Primary Risks

Alan Zendell, April 14, 2019

The 2020 primary season started far too early. We’ve never experienced a presidential campaign that lasted two full years, and it’s impossible to predict how it will go, but we can make some intelligent guesses.

The biggest risk to Democrats may be ennui. Given the average American’s short attention span for anything requiring thought, voter indifference may be the hardest thing for Democrats to overcome. Two years is a long time – this political season is certain to be exhausting. That won’t matter to Trump’s rabid supporters and his avid detractors, but what about other voters? Twenty different voices competing for attention combined with the Trump team’s skill at sowing misinformation and confusion will turn off a lot of people. The Democrats can’t let that happen.

The 2016 debacle began when the DNC squelched serious competition against Hillary Clinton by rigging the Super Delegate count. This time, DNC Chair Tom Perez is doing an admirable job of appearing even-handed and keeping the playing field level. There’s been no overt attempt to silence Progressives or loose cannons. The primary season for Democrats will be a wide open free-for-all, but that has its own risks.

Democrats need to avoid three critical mistakes: becoming infatuated with a likable candidate who has no chance to beat Trump; competing in the primaries without destroying themselves or each other; and perhaps most important, preventing Trump from undermining candidates with lies and social media bots spreading misinformation.

John Kennedy used charisma to defeat Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton won two terms each with it, and Barack Obama used it to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. But charisma is fickle. Beto O’Rourke was riding the wave he generated by nearly defeating Ted Cruz, and everyone was asking if it could carry him through the primary season. Then, along came Pete Buttigieg, the gay mayor of South Bend, Indiana who obviously had no chance at all … until he knocked Beto off the wave and took his place surfing through the early polls, behind only Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. Now voters are infatuated with Mayor Pete. Be careful what you wish for.

Calling themselves socialists or attacking America’s support for Israel are clear nonstarters for Democrats. President Obama’s well-intentioned public statements about the need for a more even-handed approach to the Middle East created a firestorm of opposition. Trump’s love affair with Benjamin Netanyahu capitalized on it.

Outspoken comments like those made by Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar represent a different danger. Ms. Omar has the right to speak her mind, whether or not she is anti-Semitic. But there’s an irrational fear of Muslims in America, and Omar’s unfiltered anger allows Trump to stoke it. Outrageous as Trump’s 9/11 tweet suggesting Omar is sympathetic to our enemies is, the uproar hurts Democrats and preys on ignorance. I’ve said it several times and I will continue to − Democrats must turn down the volume on anything that hurts their chances of defeating Trump. A second Trump term is the worst possible outcome for America.

Ever since Democratic candidates began throwing their hats in, the leader in the polls has been the 800 pound gorilla in the room. Former Vice President Joe Biden is the (non)candidate Trump fears most. We know this from the sudden flood of comments and accusations that attempted to paint him as the Harvey Weinstein of politics. To America’s credit, most people rejected it. We know who Joe Biden is. We know he knows more about running the government than all the other people running for president, and we know his heart is in the right place. 

Biden has made mistakes in the past, and I am not referring to what the media call gaffes. Trump proved that a politician can speak his mind and disparage political correctness with impunity. So let’s stop attacking Uncle Joe for being human.

The Kavanaugh hearings brought back bad memories of Biden’s treatment of Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas hearings. That was almost thirty years ago, and if we’ve learned anything about American voters it’s that they’re extremely forgiving when they see evidence of sincere redemption. I wish Biden would quit dancing around the issue and put it to rest. He’s more than capable of expressing contrition and publicly reconciling with Ms. Hill.

If Joe is willing to join the fray, there’s no one more able to take on Trump effectively. No other candidate has the street cred to talk to blue collar voters who voted for Trump and have been misled by him ever since.

Keep your eyes on the ball. Avoiding missteps is the only way to defeat Trump.

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The Health Crisis: Five Decades Later

Patrick Bailey, April 9, 2019

Patrick Bailey is a professional writer mainly in the fields of mental health, addiction, and living in recovery. He stays on top of the latest news in the addiction and the mental health world and writes about these topics to break the stigma associated with them.

