From tweeting about the size of his nuclear “button” to using juvenile insults that demean his opponents, President Trump has often caused people to question his sanity. Ever since he took the oath of office, Democrats, liberal media pundits, and medical professionals have constantly questioned his mental capacity, ranging from his IQ to whether he suffers from personalty disorders or an aging brain.
Trump typically responds to each of these challenges by boasting about his IQ and calling himself a “stable genius” in true Trumpian style. But while this behavior often gets him into more trouble, extends the news cycle to focus on these inane interactions, and degrades the ambiance of the Oval Office, it may actually have a positive impact on Trump’s success and perhaps, could even be an intentional strategy on his part. This is most strongly supported by the two most recent instances involving North Korea and the immigration debate.
The United States and North Korea have always been at odds for decades, and it seems to have worsened in recent years. The joint military exercises of South Korea and the United States along the DMZ as preparation for a North Korean invasion often inflame the North, which sees such drills as preparation for an invasion of their own isolated hermit state. But Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader, is separated from typical tin-foil cap wearing paranoiacs by the fact that he is in charge of a nuclear arsenal that just may be capable of launching strikes against the US mainland. Not to mention, of course, that North Koreans have artillery trained on South Korea’s capital of Seoul. Past American “aggression” was and is usually followed by a round of missile or bomb tests by North Korea.
And after the release of an American comedy, The Interview, in which fictional reporters are sent to North Korea to assassinate Kim Jong-un, North Korean hackers attacked Sony, the film’s distributor/producer. Now, Trump’s Presidency is facing further escalation between the United States and North Korea in terms of rhetoric as well as military action. As the US stepped up its drills and shows of military force, North Korea stepped up its rocket testing and seems to have finally built rockets capable of reaching America. While Trump first stated he was open to talking with North Korea and said he was impressed by Kim Jong-un, he began to adopt a more hostile tone after North Korea began conducting more missile tests, undermining his claims that North Korea would not be able to develop missiles while he was President. North Korea responding by insulting Trump, calling him “old” and saying he was a “dotard” while threatening to blow up the American territory of Guam in the Pacific.
In response, Trump quickly lobbed back his own insults by mocking Kim Jong-un’s weight and calling him “rocket man.” Even as the US flew its own bombers nearby North Korea to escalate the situation, President Trump warned North Korea that he could utterly destroy them and warned that they would be destroyed in “fire and fury” if they tried to attack the US. Trump also boasted that he had a “bigger” nuclear button on his desk than Kim Jong-un did and that it “actually worked.” These words had some fearing nuclear war was imminent and terrified the international community. Meanwhile, the UN continued to pass more and more crippling sanctions against North Korea, even with the support of China, although they did not seem to enjoy the word war Kim and Trump were waging.
Yet at the beginning of this year, Kim announced in his yearly address that North Korea was open to participating in the 2018 Winter Olympics that would be held in PyeongChang, South Korea. And just this week, North Korean and South Korean delegations officially met and agreed on the logistics to accept North Korea’s participation in the games. Kim also seemed to express that the North was open to a peaceful co-existence with the South although he still had a few choice words for the United States and it was those comments that spurred the “button matching” competition between him and Trump. Trump immediately took credit for the North Korea’s sudden move for peace and yesterday, South Korean President Jae-in himself credited Trump for the talks.
Of course, it is impossible to truly know why North Korea has suddenly seemed willing to open a dialogue with the South. Some suspect they may be trying to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States but that doesn’t seem to be working as both countries are already congratulating each other for what happened. Others suspect that perhaps North Korea is either buying time to work out the kinks in their ballistic missile technology or trying to slowly dial down the rhetoric to prevent further sanctions and possible isolation from their last few allies like China. But I think it is safe to say that even if this may all be true, Trump’s verbal attacks likely unnerved Kim and his regime who, despite their own bravado and retorts, must know that there’s no favorable outcome in a war with the United States and may actually be afraid that Trump is crazy enough to attack them if he feels threatened.
