As the NY Times reported, Jimmy Kimmel had a concise summary of Trump’s treatment of immigrant children: “Thank you, Mr. President, for lighting the house on fire and now taking credit for putting the fire out.”
It’s good that someone noticed, but this case is far from unique. Trump’s firebug behavior happens all the time, and he almost always gets away with it. As with a real firebug, you can see the permanent damage once the false heroics are over.
Example number 1 is North Korea. Trump started the fire with his visions of an imminent attack and then whipped it up as he played the out-of-control lunatic preparing a preemptive strike. There never was any scenario where it made sense for Kim to attack the US, so Trump was in complete control of the perceived nuclear threat. In a truly virtuoso performance he kept the fire going for many months of ups and downs (no surprise that the meeting was “almost cancelled”). And the final act did no more than put out his own fire.
The nuclear security of the US is no better or worse than it was at the beginning. There was no disarmament or even a concrete plan. All the concessions were on the US side—approval of the regime and the cancelled military maneuvers (a signal of intended withdrawal). All we’ve got is Trump telling us that Kim is now a buddy—which recalls George W. Bush’s famous comment on Putin: “I looked the man in the eye. I found him very straightforward and trustworthy—I was able to get a sense of his soul.”
The damage is on two fronts. The first is the ringing endorsement of nuclear proliferation. The best quote is from Beatrice Fihn, the executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (Ican) “We support diplomacy and peaceful solutions. But there is no agreement on nuclear disarmament and this all looked more like a big welcome party to the nuclear-armed club.” The second problem is the signal of intended withdrawal. China was undoubtedly happy to hear it.
However, firebug behavior is even worse when it substitutes for addressing a real problem. That’s what seems to be happening with the Chinese trade war. It looks like North Korea all over again.
We started the trade wars, and they’re in the news every day. As with the Korean affair, we get a steady diet of Trump’s tough-talking belligerence together with analyst worries about the consequences. That’s all self-created fire. Despite the fuss, the real worry is that we’ve been set up for the deal to dowse it. Since the Chinese have already announced willingness to do something, and since Trump needs very little to cry success, there should be no problem getting the kind of PR-oriented agreement we got from Kim. Market access can be as murky as denuclearization.
There’s another factor too. China matters to Trump in a way no one should ever forget. The development of China is the biggest single opportunity for the future of Trump’s businesses. The $500 M already reported is the tiniest bit of it. That’s another reason this great deal is going to happen.
And the damage will be monumental.
For starters, the Chinese are not amused and have cut back Chinese investment in the US to almost nothing. Deal or no deal, there’s no reason to believe they’ll turn that around. It also says a lot about the level of true cooperation we’re going to get on any deal.
The main point, though, is that we will miss a historic opportunity to get real trade concessions from the Chinese. By antagonizing our European allies as well as the Chinese, we’re losing half our leverage, and Trump’s need for a deal undercuts negotiations even more. Following the North Korean model, we’ll take what we’re given. As the Business Roundtable of CEO’s pointed out from the beginning, there’s a real danger of missing the boat entirely.
We’ll just have to see in October!