the major actors saw through Nixon’s bluff.

President Donald Trump seems not to know this history, nor do most of his advisers. He appears, however, drawn to the same strategy as Nixon. Trump has many incentives to try and convince foreign adversaries that he is “mad,” in hopes that they will back down from long-standing defiant behaviors without heavy costs to the United States. He wants big victories with small sacrifices—a good “deal” – and nuclear threats call out as the obvious instrument.

In this theory, the God-King will recognize – or cooler-headed advisors will convince him – that a war with North Korea would kill millions and tarnish America’s international reputation, for little or no real policy gain.

“We have to act under the assumption that he’s serious”

But what if this isn’t a bluff. What if the God-King truly wants a war with North Korea? In an interview with Vox’s Ezra Klein, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) says we should take the God-King’s threats seriously:

The president has sent us very clear signals about his enthusiasm for military conflict with North Korea. But because our brains understand that to be cataclysmic, we assume there’s another agenda behind his rhetoric, or that he will be convinced otherwise. I think given the stakes of a potential strike against North Korea, we have to act under the assumption that he’s serious, and he’s given us a lot of reason to think he is.
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We know many of Trump’s advisers counseled him to stay in the Paris [climate] agreement. He didn’t. Very few people thought he would go as far as he did on the Muslim ban. The president tends to do what he says, much to the chagrin of his antagonists.

And the president’s rhetoric on North Korea has practical consequences no matter what [Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson and [Secretary of Defense Jim] Mattis are doing. He publicly chastised Tillerson while Tillerson was at the negotiating table in Beijing. There’s no way that didn’t have the effect of making [Tillerson] less effective as a negotiator with the Chinese. We can’t act as if the president’s Twitter feed doesn’t have a real-time effect on our foreign policy.

In this theory, Sen. Murphy sees Tillerson, Mattis, and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly struggling to ‘contain’ the God-King’s bellicosity. But Sen. Murphy believes that will be difficult because, when it comes to military action, the Commander in Chief’s policy demands generate a momentum of their own. The Bush administration pushed aside military leaders like General Eric Shinseki, who correctly warned that the Iraq War would not be the easy victory being sold to the public.

Ironically, Sen. Murphy believes part of the solution would be for Congress to authorize military action against ISIS, if only to send a signal that Congress has a constitutional role in whether our nation goes to war:

MURPHY: I worry our failure to authorize action in the Middle East is a signal to the president that we have given him a blank check on overall military strategy. So I think it’s important to authorize action on ISIS or the Syrian regime because it may chill his interest in acting in an unauthorized way in the Korean Peninsula.

KLEIN: To be honest, that seems like an awfully subtle way to communicate with this president.

MURPHY: Agreed. But the alternative, which is to pass legislation pre-constraining his ability to manage foreign policy in the Korean Peninsula, is difficult as well.

At The Atlantic, former Bush speechwriter David Frum offers another risk inherent in relying on Tillerson, Mattis, and Kelly to ‘contain’ the God-King:

Good news: The people containing the commander-in-chief have to a considerable extent succeeded. The United States has not launched a preemptive attack on North Korea, abandoned Estonia to the Russians, canceled NAFTA, or started a trade war with China – each and every one of those outcomes a seemingly live possibility if you heeded Trump’s own words.

Bad news: The national-security services are apparently coping with Donald Trump in ways that circumvent the president’s constitutional role as commander-in-chief.[…]

The military and intelligence agencies are learning new habits of disregard for presidential statements and even orders that those agencies deem ignorant or reckless. By and large, those agencies’ judgments are vastly to be preferred to the president’s – but that does not make these habits any less dangerous.

For example, what if those same agencies were to ignore a future president whom they deem “too soft” … perhaps by launching a series of provocative ‘black ops’ – with funding buried in the mammoth defense-intelligence budget and planning kept away from the White House – until the war they believe is “necessary” becomes a fait accompli?

That’s not an idle worry. It very nearly happened in 1961, with the CIA-planned Bay of Pigs invasion.

If the God-King really wants war with North Korea, there’s no easy, risk-free way to stop him.

“A ‘toxic meme’ generator”

But there’s a third option. What if – rather than specifically wanting a war with North Korea – he is fundamentally a bully who desperately needs someone, anyone, to beat up?

