North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.” Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2018
I was offline last night, so I woke up this morning blissfully unaware of our preening president’s prattling provocations.
Well. When Trump was first elected, there were some who insisted his tweets should be ignored altogether. This has always seemed untenable in practice — public statements by the president are newsworthy and attract inevitable attention. You can choose to close your ears, but the nation and the world will still hear the voice from the bully pulpit. This was part of the package in electing Trump: his utterances are no longer just laughable droppings, they are statements from the leader of the most powerful nation in the world. The North Korean regime is reading Trump’s tweets whether or not I do.
The statement made by Trump last night does not appear to be strategically wise. It feeds the propaganda that the North Korean regime depends on and encourages escalation in a conflict with no good outcomes if it breaks out into war, and unthinkable human costs. It is hard to imagine a tweet more designed to encourage a nuclear test demonstration or other provocation from Kim Jong-un. Given the U.S.’s position of strength, Trump’s middle-school disses are remarkably weak.
The best case scenario, oddly enough, is that the North Korean regime simply views Trump as a clown. This is the equilibrium that has kept total chaos from erupting domestically despite the fact that the president of the United States appears to know nothing about anything related to his ostensible job, lies constantly about easily verifiable facts, blubbers incoherently, and envelops the national dialogue in his own shockingly petty psychodrama. The assumption, nevertheless, is that others are by and large driving the day-to-day decisions that impact the nation’s policies. Trump is just, the theory goes, a ranting reality-television star. He seems to have so little interest in policy or ideology that he is in many ways treated like a figurehead, our insult comic in chief, our creepy old uncle, our clown prince. There he goes again, saying crazy stuff.
There are all sorts of problems with this equilibrium. One problem is the risk that Trump’s shtick will be misconstrued as a stick — and our own dear leader will lead us into an unnecessary conflict that brings about the annihilation of millions of human beings.