With near unanimity, my never-Trump friends confess a sense of relief. It could have been worse. They thought it would be worse. A deep apprehension still endures but the international order remains intact and the republic still stands.
Admittedly, this is a low bar. And this is not to deny the insanity, incoherence and sheer weirdness emanating daily from the White House, with which we’ve all come up with our own coping technique. Here’s mine: I simply view President Trump as the Wizard of Oz.
Loud and bombastic. A charlatan. What to do? Ignore what’s behind the curtain. Deal with what comes out in front: the policy, the pronouncements, the actions.
And so far they hang together enough that one can begin to talk plausibly about the normalization of this presidency.
Hence the relief. But there are limitations to the Wizard of Oz approach. Some things do extrude from behind the curtain that are hard to ignore. And here I am not counting the gratuitous idiocies that can, despite their entertainment value, be safely ignored. They are embarrassments, but they don’t materially affect the course of his presidency or of the country. Some weirdnesses, however, do.
Such as, Trump’s late-April pronouncements on South Korea. Being less entertaining, they were vastly underreported. Here’s the context:
Trump is orchestrating a worldwide campaign to pressure North Korea on its nukes and missiles. He dispatches (finally) the USS Carl Vinson strike group to Korean waters. Meanwhile, we are working furiously to complete a THAAD anti-missile system in South Korea to intercept North Korean rockets.
At which point, out of the blue, Trump tells Reuters that Seoul will have to pay for the THAAD system. And by the way, that 5-year-old U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement is a disaster and needs to be torn up.
Now, South Korea is in the middle of a highly charged presidential campaign. The pro-American president was recently impeached and is now under indictment. The opposition party is ahead. It is wary of the U.S., accommodating to North Korea and highly negative about installing that THAAD system on its soil.
We had agreed with Seoul that they would provide the land and the infrastructure, and we would pay the $1 billion cost. Without warning, Trump reneges on the deal, saying South Korea will have to foot the bill. This stirs anti-American feeling and gives opposition candidate Moon Jae-in the perfect campaign issue.
So self-defeating was the idea that within three days, national security adviser H.R. McMaster had to walk it all back. But the damage was done. Moon’s campaign feasted. The pro-American party was thrown on its heels. And the very future of THAAD – and a continued united front against Pyongyang under a likely Moon administration – is in doubt.
As for the trade deal, the installation of THAAD has so angered China that it has already initiated an economic squeeze on South Korea. To which Trump would add a trade rupture with the United States.
The South Korean blunder reinforces lingering fears about Trump. Especially because it was an unforced error. What happens in an externally caused crisis? Then, there is no hiding, no guardrails, no cushioning. It’s the wisdom and understanding of one man versus whatever the world has thrown up against us.
What happens when the red phone rings at 3 in the morning?
I’d say: Let it ring. Let the wizard sleep. Forward the call to Defense Secretary Mattis.