The God-King is obviously enamored of “toughness.” He spent much of the past two weeks trying to bully the NFL into forcing players to stand for the national anthem and claimed victory when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced another owners’ meeting to address protests. But the NFL says the owners haven’t agreed on any policy change and they’ll have to weigh the likely players’ union response. The players signed contracts with one set of rules for anthem conduct, and the owners might not be able to change those rules without the union’s agreement. The God-King may not give a damn about contracts, but NFL owners can’t be as cavalier.

He’s also repeatedly tried to bully the media and yesterday he said the FCC should revoke the licenses of NBC and other networks that criticize him, saying “It’s frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write, and people should look into it.”

He may think that’s “disgusting” – and many Republican voters agree with him – but most Americans recognize it as “freedom of the press.”

More’s the point, his FCC licensing threat is an empty bluff. Networks don’t have FCC licenses – only local affiliate stations do – and courts would almost certainly block any FCC license action that smacked of silencing the God-King’s critics.

That’s good news for the First Amendment, but it may be bad news for North Korea … because Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman reports that the God-King is increasingly enraged that he can’t get what he wants:

In recent days, I spoke with a half dozen prominent Republicans and Trump advisers, and they all describe a White House in crisis as advisers struggle to contain a president who seems to be increasingly unfocused and consumed by dark moods. Trump’s ire is being fueled by his stalled legislative agenda and, to a surprising degree, by his decision last month to back the losing candidate Luther Strange in the Alabama Republican primary. “Alabama was a huge blow to his psyche,” a person close to Trump said. “He saw the cult of personality was broken.”

Instead, he’s been reduced to ginning up right-wing fury:

A common Trump tactic is to take something nonpolitical, or not always obviously political (like the NFL) and use it to turn people against another. This isn’t to say there’s nothing worth debating or caring about in the NFL protests. Trump just amps up the temperature in a way that’s sure to pit people against one another.

As Yale professor Dan Kahan puts it, Donald Trump is a “toxic meme” generator.

Toxic memes are stories or ideas “that are predictively likely to trigger the sense that it is us against them,” Kahan explained earlier this year at a scientific conference. “The special danger of Donald Trump,” he said, “is that he can drag issues across this line. He’s the president of the United States. He’s going to get publicity for these kinds of statements, ones that he knows will end up dividing people.”

He puts the “bully” in “bully pulpit,” as Newsweek’s Alexander Nazaryan explains:

“Bully pulpit” is one of those deceptive phrases that mean the exact opposite of what they seem to. It was coined by Theodore Roosevelt in reference to the presidency, but he was using bully as an adjective, signifying “the national platform the presidency provides to shape public sentiment and mobilize action,” as historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has written. A progressive reformer, Roosevelt employed his bully pulpit to carve national parks out of the industrializing landscape, curb corporate power and protect the public welfare by creating agencies like the Food and Drug Administration.

The meanings of words can change, though. President Donald Trump uses the same bully pulpit as Roosevelt, except in his case bully is a noun signifying a person who intimidates and threatens others, perhaps even commits violence against them. His is a pulpit to turn enemies into a bloody pulp.

But, Nazaryan observes, that’s quickly wearing thin:

Indeed, Trump has managed something remarkable, if inadvertent. “I say it is time for us to come together as one united people,” he said in his victory speech on November 9. The American people are not united quite yet, but with each passing week of the Trump presidency, we seem to be realizing that the cliché about what unites us being greater than what divides us is thrillingly, improbably true.

That’s because there’s something the bullying guidelines won’t say, perhaps because they are, as Trump would have it, politically correct. And it is this: Nobody likes a bully. Bullies upset the social order, whether of a federal government or a fourth-grade classroom. They cause anxiety, even to those who may not be their direct victims.

And though their antics may amuse, disgust and dismay are never far behind. Trump may have ushered in a “new normal,” but he has also reminded us how much we miss the old normal, when a petulant bully wasn’t lording it over the vast and wonderful playground called America.

In case after case, domestically, the God-King’s bullying hasn’t worked. So maybe his Twitter tantrums about North Korea are simply a case of ‘There has to be someone I can push around!’

Now senators like Chris Murphy and Bob Corker and scolding him for that too, and that raises the disturbing possibility that he may start a war to defy them and everyone else who’s told him “No!” over the past 10 months. Not as a misplayed Nixonian gambit, and not because he thinks war is the last, best alternative to a nuclear-armed North Korea …

… but simply to demonstrate his power.

And that’s truly worrying.

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Photo Credit: David Becker (Getty Images)

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Good day and good nuts