Trump Is Bluffing On North Korea

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.


Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Over the past week, a singular question about Donald Trump has consumed much of America’s collective mindspace and dominated our conversations: Is he going to get us all fucking killed, or what?

This is largely a drama of Trump’s own making, as he has repeatedly taken to Twitter to taunt, in the most childish way, a ruthless dictator who has ordered the grisly murder of several family members and, at the moment, is in possession of a small but growing stockpile of nuclear weapons that can reach the United States.

Most recently, after Kim Jong Un referred, metaphorically, to the nuclear button on his desk that is reality for anyone contemplating an attack on North Korea, Donald Trump felt compelled to tweet that his button was bigger than Kim’s.

I cannot express how absolutely insane this is.  For many years, feminist scholars such as Carol Cohn have commented on the obvious phallic subtext of much of our discourse about nuclear weapons.  But that’s the thing: it is supposed to be subtext.  World leaders don’t actually say “my button is bigger than yours.”

To make matters worse, Trump’s most recent outburst occurs against the release of a new book that overtly describes a White House in far greater disarray than anyone might have imagined and strongly suggests Trump himself is suffering from the onset of dementia.

And yet, let me suggest that all this may be good news.  

There is an aphorism -- usually called Hanlon’s Razor in modern times, although it is much older in origin – that goes something like this: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”  I do not believe that the President’s belligerent tweets reflect a malign intent to attack North Korea.  On the contrary, I believe they reflect a stupid man who has no idea what to do, watches cable news, and tweets stupid things.

The New York Times and others have reported that Trump consumes enormous amounts of television each day, much of it in a bathrobe.  The White House has, of course, disputed both the estimate of how much time screen time Trump gets and denied that Trump owns a bathrobe. Here is a picture of Donald Trump in a bathrobe.

And, now, here is a graphic, prepared by Dan Snow, showing how Trump’s tweeting habits correlate to cable news, specifically Fox & Friends. The results update something Devin Christensen and John Curiel noticed as early as April: Trump watches a lot of television, especially Fox & Friends, and tweets about it. This is important, because it is absolutely clear that Trump’s remark about the nuclear button did not follow a briefing on the speech in which Kim said it – Trump does not read—but rather it was a response to a chyron on Fox & Friends.

This is a very important point about Trump’s tweets, especially as they relate to North Korea.  Kim Jong Un is not the intended recipient.  My understanding is that there has been little or no effort to involve the State Department or the US intelligence community in either crafting these messages or in assessing how Kim is likely to respond.  The President’s audience is a domestic one.  In fact, it is an audience of one – Donald Trump. Trump is responding viscerally and immediately to television coverage that he believes reflects upon him.  

This emphasis on cable news, however, gives rise to a second dysfunction.  Since Trump never reads and rarely pays attention to briefings, senior staff realize that cable news is the most effective way to reach him.  The vast number of anonymous leaks reflects the fact that the easiest way to get something directly to Trump is to get it on television.  These leaks, of course, are usually anonymous for a second reason – television seems to be the primary medium in which Trump assesses the competence of his staff.  

This helps explain the various phenomena we see.

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According to Mike Allen and Jim Vanderhei, Trump spends meetings on North Korea trying to talk about military options, talk that the staff tries to tamp down and say makes them nervous.  As a result, after these meetings, there are leaks about what a demented lunatic Trump is. “There is a reason the harshest assessments of Trump usually leak after North Korea meetings,” they write.  My guess is that John Kelly and others think that Twitter is a release valve to allow the President to blow off steam, rather than carry that pressure into a serious meeting about North Korea.

But since Trump is watching cable television, that same staff must publicly present themselves as being every bit as bellicose as Trump.  Hence the sordid sight of individuals like H.R. McMaster openly musing about starting a nuclear war with North Korea. Of course, it is possible that people like McMaster will talk themselves into thinking that military action is feasible.  McMaster and others might be scaring the crap out of you, but he’s really just sucking up to the boss.  He may also fancy that he can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear – turning the deep dysfunction at the White House into a kind of good cop, bad cop routine in the hope that China magically makes all this go away.

But the important point is that the White House doesn’t have the faintest idea what to do about North Korea.  There is no plan to attack North Korea.  There is no plan, period.  Trump, is awful kids, and the toadies around him are in way over their heads and they have no idea what to do about it.  This is not strategy, merely the low cunning of grifters trying to manage one news cycle after another. The good news is that they are bluffing; the bad news is that the North Koreans don’t know any of this.  Or, at the very least, Kim Jong Un has to assume there is some risk that this war talk is real.

And so, I would say this to the people around Trump.  I know you think he is an idiot and think that you are acting patriotically.  Perhaps you’ve convinced yourself that, without you to stop him, Trump might do great harm to this country, that you are protecting us from the consequences of the President.  But you are also protecting him. That’s called enabling.  What we need is an intervention – for you to admit that the President is unfit and possibly in the early stages of dementia. For you to admit that this is not normal. If you don’t do that, this cycle will simply keep repeating itself, week after week, for the remaining three years of Trump’s term – assuming we don’t stumble into a nuclear war first.