President Trump this week will bust 68 years of diplomatic white paper inertia and meet the leader of a nation with which America has been at war since 1950.
In Singapore, Trump may add to a list of accomplishments that includes full employment, a booming economy, and sharp drops in illegal immigration, a new and completely unexpected one: ending America’s only war that lasted longer than the television show “M*A*S*H.”
Let’s not gloss over the fact that Trump’s foreign policy began with tweets, name-calling, and claims that “my nuclear button is bigger than yours.” Experts from CNN all the way to the Wall Street Journal have been aghast at Trump’s methods.
The experts haven’t yet figured out that the president’s tweets about Rocket Man and self-pardons cut through the news cycle like a machete, destroying every competing narrative in their path.
Because narratives are generally deployed to clutch, grab and frustrate Republican presidents, this is quite a political gift.
Trump wins the news cycle—as he won the presidency—by garnering maximum attention. That is why, in case you haven’t figured it out, he is taking pardoning advice from the Kardashians. Duh.
Writing 18 years ago in Dish: How Gossip Became the News and the News Became Just Another Show, Jeannette Walls presciently observed:
A lot happened in the world that week. The Berlin Wall was toppled and Germany was reunited. Drexel Burnham Lambert, the wildly powerful junk bond company, that spearheaded the eighties financial boom, collapsed. And after twenty-seven years in prison, South African civil rights leader Nelson Mandela was freed. But for eleven straight days, the front pages of the tabs were devoted to the Trump divorce. Time and Newsweek did cover stories. Even the New York Times stooped to cover it.
It is an approach founded in effective branding. Trump Airlines. Trump Divorce. Trump Tower. Now, Trump World Peace?
Any civic-minded conservative who would ever say Trump should tone it down simply doesn’t understand political strategy in the social media age.
Trump’s tweets, bombast, and other Scaramuccis (to coin a term) draw maximum attention, but they should not be confused with the reason good things keep happening.
They are diversionary devices that keep his naysayers occupied while he does real stuff. Good things are happening upon principles of cause and effect, the governing science of a real estate developer.
The key to getting Kim Jong-un to bargain was . . . wait for it . . . to ask. Not Kim, but the Chinese.
Whatever happens at this summit, the greatest advance in the Korean stalemate happened about a year ago, when China made clear through its state-run media that it would not support North Korea in a war that it started against the United States.
It was a game changer that materialized after Trump’s summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago. Nearly 70 years of State Department policy wonking and Harvard symposiums on Korea never quite got there.
There ensued Kim’s heavily armored slow train trip from the Hermit Kingdom to Beijing, where we don’t know what the Chinese told him, except that it was probably some version of “Cut it out, you’re ruining everything.”
Trump’s connection with the 65 million who voted for him is that they, too, live in the world of cause and effect, one bad decision away from losing everything.
They were fed up with the endless abstractions and self-congratulation that substitute for effective policy in Washington. They wanted a president who would be measured by results: did the president deliver benefits for America?
Even the phrase “America First” was a promise to yield tangible outcomes. That is how Trump voters understood it. Only huffy intellectuals far removed from causal connections could find their way to an esoteric reading of a simple slogan as a racial dog whistle. And, once again, their reading tells us more about them than it does about Trump or his supporters.
Trump enters the proceedings in Singapore with one unexpected advantage. He already blew up an international summit this week and publicly humiliated Justin Trudeau.
Kim Jong-un and whatever advisors he hasn’t yet killed have to be recalibrating their approach.
It is not quite three-dimensional chess. But it is at least the sort of tactical negotiation that a builder conducts with his granite supplier and that real people do every day.
Sometimes Justin Trudeau has to be roughed up to achieve a greater good.
And for those of you who never negotiated with a granite supplier, the olive branch extended to Putin while shutting down the G-7 was another shot fired at Kim Jong-un: even your friends like me better because my nuclear button is bigger, Exalted Leader.
It is impossible to know what will result from this summit. Maybe nothing, except the continued slow and effective isolation of North Korea from the protection of China. Or maybe the lion will sleep with the lamb and there will be 1,000 years of peace.
Whatever happens, one thing is entirely predictable: Trump will win the news cycle. Because that is how Twitter diplomacy works.
Photo credit: Eric Baradat/AFP/Getty Images