When historians write the story of the American Republic’s descent into Trumpism, the media will come in for harsh criticism.
Donald Trump’s singular insight into American politics was to understand that no one cares about decorum or policy. The awful, terrible things Donald Trump says and does generate clicks and views in a way that the boring, but vital, work of government does not. Trump has succeeded by abandoning any pretense of Presidenting as a job that involves governing. Instead, he understands that his route to power is to play the role of fake President in a reality show just like the one in which he played a fake CEO – The Federal Apprentice, if you will.
Yet, we still tune in week after week. We are appalled by his comments as we stare at our screens, titillated by latest dysfunction in the White House, available at a click of the link.
And now Donald Trump, the fake President, has a fake diplomatic achievement for his reality show. And like all his other endeavors, the media loves it. Scroll through your Twitter feed and you will see endless images of Trump and Kim shaking hands, smiling and the President declaring their meeting as “tremendous successful.” But how do we measure success?
North Korea’s Kim Jong Un hasn’t given up his nuclear weapons. In fact, quite the opposite – he has done what his father and grandfather tried, but failed, to do: Win a summit with the President of the United States to confer legitimacy on the Kim family dynasty, the petty tyranny they run in North Korea and its continued possession of nuclear arms. Kim didn’t disarm or open the gates to his gulags. He returned three hostages and offered a few platitudes about denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and the world.
The problem is that in his rush to get the photo op, Trump has neglected that boring work of governing. Perhaps Trump believes that a few hostile tweets have compelled Kim Jong Un to abandon his nuclear weapons. Or that a few promises of aid will beguile him. Maybe Trump believes all this because that’s how it works on television. But that is not how it works in real life. In real life, the problem between the US and North Korea can’t be fixed in a 30-minute episode before the writers move on. The two countries fought a brutal war in part because they have radically different ideas about how to treat their citizens — although perhaps less so in the era of Trump, where children are locked in cages.
But at this end of this episode, North Korea will still have nuclear weapons. It will still be a repressive, vicious tyranny. And it will still be willing, when the moment suits, to murder people who threaten the regime and kill South Korean and American soldiers to make a point. In short, when we wake up tomorrow, we will have all the same problems that led us to this place, and no new ideas about how to resolve them.
And yet the meeting was a ratings success. Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump will both return home with the photos they wanted, more content for another week of their respective series.
I don’t mean to sound dour about diplomacy. I believe in it passionately. But diplomacy isn’t a photo opportunity or a nicely worded statement. It is a slow, painstaking process of finding common interests in which two parties can build a different future. It is complicated by all the thorny problems that get glossed over on television. Diplomacy is lousy television.
Real diplomacy, of course, does require courage. And it does require leaders to take risks for peace, to reach across and shake the hand of an enemy. Trump and Kim did that and there is some hope in it. But what brought them here was not courage but vanity –a base desire to burnish their reputations back home. Perhaps I should not be so cynical. After all, perhaps it takes vanity to lead politicians to take that first careful step toward a different future. But there must be more than that to go further. Vanity alone, unmoored to any conception of the public good, cannot be a sustainable basis for peace.