Trump and the End of Smugness
Like most Democrats, I reacted to the stunning 2016 election of Donald Trump with a combination of confusion and dread. After all, Hillary Clinton was the favorite and, to Democrats like me, a Trump victory seemed to portend certain economic disaster, nuclear war, and pretty much the end of America as we knew it.
But now nearly two years into his administration, Trump has presided over a “winning streak” that includes a booming economy and stock market, an unemployment level at a nearly 50-year low, two Supreme Court appointments, no new foreign wars or domestic terrorist attacks emanating from abroad, a significant degree of progress on trade relations with Canada and Mexico, a “needed reset” on the China relationship, and the prospect of peace on the Korean Peninsula.
Perhaps it is time that even his opponents reconsider Trump. Does Trump have a strategy that we can describe? Is Trump a return of Richard Nixon, of Ronald Reagan, or of something else entirely? After several months of watching the news without gaining any answers, I finally canceled my cable subscription and sought out other sources. I found some insights in unexpected places.
Trump’s presidency marks a return to realpolitik and great power politics. No one knows what goes on in Trump’s mind or if even he believes he has a strategy. What matters is what Trump does, so this essay looks at his actions, considers the bias of his critics, and seeks a new way to understand his policies. It considers the possibility that Trump has a method to his madness.
Bursting the “Cognitive Bubble”
The first clue toward understanding this new era was the way in which American media covered Trump’s approach toward North Korea, a country I have watched closely for 20 years as an Asia specialist. North Korea is an urgent nuclear threat to the United States, as President Barack Obama warned Trump during their famous meeting after the election. Kim Jong Un subsequently accelerated his missile development and demonstrated weapons that could reach the U.S. mainland. During the fall of 2017, my colleagues and I laughed nervously about the prospect of nuclear war — given Trump’s threats earlier that summer to meet North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen” and at the U.N. General Assembly to “totally destroy” Kim’s regime.
A year after those hyperbolic threats, Trump has just finished bragging at the U.N. General Assembly about how he had made significant progress in diplomacy with North Korea — even some “skeptics” agree. Overall, however, the press remains skeptical about Trump’s efforts with North Korea. It blames Trump for recklessly escalating the rhetoric and then blames him for meeting Kim in Singapore for diplomatic talks and getting “played.” After that meeting, the press predictably slammed Trump for not getting North Korea to immediately denuclearize, an unrealistic goal.
Of course, every president experiences fierce and sometimes unfair press criticism. They all feel quite persecuted by the press and frequently complain about their treatment. But Trump’s adversarial relationship with the press seems of a different type. He has challenged the press directly, even labeled them the enemy of the people. In response, much of the mainstream press seems to have adopted a certain smugness in the way that they consistently denigrate not just the president’s policies, but also his competence and fitness to be president. In contrast to the tone of press criticism of Obama, the mainstream media seems absolutely certain that they are smarter than Trump. In other words, they are smug. So, despite a radical change in U.S.-North Korea relations, the tone of the press coverage remains highly negative.
But the president’s approach has a clear logic. Trump shattered “decades of orthodoxy” by starting the North Korea negotiations with a summit directly between himself and Kim and offering the concession of pausing U.S.-South Korea military drills on the Peninsula. In contrast, previous administrations had dispatched diplomats to lay the groundwork for nuclear disarmament first, with the prospect of meeting the president as a reward. The recent isolation of North Korea with sanctions and limited diplomatic engagement had only persuaded it to build up its nuclear weapons capability and strengthened mutual suspicions. Trump’s instincts on North Korea may even be better than that of his advisors, according to former officials like Morton Halperin, a longtime arms control expert who served in the Johnson, Nixon, Clinton, and Obama administrations. Trump’s approach of engaging North Korea personally and directly makes much more sense than simply demanding immediate denuclearization.
Of course, the verdict on Trump’s effort with North Korea is not yet in. But much of the press has not paid sufficient attention to the progress Trump has already made. His approach has secured the remains of some American troops lost during the Korean War, contributed to successful inter-Korean talks, and promised a follow up U.S.-North Korea summit. He is trying an unorthodox approach, but it is too soon to render conclusions about them because we are right in the middle of it. Experiencing the discrepancy between mainstream coverage of North Korea and my own analysis was eye-opening.
