Donald Trump has been getting a lot of criticism, quite rightly, for his inability to fully condemn neo-nazi groups following the terrible terror attack in Virginia. Just as Jeremy Corbyn never quite finds it within himself to satisfactorily condemn anti-Semitism, so Trump seems unwilling to condemn those waving swastikas and chanting Nazi slogans without mentioning left wing protestors. It has been a moment of disappointment for those who previously wanted to defend the President, and shocking even to those who have long criticised him.
It’s been a terrible week for Trump and, like so many other of his difficult weeks, he only has himself and his own flaws to blame. He seems to be inescapably drawn to saying exactly what everyone thinks he shouldn’t say. And, to be fair, his hatred of being seen to play by the rules has been a large part of his success. He does not want to be seen saying the things that a normal politician would say, and perhaps that is partly what has driven him in the wrong direction he has taken this past week.
However, if you just unthinkingly default to the exact opposite view that most of the media and other politicians have coalesced around, you will inevitably find yourself in difficult moral situations. Trump has revelled in many of these situations he’s created for himself in the past, and loved challenging norms that many liberals have come to hold dear. On this occasion, by being seen to promote the idea that we should be more concerned about nazi free speech being oppressed by those on the left than the nazis themselves, he is so wrong it would be almost laughable if it wasn’t so concerning.
An interesting comparison to this has been the President’s position on North Korea over the last few weeks. The established view is that we should work with China to discourage the North Korean regime’s attempts to build a nuclear weapon, and do whatever we can to negotiate while de-escalating tensions wherever possible. That has been the consensus going back decades – from the beginnings of North Korea’s nuclear program, to their first nuclear test in 2008, and through the recent increase in missile launches and aggression towards South Korea and Japan.
As I wrote on this site back in April, this situation could not be more difficult. If an armed conflict breaks out, the north could quickly cause hundreds of thousands of casualties in South Korea without even using a nuclear weapon. However, whatever else you want to say about our policy towards North Korea, it has not been delivering results.
Since I last addressed this issue, the situation has only become more tense, as more missiles have been tested with longer potential ranges. It now appears that the country might soon be capable of hitting large parts of the United States with a nuclear weapon. Kim Jong Un’s Government has even threatened the American territory of Guam, and plans were due to be ready for a strike by the middle of this month.
When tackling this issue, Trump has, as on so many other occasions, chosen to ignore the established view. He has derided previous presidents, and Barack Obama in particular, for their wait and hope attitude. He has decided to cast aside the belief that this is a time for measured words and calm negotiation. This President is going to take a different route.
He has unleashed a war of words against the North Korean government, and made clear, in no uncertain terms, the consequences of attacks against American soil or American allies. He has talked in terms rarely heard from any world leader, let alone the President of the USA. He has promised fire and fury, death and destruction. He has raised the stakes at a time when the whole world has been urging de-escalation.
And while the world waited with baited breath, it appears that Trump’s approach might deliver some results. Kim Jong Un has appeared to take account of the reality of what was facing him and blinked, announcing that the Guam attack plan would be delayed. Trump responded by praising his restraint. After years of marching towards a more aggressive position, despite the attempts of consecutive Presidents, it appears that North Korea has taken a backward step in the face of the President’s own aggression. It looks as I write as though the same is true of Syria. There has been no further use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime since Trump authorised missile strikes against it in reponse.
It remains to be seen whether Trump will change how he governs, whether he will introduce more nuance to his positions and whether he will pause for thought after his ill-conceived and indefensible comments after Charlottesville. I think the whole world hopes he will. However, it appears that this has coincided with some evidence that his typical recklessness may well have started producing results in North Korea. He has taken a huge gamble. It’s one that very few other people would have made, but for now it appears to have paid off.
It’s genuinely hard to tell what he will do next. He has essentially made it a policy position to be unpredictable. And this very same unpredictability that has certainly undermined him at home may well have helped deliver some success abroad.