***

 Donald Trump rode to the presidency in 2016 in part on the wave of a hard-line solution to the immigration problem on our southern border. A large part of that solution was a southern border wall that he said would greatly reduce the flow of drugs, undocumented workers, and criminals.

Trump also proposed other plans to reduce the demand for and over-prescription of legal but addictive drugs. In his 2018 , Trump expressed his commitment “to fighting the drug epidemic and helping get treatment for those in need.”

Two years into his presidency, the border wall has received vehement pushback from many across the country and internationally. Are other parts of his drug plan working as expected? Not really.

In December 2016, just before Trump took office, the number of national drug overdose deaths was almost 64,000. In 2017, the number surpassed 70,000 . This number is greater than the fatalities from road accidents, gun-related violence, terrorism, or HIV/AIDS yearly. Even worse, only about 10% of all Americans with a drug problem receive specialized substance abuse treatment.

Looking Back

The US has a relatively long history of poor response to health crises—only acting after millions have suffered and thousands of lives have been lost.

The cost of health care has been and continues to be a crisis in the medical care system in America. President Nixon, on July 10, 1969, declared a health care crisis that marked the first attempt to execute sweeping reforms across the medical care system, which would go beyond mere insurance coverage expansion. In 1974, he presented a more detailed plan.

However, the crisis continued unabated. In 2009, the national expenditure on health was 17.3% of GDP compared to 6.9% in 1970. In 2016, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) reported an additional 17.9% growth in health expenditures. Fifty years after Nixon’s first initiative, the Trump administration acknowledges that the crisis continues.

Another example was America’s slow response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. It wasn’t until 1990 that the government responded by passing the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act. In 1991, the federal government appropriated a $220.6 million to fight HIV/AIDS. It took twenty years to increase that amount to a robust $2.29 billion.

Slow Response

Response to the opioid crisis is following the same path as previous health crises. Rather than spending more time and resources on the actual drug problem—as declaring the Opioid Crisis a National Emergency, rather than the weaker Public Health Emergency, would have allowed—and saving many lives, the Trump administration chose to try to stop the flow of illegal drugs from Mexico by building a porous southern border wall that smugglers can go around, over, or under.

Much of America’s problems dealing with crises have been due to flagrant inaction. People with the power to effect change from above simply will not do it or are influenced by popular opinion. Perhaps because America is so large and diverse, its people express more concern for and only get personally involved in issues that affect them directly.

Participation in political and public policy debates often is limited to the portion of the populace who are affected directly by specific issues. Voter apathy, may explain why there are so few confrontations between the public and the government about the opioid crisis: it doesn’t directly affect enough people.

An economic crisis that directly affects many more people, always results in faster mobilization. (The cost of health care affects more people than the opioid crisis, too, but the costs are disguised because of employer-provided health insurance.) The opioid crisis simply generates less political action than economic issues.

Is the US Doing Enough?

Is Trump’s administration doing enough to solve the opioid crisis in this country? Despite a blue-ribbon President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, many, including New Jersey senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Cory Booker don’t think so.

In February 2019, Booker tweeted, “The failed war on drugs has really been a war on people—disproportionately criminalizing poor people, people of color, and people with mental illness.”

Many voices have expressed similar concerns over how effective the Trump administration’s plans are at confronting the opioid threat  . Some experts believe Trump’s drug plan is a lot of talk with little action.

Any permanent solution to the drug problem in America must encompass:

  • An amalgam of more treatment options, including replacement drugs and holistic practices.
  • Harm reduction policies such as needle replacement and safe injection sites.
  • Prescribing dangerously addictive drugs only when needed, in the right dosage, and for a limited time.
  • Increased access to treatment programs and substance abuse rehabilitation centers.
  • Policies that address the causes of the problem rather than just react to it.
  • Mental health diagnosis programs to detect co-existing mental illness (dual diagnosis).

Some of these strategies have been advocated by the president’s opioid commission, but they have received little executive branch attention.