The second came from a project I was running at the Carnegie Council on Trump’s approach toward Asia. In 2017, I hosted a podcast with George Friedman, who described the post-World War II system as a “freak” and predicted that the world is returning to “a more normal structure in which the nation-state is dominant, international trade is intense but managed by states for their own benefit, and where this idea that the nation-state is obsolete goes away.” A similar theme came up during my podcast with scholar Raymond Kuo, who hopefully described Trump’s transactional approach as possibly like that of “master statesman” Otto Von Bismarck during his rule over Germany in the late 19th century. Maybe Trump is just a return to the norm of what Ian Bremmer calls our “G-Zero World.”
A third insight was from the unlikeliest place: the critically acclaimed animated show, “Rick and Morty.” During Trump’s campaign, his supporters frequently talked about how funny the candidate was. This humor was lost on most of my left-leaning peers. But “Rick and Morty” showed me what I have may been missing. Here is a popular TV show about a mad scientist Rick, an amoral, sociopathic man who considers himself the smartest man in the universe and tells dirty jokes in front of his grandson Morty. The slapstick, low-brow, and nihilistic insults and dirty humor of “Rick and Morty” — much like Trump — resemble some of the comedic greats from the decades prior to the 1990s: “The Honeymooners,” “Benny Hill,” “Abbott and Costello,” “The Three Stooges,” and “I Love Lucy.” These comedic devices can be traced back hundreds of years to Asian and European theater, which used slapstick, puns, insults, and innuendo.
Compare that oeuvre to the 1990s-2000s, during which comedy was more satirical, knowing, self-referential, meta, and smug. This idea is far from perfect, but examples of satire that use slapstick as well include “The Daily Show,” “The Colbert Report,” “South Park,” “Team America: World Police”, and Sacha Baron Cohen’s parodies. American society today seems to be witnessing a return of what columnist Noah Smith calls “goofy” humor and a decline of “knowingly sarcastic” humor. Even The New Yorker complained that the 2018 Emmys were too smug and later described Trump’s rallies unfavorably as a “vaudeville routine.” Perhaps our shift toward a reversion in history also means we are seeing a cultural reversion as well. Smugness has become politically tone deaf.
It’s possible that his opponents simply do not get Trump’s humor. The famous comment Trump made in 2016 about hoping that Russia would find Hillary Clinton’s 30,000 missing emails was delivered amid the Republican candidate’s riff about the Jon Lovitz character Tommy Flanagan, the pathological liar, from Saturday Night Live. Another source of media consternation was Trump’s remark that he preferred soldiers who were not captured, in contrast to John McCain, who was captured in the Vietnam War. Al Franken made the same joke about 20 years ago and Chris Rock delivered it in his 2008 HBO special to huge laughs. Rock’s hilarious punchline: “I don’t wanna vote for the guy that got captured. I wanna vote for the mother f—er that got away!” But when Trump made the same comment, much of the media portrayed these jokes as evidence that Trump was a treasonous, insensitive monster. Of course, there are different standards of propriety for politicians and for comedians, but one can’t help but sense that there is an entirely different standard for Trump.
The same dynamic played out after Trump called the gang MS-13 “animals” (which he later clarified) and also when he said that people disputing the confederate statues in Charlottesville had “very fine people on both sides” of the debate. In these two episodes, the U.S. media twisted the president’s statements to make him sound like he was calling all immigrants animals and that he was calling neo-Nazis fine people. But that’s not what he said. Slanted media coverage of politicians is nothing new, but fellow Democrats must be aware of it even when it confirms their views.
Of course, Trump, like all presidents, is trying to have it both ways. He is trying to encourage his base, while seeking to avoid alienating the mushy middle. It is a bit unseemly and at times hypocritical, but it is politics, not bean bag. Trump’s opponents like to call out his hypocrisy in hyperbolic terms, but in so doing they simply stoke outrage while failing to provide any sort of objective analysis about what he is really accomplishing.
Defining the Trump Doctrine
Such an analysis would require a difficult reckoning with some missteps that long predate Trump. Backing for Trump stems in part from mistakes made by his predecessors. Bill Clinton’s famous 1996 “bridge to the 21st century” speech depicted a world in which the United States could “maintain our world leadership for peace and freedom” while also protecting the environment and training its citizens to compete in a globalized world. Americans could have it all.
During the 1990s, that phrase “bridge to the 21st century” became — sometimes sarcastic — shorthand for a set of policies that the United States would promote to foster globalization, technology, and open trade. It was a trusting aspiration that if only the United States would follow its liberal principles, other countries would follow along. That mentality led to welcoming China into the World Trade Organization, the flawed efforts to invade and nation-build Iraq and Afghanistan Wars by the Bush administration, and then the 2008 financial crisis.
