During the first year of Trump’s presidency, we saw a theme emerge among some in the media. When Trump did things like bomb Syria or read a prepared speech off of a teleprompter, they would immediately chime in with “he’s finally become presidential.”
We haven’t heard that very much lately, but in his own way, Jeff Greenfield revives the meme by asking if Democrats will be able to give Trump credit if something good happens on the Korean peninsula. Setting the tone for his argument, Greenfield starts off with this:
Let us assume for the moment that Donald Trump is an “idiot” and a “f—-ing moron” who hasn’t got a clue about the substance of legislation. (These judgments, if multiple news reports are accurate, come from the president’s current chief of staff, his former secretary of state and any number of Republican legislators, respectively). Let us draw from countless accounts of his conduct going back decades that the president is mendacious, graceless and a misogynist on steroids, whose character, temperament, historical cluelessness and utter incapacity for self-reflection make him by any measure the most unfit occupant of the White House ever.
Now: If you accepted these assumptions, how hard would it be to grant the president any credit for … anything?
The problem with the intro is that what Greenfield calls “assumptions” are actually cold, hard facts that have been documented time and time again. The only remaining question on the table is the one that vexes so many of us: why does about 40 percent of the American public remain blind to the facts?
With that in mind, is it possible for an idiot who is clueless about history to accomplish something positive? Here’s the case Greenfield makes:
Yes, it’s probably too early to sound the trumpets; yes, there is a history of North Korea playing Lucy with the football while the U.S., as Charlie Brown, whiffs badly. Yes, some will argue that Trump has already given Kim what he and his forebears have always wanted—the respect due a nuclear power—without North Korea having to put anything tangible on the table. But when you measure where we are now from where we were just several months ago—Trump threatening “fire and fury” last August, belittling Kim as “Little Rocket Man” in September as North Korea fired missiles into the Pacific, fears of war at a near-fever pitch—we are clearly in a better place. And it is at least plausible that the president’s words and deeds mattered. Maybe China was spooked by Trump’s saber-ratting (and threats of a trade war) into pressuring Pyongyang. Maybe Trump’s threat to pull troops out of South Korea convinced Moon that a radical change in the status quo was critical. Maybe that’s why the Seoul Olympics created an atmosphere for potential reconciliation the way China’s invitation to American ping-pong players in April 1971 set the stage for President Richard M. Nixon’s visit to China the following year and an end to more than 20 years of enmity.
Frankly, I got worn out by all the caveats at the beginning of that paragraph. But then Greenfield wants us to basically give Trump credit for going from “fire and fury” to a “better place.” There’s some truth in that, just like it feels better when you stop banging your head against a wall.
Greenfield also wants us to assume that all of the saber-rattling Trump did mattered because it created openings with the leaders of China, North Korea and South Korea. This is where the American exceptionalism I wrote about creeps in. The assumption is always that world events are triggered by the words and actions of the United States, rather than people and events outside our borders. Ultimately, what Greenfield wants us to contemplate is whether or not to give Trump credit for motivating the moves he described, and to dismiss the idea that they originated from what those leaders saw to be in their own self interest. That is a debate we can have, but never prove one way or the other.
In addition to the caveats Greenfield offered, I would add that Kim Jong-un is probably ready to talk now that he has demonstrated the ability to build nuclear weapons and deliver them. A huge part of the reason why any country would want to do so is defensive—more than offensive. They know that an aggressor is less likely to attack if the response would escalate a nuclear exchange. North Korea has now joined that club and is ready to talk.
We also know that recently Kim Jong-un appeared to sweeten the pot by saying that he was shutting down his nuclear test site—only to subsequently learn that he has no choice because the underground cavity where it is located collapsed.
All of that leads me to wonder why someone like Greenfield is so prematurely teeing up a question about whether Democrats will give Trump credit if something good happens between North and South Korea. It is almost as if there is an unyielding drive to give this president some credit for something.
The old adage about a stopped clock being right twice a day is valid. It is possible that even Donald Trump could do something positive. Are Democrats required to acknowledge that? Did anyone in the media suggest that Republicans were required to give Barack Obama credit for his many accomplishments?
My guess is that people like Greenfield know this presidency is a disaster in ways that break all historical norms. But given the way they define objectivity, they can’t say that. So there is a desperate attempt to find that one thing Trump might accomplish and then tarnish the opposition prematurely on the assumption that he won’t get credit. That provides some balance and makes things feel “normal” again.