Stop Giving Trump the Benefit of the Doubt

President Trump at the White House last week.

After Donald Trump signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in December, a number of companies gave their employees one-time bonuses, ostensibly sharing their new corporate windfall. As a PR stunt, these checks were a savvy investment; they allowed the companies to pander to the administration and made themselves look beneficent without incurring any long-term obligation to their workers.

Critics of the new law tried to point out that one-time bonuses are not the same as pay increases, and that the overwhelming majority of corporate savings from the tax cut was likely to go to shareholders. Nevertheless, in parts of the media, the idea that Republicans had been vindicated took hold. “Democrats scramble on taxes as Republicans gain steam,” said a CNN headline. “Democrats go on defense as the Republican tax plan grows more popular,” said CNBC.

Five months later, everything liberals said about the tax bill turned out to be true. Contrary to Republican claims, wage growth has been anemic. Instead of sharing the wealth with employees, companies have spent record amounts of money buying back their own stock. The tax cuts are creating larger deficits than Republicans predicted, and those deficits are now being cited as a pretext for cutting spending on the poor. They remain unpopular. Republicans in some districts have abandoned them as an election issue.

Watching this unfold should have helped inoculate commentators against Trumpist bamboozlement. It has not. In March, Trump spontaneously accepted an offer, conveyed to him by a South Korean envoy, to meet directly with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. North Korea has sought a one-on-one meeting with a sitting American president for years, believing it would legitimate it as a global power, but previous administrations have refused. “No American president has ever agreed to meet a North Korean leader before because that is a huge concession in and of itself,” Robert Kelly, a political science professor at South Korea’s Pusan National University, told me.

Nevertheless, credulous commentators praised Trump for bringing North Korea to the table, as if a seat at the table wasn’t what North Korea wanted all along. And pundits, including some who are broadly critical of the president, hectored us to give him credit.

In The Daily Beast, Rory Cooper asked us to entertain “the possibility that Trump actually is on the precipice of this type of geopolitical achievement.” Jeff Greenfield wrote an essay in Politico Magazine headlined, “Thinking the Unthinkable: What if Trump Succeeds?” He urged those of us appalled by the president to “to consider seriously the proposition that this misbegotten president has somehow achieved an honest-to-God diplomatic success.”

To be fair, there is one sense in which this is true. Due to Trump’s ignorance and vanity, South Korea’s dovish leader, Moon Jae-in, has been able to manipulate him into a position where he might make concessions to North Korea that no other president would dare. Given the risk of war, Moon’s maneuvering has been admirable. “In South Korea, it’s basically an open secret that this whole thing is flattering Trump,” Kelly said. “It kind of amazes me that Trump’s staff hasn’t picked up on this.”

Now, three weeks away from a summit that may or may not actually happen, reports show a president terrifyingly unprepared for high-stakes diplomacy. After being conciliatory for several weeks, Kim Jong-un has started pushing back against the United States, exactly as experts predicted he would. “Mr. Trump’s aides have grown concerned that the president — who has said that ‘everyone thinks’ he deserves a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts — has signaled that he wants the summit meeting too much,” David Sanger reported in The New York Times. The U.S. government has even issued a commemorative coin about the summit featuring Trump and “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong-un face-to-face, signaling to the world that it’s now the American president who craves legitimation from the North Korean dictator.

Even a casual newspaper reader — which, of course, Trump is not — knows that when North Korea talks about “denuclearization,” it doesn’t mean unilaterally giving up all its nuclear weapons. A hastily arranged meeting between two bellicose egomaniacs, premised on a basic misunderstanding, is unlikely to resolve one of the world’s most intractable geopolitical conflicts; a flimsy agreement that roughly preserves the status quo seems like a best-case scenario. Yet for weeks, the pull to give Trump pre-emptive credit for a hypothetical victory has felt like a cultural undertow; you had to plant your feet firmly to resist it.

Pushing against such a current can be hard for fair-minded journalists, who rightly pride themselves on being open to new information and willing to re-examine their own assumptions. But Trump, whose only real talent is the manipulation of reality, exploits this impulse.

Of course, we all have a motive in playing along with the fiction that Trump has achieved a Korean breakthrough — it might stop him from starting a war. But it’s one thing to humor our idiot president, and another to let the gravitational pull of presidential power, and the deep desire for a minimally competent leader, warp reality. We all want to be open-minded, but con men should never be given the benefit of the doubt.

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