Like many Gen-Xers who studied politics or international relations in the 1990s and 2000s, I absorbed this gospel of liberal internationalism almost completely. But Trump’s early successes have already caused me to question those tenets of my education.
The Trump Doctrine takes previous policy assumptions and turns them on their head. Trump’s “America First” approach is a reversion to the idea of realpolitik and great power competition. It is better suited to a moment in which American power is much less dominant. The president takes each state-to-state relationship on its own terms. That’s why he’s often antagonistic with allies and friendly with threatening dictators. The consequences of insulting friendly countries, such as Canada, might be hurt feelings in exchange for better trade terms, while souring relations with an antagonistic one, such as North Korea, could result in serious security threats. He pursues the optimal outcome in a utilitarian sense rather than follow previous rules about diplomatic etiquette. Trump keeps his enemies even closer than his friends, while previous presidents did the opposite. Niccolo Machiavelli might have been familiar with these tactics.
Trump’s diplomatic method can be reduced to the four “B’s”: bullying, bargaining, burden-sharing, and bragging. He starts an interaction by bullying the subject — usually on Twitter, seeks a chance to sit down with the target to bargain as hard as possible toward what Trump may see as a more reciprocal relationship of burden-sharing, and then finally brags about whatever the results are. Trump treats all relationships as transactional, deploying tit-for-tat tactics toward achieving his goal of “reciprocity.” His message is that he wants to make America great again but does not spend much time lecturing or moralizing to foreigners. Finally, his use of insults, jokes, and slapstick, physical humor creates an image of honesty and authenticity with his supporters. Overall, these techniques and worldviews are becoming increasingly common around the world, including with the leaders of countries as diverse as Turkey, the Philippines, Russia, Israel, Mexico — and potentially Brazil.
Trump described his realpolitik-with-no-sacred-cows approach during the United Nations General Assembly meeting in September: “America’s policy of principled realism means we will not be held hostage to old dogmas, discredited ideologies, and so-called experts who have been proven wrong over the years, time and time again. This is true not only in matters of peace, but in matters of prosperity.”
Overall, Trump’s approach represents a reversion to a style of statecraft that flips previous approaches. Technocracy, meritocracy, and bureaucratic approaches are giving way to establishing top-level personal rapport, trust, and loyalty. Free trade ideology is giving way to trade as a means to enrichment. Building institutions gives way to questioning the utility of each institution. Moral diplomacy gives way to talking to anyone who will bargain. Careful speeches give way to saying anything that gets results. Saving sacred cows gives way to killing them or threatening to do so. Open markets give way to using U.S. markets, military, and migration as bargaining chips. Every relationship is subject to maximum leverage of what is possible.
To be sure, the Trump Doctrine has critics. A common attack on Trump is that his policies risk “a slippery slope” toward something much more extreme. But the slippery slope is a logical fallacy. Just because Trump advocates trade wars to address unfair trade practices does not mean Trump will put tariffs on everything or simply cut off trade with the world. Another attack is “the ends don’t justify the means.” So if Trump decides to flatter Kim Jong Un in order to establish personal rapport, it is not justified even if it means peace on the Korean Peninsula? The belief that the United States should protect its moral high ground is anachronistic. It’s doubtful anyone will be talking about Trump’s flattery a decade from now, and it can be seen as pretty harmless if it results in reducing the threat of nuclear Armageddon.
Of course, this new world has risks. World politics is returning to a realist doctrine of “self-help” in an anarchical world. The system has returned to a web of relations and is therefore potentially more unstable. But as any realist will tell you, we have to deal with the world as it is, not as we want it. For Trump’s opponents to reach a broader perspective and truly understand the Trump phenomenon, they need to pop their cognitive bubbles and challenge their assumptions by, for example, testing out alternative views and sources of information.
This essay was an attempt to put concepts to Trump’s actions, to describe Trump in a new way. Critics may argue that in fact Trump is a narcissistic megalomaniac who likes strongmen, but no one can actually know what he is thinking. They should give up on the efforts at amateur psychoanalysis. If the political opposition wants to gain any ground, it needs to look for patterns in Trump’s actions and understand what it’s up against. Most of all, Trump’s opponents should stop their condescending attitude. Put up against Trump’s growing string of successes, such an attitude will ring increasingly hollow. For now at least, the era of smugness is over.
Devin Stewart is senior fellow and director of the Asia program at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and a Truman Security Fellow. He has served as an adjunct professor of international affairs at Columbia University and New York University. The views expressed here are his own.
Image: Gage Skidmore/Flickr