Like probably most of you, I’ve been trying for weeks now to figure out what President Trump is trying to accomplish in continually upping his war of personal insults with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Up to now, it has been at least somewhat clear to me what U.S. presidents were thinking with regard to North Korea’s nuclear threat or to situations comparable to it. Presidents from at least Eisenhower to Obama were generally measured and careful in their rhetoric when facing potentially volatile international confrontations.
But there are those who say that careful approach hasn’t worked at least with North Korea, so President Trump’s incendiary rhetoric might just be the thing that will ultimately bring Kim to the negotiating table.
That is a possible explanation for Trump’s behavior — the “I’m-the-madman” theory that actually assumes Kim is rational and will be unnerved enough by the uncertainty Trump is creating that he will agree to negotiate the elimination of his nuclear weapons.
But I don’t buy it for a number of reasons. First, it assumes a carefully thought-out strategy on Trump’s part — yet, in the evolving history of the Trump presidency, there has been little or no evidence that anything he does is carefully thought out. Even if Trump is employing a clever strategy to bring Kim to the table, there is no evidence that it is working, while the downside risk of a miscalculation resulting from that strategy is that it could lead to a catastrophic war.
I think that the chances are there is no clever strategy here and that Trump is simply doing what he always does. He’s the sledgehammer president whose strategy begins and ends with that particular implement of backyard destruction. He uses a sledgehammer for its own sake because, let’s face it, it did help him get elected. There were a lot of voters out there who were looking for a candidate who would take a sledgehammer to the system.
The problem is that if once you are elected to political office, a sledgehammer is all you have and all you know how to use, the chances that you will accomplish anything worthwhile, such as bringing North Korea to the negotiating table, are going to be slim, whereas the chances that you will simply destroy things around you — even things that your supporters might consider valuable — are going to be high.
It seems to me that if Trump’s nine months in office so far shows us anything, it is that the sledgehammer approach to governing doesn’t work, at least in a highly evolved democratic system. That approach is the reason, I think, that Trump has accomplished so little in his first nine months, and why he will continue to accomplish little, but will probably destroy many valuable features of the system as time goes on.
For those of us who oppose Trump’s agenda, his relative ineffectiveness has been a source of at least some comfort. Take the repeal of Obamacare. Everyone thought it would be a slam-dunk, given the Republican control of Congress, and Trump himself said it would happen virtually immediately after he took office. But at the first sign of political difficulty, Trump brought out his sledgehammer and used it on the leaders of his own party in Congress. That wasn’t the only reason for the collapse of the repeal effort, but it didn’t help the cause.
Then there’s the Russia collusion investigation. When things were starting to get uncomfortably hot for him, he turned as usual to his hammer and fired James Comey. Again, swinging the hammer did not lead to the result he wanted. It just brought in Robert Mueller and may have implicated Trump in obstruction of justice.
It’s important to note, though, that Trump isn’t entirely random in wielding his sledgehammer. To the extent he does have a strategy, it is to swing the hammer at anything that smacks of democratic values, and, in particular, at the rights of blacks, Hispanics, women, Muslims, gays, transgender people, the poor etc. That too was part of what got him elected. But as far as governing goes, it puts Trump at the level of your average dictator, not the leader of a democratic nation.
That’s why the racist-sexist sledgehammer, in particular, is ultimately not working for him here in the U.S. Take his tweets and comments about NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem. He waded into that one with little evidence of a political strategy other than swinging the hammer. He then lamely tried to deny that he was aiming it at black players who, of course, were exclusively the ones who were initially doing the kneeling.
With his S.O.B comments about NFL players, Trump damaged his relationships with much of the professional sports world; and I would expect that his poll numbers will drop due to it the way they did after his divisive Charlottesville comments.
The list could go on. In his just-released tax reform plan, Trump is reportedly proposing to slash taxes on the wealthy and corporations — moves that will apparently come at the expense of the poor and the middle class. Okay, he looks to be using an axe in this case. But the approach appears to be the same. While presidents up to now largely appeared to value nuance in their policy approaches to problems, there is almost never any nuance in Trump’s approach. It is almost always bash and slice.
He almost never seeks a middle ground. I would acknowledge there have been some exceptions such as his deal with the Democrats on the debt ceiling and his statements that seem to indicate a willingness to negotiate on DACA. But these seem to be the very few exceptions that prove the rule.
It has seemed to me that Trump has from the start tried to use what has been termed the “shock doctrine” to advance his agenda, whatever that agenda actually is. Governing via sledgehammer or axe would seem to follow from a decision to use the shock doctrine. But as I noted in a previous post here, the shock doctrine hasn’t worked for Trump. People aren’t cowering, as he has apparently hoped, in the face of his sledgehammer.
That isn’t to say, though, that Trump’s favorite blunt or sharp instruments shouldn’t be a source of concern to all of us. As long as he remains in the White House, those instruments are capable of doing a lot of serious, maybe even catastrophic damage. That his presidency will be seen by history as an abject failure, I have almost no doubt. Let’s just hope that there will be a history to judge him after he’s gone.