by Roger Kimball
One of the great difficulties in perfecting technologies like radar and sonar revolves around the problem of distinguishing accurately between noise and the real McCoy. Is that an enemy bomber or missile out there, or is it just a flock of birds?
Donald Trump presents his opponents, and even some of his friends, with a similar problem. He speaks differently from most other statesmen on the world stage. He is not beholden to many of the principles of diplomacy (what some cynics like me might be tempted to describe as “nostrums”) that inform the usual script of diplomatic relations. What part of his behavior is noise? What part is the vital signal?
Trump was elected primarily because of what he said about three things: immigration, trade, and international relations. He wanted to check the flow of illegal immigration, revise America’s trade deals with other nations (and with itself by addressing a misguided regulatory environment), and work to make sure that America’s interventions in foreign climes were in the service of its national interest while also assuring that America’s military was as strong and prepared as it could be.
Trump’s “Principled Realism” Revisited
Stepping back, I’d say that Trump’s successes on all three fronts have been mixed, whereby “mixed” I do not mean “poor.” I mean that he has his share—quite a large share, in fact—of successes and some frustrations. But all three issues—like most big things in life—represent on-going processes that are seldom solved all at once and, even then, do not stay solved for long. They require constant attention and flexibility, what Trump himself referred to in one of his greatest speeches as “principled realism.”
It must be difficult to be a paid-up member of the anti-Trump fraternity. Just a few years ago, there were thousands of females skirling about how crude Donald Trump is while parading around the Washington Mall in pink pussy hats. Dark rumors of “collusion” with the Russians to steal the election were gaining traction and crashed on to shore in the shape of Robert S. Mueller III, G-Man extraordinaire, the straightest of straight arrows, who assembled his posse of Hillary-supporting anti-Trump lawyers to perform the world’s greatest legal excavation and bring down the Bad Orange Man. Alas, it turned out that Mueller was really just Andrew Weismann’s Howdy Doody.
The saddest words of tongue or pen are these—it might have been. Not only did Mueller and his anti-Trump barracudas come up empty-handed when it came to the issue of Russian collusion, but they also promulgated a profound public suspicion of the FBI, the Department of Justice, and America’s intelligence services generally. It will be many years before those institutions regain their public credibility.
Meanwhile, Democrats, unable to see their dream of cashiering Donald Trump melt away, insisted that Robert Muller subject himself to a public Congressional interrogation. The results of that folly are still being tabulated, but the damage it did to the reputation of poor, doddering, deer-in-the-headlights Robert Mueller will never be repaired.
I thought that was the last rampart for the NeverTrump/Anti-Trump fraternity. But it turns out that they are entertaining one last prayer.
So Much for the “Smart Money”
The most outrageous part of Trump’s tenure to date has been the success of his economic policy. Paul Krugman, resident economic sage of New York’s largest organ of anti-Trump sentiment, infamously predicted the day after the election of 2016 that the world was “very probably looking at a global recession, with no end in sight.” Asked when the stock market would recover from the insult of “putting an irresponsible, ignorant man who takes his advice from all the wrong people in charge of the nation”—that is, people unlike Paul Krugman—asked, I say, when the market would recover, Krugman said, “probably never.”
The market was then 18,000 and change. It closed Friday, after a rocky couple of weeks, at 25,886. But I surmise that Paul Krugman enjoys making a fool of himself. Just a couple of days ago, again in that former New York newspaper, he assured his readers that “The smart money thinks Trumponomics is a flop.” The “smart money,” you see. That would be the money wielded by people like Paul Krugman. I am told that Krugman, putting his intelligent pelf where is mouth is, sold all his stock holdings and went to cash following Trump’s victory. It is a mark of bad character that I have been raising a glass in honor of Mr. Krugman every time the stock market has risen another thousand points since 2016. I’ve had many sips so far. (It is a nice detail, too, that back in 1998 this Nobel Laureate in economics said that by 2005 “it would become clear that the Internet’s effect on the economy is no greater than the fax machine’s.” Nice!)
As I say, however, Paul Krugman is nothing if not dogged. “Investors”—the “smart money”—are gloomy because of Trump’s America-first trade policies. Krugman doesn’t refer to them as “America-first policies,” of course. He calls them “protectionist,” counting on the term to produce negative sentiments in his readers. And just in case they are not quite on the same page—just in case they begin to wonder what, when you come right down to it, is wrong with protecting American workers—he gives them a little rhetorical nudge: “Protectionism seems to be up there with racism as part of the essential Trump.” Racism! That ought to scare the children.
