Bill Clinton, who had an exquisitely tuned radar for how ordinary people's prejudices influence their political choices, used to say that the public would always prefer a politician who was "strong and wrong" to one who was "weak and right." I couldn't help but think of that when I saw Ted Cruz defend President Trump's chest-thumping bluster on North Korea by saying that while he wouldn't speak the way the president does, "I do think it helps for North Korea and for China to understand that we have a president who is strong. That is beneficial."
Yeah, that seems to be working out great.
I don't mean to pick on Senator Cruz—it can't be easy to have to defend Trump on anything, especially when you loathe him as much as Cruz surely does (you'll recall that during the 2016 campaign, Trump insulted Cruz's wife's looks and suggested that his father might have killed JFK). But at this point, it's hard to believe that North Korea or China actually thinks that Donald Trump is "strong." They certainly aren't acting like it.
Which is why Trump is providing an excellent instruction in what presidential strength actually consists of. Obviously we want both our friends and our adversaries to believe that the United States and its leadership are strong, and in most ways, as a country we are. We have the world's biggest military, the world's biggest economy, and the world's most influential culture. But the Oval Office hasn't been the source of too much strength of late. President Trump is demonstrating that you can be obsessed with the idea of strength and go to absurd lengths to show you have it, but just wind up proving that you're weaker than anyone thought.
This weekend, North Korea detonated what may have been a hydrogen bomb, a follow-up to a series of tests seeming to show that they could reach the United States mainland with a missile. They seem completely undeterred by a regular stream of taunts and threats from President Trump, who among other things promised just before taking office that they wouldn't be able to do what they've now demonstrated they probably can. It's almost as though they don't take him seriously.
Not only that, Kim Jong Un was not deterred when back in April, Vice President Mike Pence went to the DMZ and made a stern face across the border to show them we mean business. That sounds like something out of a comic satire, but it actually happened. "I thought it was important that people on the other side of the DMZ see our resolve in my face," Pence said afterward.
Since the vice president is a man who believed so firmly that the awesome breadth of Donald Trump's shoulders would transform America's image in the world that he has brought up the question of presidential shoulder width at least 17 times in public, perhaps it's not surprising that he thought that North Korea would be brought to hell with some grim staring. He and his boss are united in the belief that strength is a performance, not a characteristic. It's not something you have, it's something you pretend to have for the cameras. Which might not be so terrible, were it not for the fact that for Trump, strength comes in large part from making belligerent threats that he never follows up on.
Last Wednesday, for instance, Trump tweeted that "The U.S. has been talking to North Korea, and paying them extortion money, for 25 years. Talking is not the answer!" Even though he was immediately contradicted by his own secretary of defense, who insisted that we'll continue to pursue diplomacy, the implication of Trump's statement was that he'll be casting aside talk in favor of bold action. And yet there is no action. Then Sunday, Trump tweeted that he was considering "stopping all trade with any country doing business with North Korea." Really? The value of U.S. trade with China alone was $648 billion in 2016. We're just going to cut that off? And they're hardly the only country that trades with North Korea.
This threat was so preposterous that no one took it seriously for an instant—not here at home, and not anywhere in the world. It was only the latest in a series of empty threats that neither Kim nor anyone else believed. Less than a month ago, Trump responded to the tensions with North Korea by saying, "North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen." He was obviously taken with his own words, because two weeks later at a rally in Phoenix, he referenced them congratulate himself on how strong he was being and the results it was producing:
And you see what's going on in North Korea. All of a sudden, I don't know—who knows. But I can tell you, what I said, that's not strong enough. Some people said it's too strong, it's not strong enough. But Kim Jong Un, I respect the fact that I believe he is starting to respect us. I respect that fact very much. Respect that fact.
The latest Korean nuclear test suggests that Kim doesn't actually respect President Trump, or more particularly, isn't afraid of him. And wasn't that the whole point?
The truth is that for all his own comical threats, the last thing Kim wants is a military confrontation with the United States. What he does want, however, is a deterrent against attack, and he has correctly surmised that there's no better deterrent than nuclear weapons. This is a problem that George W. Bush couldn't solve, Barack Obama couldn't solve, and Donald Trump can't solve.
When Republicans were blaming the North Korean nuclear problem on the fact that we had a president they believed was weak, they tried to convince the country that having a more belligerent president who strutted around trying to look tough would achieve all the United States' goals in North Korea. Well now we're seeing it in action. And it looks awfully weak.