This hearkens back of course to the “madman theory” started by President Richard Nixon who thought if he acted like a crazy President who would do anything, it would deter China from attacking the US and make North Vietnam eager to agree to terms that ended the Vietnam War. But the question some pundits may then press is if Trump actually intended to scare North Korea into submission with his own bluster or was just reacting to criticism from them like he usually does and just got lucky because he’s now leader of the free world with a massive military and nuclear arsenal at his disposal. We may never know for certain but that is also why I included a different situation in which a similar outcome seems to have happened.
While immigration reform certainly isn’t the third rail of politics in the US, it’s a tricky issue that the recent rise of the nativist far right in the Republican Party has only made more complicated. During President Obama’s term of office, a bipartisan gaggle of senators known as the “Gang of Eight” tried and failed to propose immigration reform as America faced growing numbers of undocumented immigrants present in the country. The involvement of Republicans in the Gang of Eight has seemingly haunted them throughout their political careers as Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) was slammed for it when he ran for President in the 2016 Republican primary while Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) was branded as an “amnesty senator” and attacked for it, among other things, during his brief attempt at re-election in Arizona. So for the most part, the Republicans refused to consider any further reform attempts which caused President Obama to go out and grant temporary reprieve from deportations himself to undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country as children. His executive order, known as “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” or “DACA” for short, was extremely controversial and Republicans quickly came out against it, claiming it was executive overreach and unconstitutional.
Trump himself actually promised to revoke DACA as a candidate for the Presidency but after taking office, he began to backpedal by saying “they [DACA recipients] shouldn’t be very worried, I have a big heart, we’re going to take care of everybody.” Trump later expressed similar sentiments on Twitter, going so far as to praise DACA recipients or “dreamers” as they are often called. But in September of last year, Trump suddenly announced that he would end the DACA program beginning in early March of 2018. Passing the buck to Congress, Trump had given Congress an incentive to get DACA encoded into law and perhaps finally take a comprehensive look at immigration reform. But after promising Democrats, including Senator Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, that he wouldn’t attach any preconditions to DACA, Trump has suddenly reversed course and now has said he won’t approve any DACA legislation without funding for his border wall.
Democrats have vigorously opposed funding Trump’s wall although they have stated they are open to funding other security measures. Trump’s tactic now forces Democrats into the tough choice of either approving his wall and angering their base but protecting Dreamers from deportation or refusing to fund his wall but then being accused of not standing up for Dreamers and being branded as ineffective right before the 2018 midterms when they are hoping to gain seats in the House or Senate to chip away at the Republican majority. Of course, Democrats are also trying to outmaneuver Republicans by now saying they may block the federal budget from being approved at the end of January unless DACA is first addressed. Such an action would result in a federal government shutdown in an election year which could bode badly for Republicans since they are in power, even though the shutdown would be the Democrats’ fault. But then, voters may actually place blame where blame would be due and hurt the Democrats’ midterm chances. At the end of the day, Congressional negotiations on immigration and the budget have morphed into a complicated game of who will blink first.
But that being said, Democrat leadership have been meeting with President Trump along with moderate Republicans in the White House and are presently discussing potential options for compromising on some of Trump’s campaign promises which include ending chain migration and the diversity lottery for visas, increasing border security funding, and permanently resolving the status of Dreamers. These talks however have not yet been met with any solid guarantees from either side and yesterday’s meeting was marked by President Trump constantly contradicting himself on his positions. All that said, it is still impressive that Trump has gotten Democrats, who once derided his border wall and his immigration policy proposals, to sit in a meeting with him and be open to potential compromises. After years of gridlocked government where inaction is only broken by few partisan victories like the Republicans’ massive 2017 tax cut bill, Trump may actually be able to get a deal on immigration passed through Congress, a feat not even Obama could accomplish. And all this because he flipped the tables by suddenly deciding to rescind DACA.
Now, of course, North Korea-South Korea talks could break down and war could even ensue in the near future while immigration reform legislation may also once again die in the swamp of Congressional politics, forcing Trump to start deporting Dreamers or change his position once again. But the fact that we have come this far shows that Trump is either just incredibly lucky or, perhaps, using his bombastic image to play “good cop-bad cop” and get better deals or action on issues that would be done in a normal political climate. After all, if you don’t like the way the table is set, you can always flip it over. Trump may actually be smarter than we give him credit for.