Perhaps most revealing, is that spending on other health concerns such as HIV/AIDS now far outstrips the budget allocated for the opioid crisis.

In 2018, Congress added $3.3 billion to programs aimed at addressing the addiction crisis through the FY2018 Omnibus Appropriations Bill. The total spending on those programs, was $7.4 billion. In comparison, in the same fiscal year, HIV/AIDS programs received $32 billion.

The opioid crisis is greatly underfunded although it is currently acknowledged as among the deadliest crises in the US.. Does this mean that more funding is the solution to this crisis? Certainly not, but it would help.

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If the President Lies, Why Can’t I?

Alan Zendell, April 6, 2019

I’ve heard that question from children and adults, and it always makes me cringe. It underscores what I and many others have feared since the day Donald Trump announced his candidacy.

There is not now nor ever has been any controversy over Trump’s relationship with the truth, and it’s time people starting looking at that properly. He has spent his entire life twisting facts, exaggerating his successes, distorting reality, and inventing outright lies. The only thing newsworthy about his lack of integrity as president is his brazenness.

The media fact check, act shocked and outraged, and keep daily, weekly, and monthly tallies of the lies Trump spouts. It’s the latest in trendy games intended to entertain audiences, but other than increasing ratings, it accomplishes nothing.

During the 2016 election campaign his supporters said if he won he’d never behave that way as president. Now, his most prominent Republican supporters tell us it’s not important. It’s just Trump being Trump. But they’re wrong. When the devaluation of truth becomes the policy of the United States, we all lose.

It’s easy to explain to a child that lying is wrong, but that’s both naïve and oversimplified, and there is nothing simple or unsophisticated about the way Trump plays with the truth. It’s a cynical, premeditated tactic that he has used successfully throughout his life. He lies and exaggerates because he can. He knows how to churn the daily news cycle and use it to his advantage, and he understands that lying is simply a calculated risk that pays off more often than not.

To understand this, ask yourself what a lie really is. It’s neither a moral issue nor a mortal sin. It’s a deliberate act of deception intended to accomplish a specific end, committed with the full understanding that there’s a possibility it could backfire, and if it does some price will be paid. I say this in monetary terms because that’s the way Trump thinks.

If he lies to business associates and he’s found guilty in court, the worst that happens is he pays a fine. If he’s caught lying to customers it might cost him revenue, but ultimately, Trump understands how the system works. He knows he will prevail most of the time because the playing fields in business and politics are both rigged in favor of wealth and power.

We need to stop raging over Trump’s lies and realize that his approach to business and politics is simply his way of competing. When a football coach devises a defense designed to deceive the other team’s offense we applaud. When a hockey player dekes a defender and goes around him to score, we cheer. It’s the same in every sport: soccer, basketball, lacrosse – competition is all about skill at deception. Poker, bridge, chess – whatever your game, the more you deceive your opponent the more you win.

So let’s stop railing about how awful Trump is because he lies, and focus on what’s really important. If you think of a lie as a broken promise, consider that treaties, trade agreements, and legislative proposals are just special kinds of promises.

When Trump walks away from an international agreement he tells both our allies and our adversaries that our word cannot be trusted. When he lies about the intent of a major tax reform law or guarantees affordable health care, he breaks a promise to millions of hard-working Americans. When he misrepresents the motives of millions of people fleeing tyranny and oppression and equates them with radicalized terrorists, he offends everyone whose parents and grandparents came here as immigrants.

Does that matter? Damn right it does. Most of his supporters revel in Trump’s behavior. They cheer him at rallies and chant his hate-filled slogans. They love that he lies and cheats and gets away with it, because too many of them wish they could do the same thing, and Trump enables that kind of thinking every time he opens his mouth.

So let’s keep our eyes on the ball. If this keeps up we will find ourselves in a nation that values nothing but success, wealth, and power in which every means is justified by the end it leads to. That’s the definition of a jungle, and it’s up to everyone who believes in morality and decency to make sure it doesn’t happen.

The longer Trump is in power the deeper we sink into the muck. Whatever else motivates us, if we care about the future of our country, defeating him and beginning to heal from the damage he has caused must be our highest priority.