And speaking of the children, what’s the new holy grail that the anti-Trump fraternity is having them all put front and center in their nightly prayers? Recession, of course. Trump has imposed tariffs on some of our trade partners—China most notably—whom he has judged are not playing fairly with America. Those tariffs—those penalties—will make the affected trading partners unhappy and lead them to retaliate, which in turn will tip the United States into recession (generally defined as two successive quarters of negative growth). It hasn’t happened yet, not by a long shot, but, oh, how the left is praying that it does happen, and soon. The airwaves are full of leftist pundits gleefully proffering signs and wonders that, they say, suggest that “the global recession has already begun.” “Please, comrades, do not let people notice that the stock market (notwithstanding its recent volatility) is at historic highs, that unemployment is at historic lows, that inflation is low and stable, and that the economy continues to grow.”
That’s part of their nightly prayer. I do not think it will be answered, though I do think that we are likely in for more market volatility.
Actions Speak Louder
But this brings me, a little late, to my main point. Donald Trump, I noted, often does not speak or act like other statesmen. That makes some people, including some broadly speaking pro-Trump friends, uneasy. In particular, they do not like it when Trump meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin and says nice things about him. They get nervous when he meets with the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, and pauses for smiling photo-ops. They are horrified when he praises Chinese President Xi even as the Mao wannabe has his troops massing on the Hong Kong border.
But I also think, as Trump himself put it, that it would be a good thing, not a bad thing for us to have good relations with Russia. I think it is good that he chats up the chubby dictator from North Korea even as he maintains a punishing regime of sanctions on the hermit empire. I think it is a good strategy to dispense some honeyed words in President Xi’s direction, to tell the world what an impressive leader he is, while imposing billions in tariffs in order to encourage the Chinese to play fair.
Will it work? I don’t know. But I do know that Trump, whatever he has said, has acted with much greater forcefulness and clarity of purpose than his immediate predecessors. He may meet Kim Jong-un for a Polaroid and a handshake at Panmunjom along the DMZ. But he softened the sanctions against the Norks not one iota.
I think Nicholas Eberstadt was right when he spoke of Kim’s “terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad year.” It has been such a disaster for the tubby tyrant because of Trump’s sanctions. And yet Kim craves Trump’s attention. Hence, as Eberstadt points out, North Korea has just issued official postage stamps of Donald Trump, stamps that commemorate their “historic” meeting earlier this summer. Why did North Korea do this? “Because,” Eberstadt observes, “it has to. After Mr. Kim scurried down to get whatever face time the American would grant him, the scene had all the makings of a public humiliation. So the North Koreans are now aggressively pretending that the encounter was somehow a coup for Mr. Kim.”
Team Kim is being outmaneuvered by the Americans in their zero-sum contest.
Let’s start with the Panmunjom blunder. The first rule of North Korean diplomacy is that Pyongyang controls everything—the venue, the timing, the agenda, the invitees—otherwise there are no meetings. Yet in June, with a seemingly offhand tweet suggesting a last-minute encounter at the DMZ, Mr. Trump upended 70 years of North Korean protocol. Within hours, Mr. Kim’s minions promised that their man would show. The American president came, he saw, and he left without making any concessions.
I think we can see something similar going on with Trump’s behavior towards Xi. China’s economy is in free fall. It just recorded its worst industrial growth in 17 years. It is suffering mass unrest in various parts of the mainland and now in the semi-autonomous region of Hong Kong, an “inalienable part of the People’s Republic of China,” as the 1997 handover from Britain declared, but also an area understood to have the right to “to exercise a high degree of autonomy and enjoy executive, legislative and independent judicial power, including that of final adjudication, in accordance with the provisions of this Law.”
Is all that just about to be discarded? I don’t know. I don’t think so—not yet, anyway. But suppose an American president was interested in helping out the people who live in this part of China. What should he do? Threaten the president of China? (Threaten what, by the way? War?) Or should he make soothing noises, saying that he is sure that the Chinese leader will step up and do the right thing all the while, nota bene, continuing U.S. tariffs on billions of dollars of Chinese goods?
Some of my friends have said Donald Trump should be acting more as Ronald Reagan acted in his interactions with Mikhail Gorbachev. Maybe. But it is worth noting that Reagan’s relations with the leader of the Soviet Union were not all “tear down this wall, Mr. Gorbachev.” They also involved a lot of blandishments, including visits to Moscow and Washington. Was all that noise? Or part of the signal that brought the Cold War to a bloodless end? Just a day or two ago, Trump suggested that President Xi go to talk to the protesters in Hong Kong. This happened even as Xi had scores of Chinese troop-carrying trucks massing on the border. Some people thought that Trump was wrong to take so mild an approach. Maybe. But maybe his combination of strong actions in the form of tariffs and, more generally, a demand for fair trade, coupled with emollient, face-saving rhetoric will be effective.
At any rate, the situation in China reminds me of one of the political philosopher James Burnham’s famous political laws: Where there is no alternative there is no problem. What’s the alternative to Donald Trump on any of these issues? Joe Biden? Elizabeth Warren? Bernie Sanders? To ask the question is to answer it.
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Roger Kimball is Editor and Publisher of The New Criterion and President and Publisher of Encounter Books.