I have talked in months past about President Donald Trump’s fundamental weakness. My intent is to demonstrate how the opposition can politically wound the president, and actively erode—if not break—the link between him and his core supporters. His base of power comes almost exclusively from projection of toughness. Yes, he’s a populist of sorts, but policy is entirely beside the point. Actually, policy isn’t even beside the point, because the only point to the Trump presidency is displays of strength. If you crack that, you crack his base. In the right conditions, only one stray strand is needed for the whole thing to unravel.
I made the case over at US News & World Report Tuesday that we may be seeing that unraveling now. The president has been unpopular from the beginning, but his support had been remarkably steady, around 40 percent, give or take. Some said this was his floor, and that Trump could limp along for years, while others (including myself) thought this level of support was more proof that America’s unreconstructed racists will be with the president no matter what he did.
We may be wrong. New polling suggests that support is softening. I argued Tuesday that this comes from three things: one, Hillary Clinton can’t be blamed anymore; two, he’s not delivering on promises to provide material gains for white working class voters; and three, his base is starting to figure out that he’s weak after witnessing his repeated failures to repeal Obamacare.
But the public isn’t alone. Our adversaries also sense weakness. And this is my point here. A paper tiger president is bad in all kinds of ways. After the Russians effort to influence the election and poison the public sphere, the North Koreans now see an opportunity. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the first seven months of Trump’s presidency unfolded at the same time that Pyongyang figured out how to put a nuclear warhead on rocket capable of hitting the US.
A strong president would, first of all, be very careful about public statements reacting to news from North Korea. But specifically, he would not issue any threats unless he intended to follow through with that threat. Without follow-through, threats are empty, and empty threats mean that our enemies can do whatever they want without fear of American power.
Of course, Trump did what he should not have done. With arms crossed, he vowed “fire and fury like the world has never seen” if it continues its “threats.” And of course, that threat turned out to be empty as soon as Pyongyang issued, within hours of Trump’s statement, another threat: it could hit Guam if it wanted to. And the response to that threat: crickets. Actually, Trump tweeted: America will always be the most powerful nation.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tried doing the right thing in blurring what was clearly, unambiguously, a bright line that Kim Jong Un took delight in crossing without consequence. In Guam Tuesday, he said he did not think North Korea was an imminent threat. That’s good, but seriously—how long can this last? The president is not going to change, cannot change, because he is fundamentally a weak person. That’s becoming obvious to the American people. It’s becoming obvious to our enemies, too.
Mere hours before Trump issued his clear unambiguous bright line, Vice published a report citing current and former White House aides. They revealed Trump’s near-constant demand for ego-stroking. Twice a day, aides bring to the Oval Office folders filled with “screenshots of positive cable news chyrons (those lower-third headlines and crawls), admiring tweets, transcripts of fawning TV interviews, praise-filled news stories, and sometimes just pictures of Trump on TV looking powerful.”
What can we do? Prudence might tell us to set aside partisanship and get behind the president in the face of external threats. But that’s exactly wrong. We should double down on our efforts to point out the president’s weakness. No sense in pretending Trump is a serious opponent. Pyongyang has already called his bluff. What we need is for the grown-ups in the White House, and especially at the Pentagon, to see with clear eyes, as they did when Trump “banned” transgender members of the armed services. We need them to take the president’s “orders” with a grain of salt. We need them to hold the line and wait for the American people to correct this awful mistake.