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Trump Spring

Alan Zendell, March 22, 2019

It’s Spring! With the coming of the vernal equinox, my thoughts turn to renewal. One thing I’m renewing is my Amazon page. I’m lowering the price of updated copies of four of my books to $0.00 for the weekend, beginning today. You can find them at https://www.amazon.com/s?k=alan+zendell&ref=nb_sb_noss_1.

But there are more important things that need renewal, specifically our battered ideals and institutions that have been under attack during twenty-six months of Donald Trump’s presidency. His supporters point to “everything he has accomplished,” and even those among them who are nauseated by his behavior hold their noses and say his flaws are worth putting up with. But are they?

Let’s summarize those “accomplishments.” Chief on his supporters’ lists is the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Every president who passes a major tax law takes credit for it, but this one belongs to the Republican-dominated Congress that had been trying to pass it for decades. It’s no coincidence that Trump and his family realized millions in windfall benefits from it.

By now, most Americans know if their personal taxes were cut and whether their job and income prospects improved. They also know that the tax cuts blew the lid off our deficit to the tune of trillions of dollars, and the same Republicans who desperately wanted the cuts are about to drop the other shoe on what they call entitlements, (what most of us call health care and social security) to pay for them.

The administration said the deficit wasn’t a problem because corporate tax cuts would stimulate the economy, increase our GNP and generate additional tax revenue. But today, the stock and bond markets dropped precipitously because of a near certain indication of an impending recession. That means the GNP will contract rather than expand, which will result in higher deficits and require either serious reductions in government spending or a repeal of all or part of the tax cuts. So much for Trump’s singular accomplishment.

Remember the boasts about how Trump was going to change the way we do business with other countries? With much ballyhoo, his administration negotiated a new trade deal with Mexico and Canada which looks very much like NAFTA, which it replaced. Then he started a trade and tariff war which shows no sign of ending. The most noticeable effect, recently, was the announcement by General Motors that they planned to move five manufacturing facilities offshore because tariffs made raw materials too expensive, though personal attacks by Trump resulted in some retrenchment.

On the diplomatic side, Trump said his personal magnetism would achieve what professional diplomats couldn’t. He made flashy overtures to North Korea which resulted two failed summit meetings with Kim Jong Un. Kim profited from the elevated stature they gave him but the meetings netted us absolutely nothing in terms of the real objective, which was the denuclearization of the Koreas. Events in the last two days show Trump’s Korea initiative for the sham it is. On Thursday, the administration imposed new sanctions against North Korea trumpeted by National Security Advisor John Bolton,  which included punishing Chinese companies that were enabling North Korea to bypass shipping  sanctions already in place. But when North Korea retaliated by walking away from the North-South liaison office, Trump immediately reversed the new sanctions. Who won that confrontation?

Trump’s two most dramatic diplomatic decisions, tearing up the Iran Nuclear Agreement and withdrawing from the Paris Environmental Accords have significantly weakened our relationships with our allies, and they’ve been made worse by Trump’s personal style. He insults and attacks the leaders of traditional allies like the UK, France, Germany, Canada, and Mexico. At the same time he clearly reveres autocrats and dictators, North Korea’s Kim, Vladimir Putin, Chinese president Xi, Philippine president Duterte, and the newest member of that club, Brazilian president Bolsonaro.

Weighed against Trump’s so-called accomplishments are his refusal to condemn racism and white supremacy, his attacks on the courts and the Justice Department, and his attempts to shut down immigration from Muslim and Hispanic (non-white) nations. His complete lack of empathy for the children uprooted from their families by his policies, his crass and vulgar personal style, and his lack of any definable morality all must be balanced against anything positive that might come from his policies.

Trump has chosen to celebrate Spring by relentlessly attacking John McCain and continuing to make outrageous and absurd claims designed to undermine the Mueller Report before it ever sees the light of day. The former is simply sick, a typical response from a mentally ill president driven by a Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The latter reflects Trump’s version of the Constitution, in which he has absolute power to do anything he pleases, and no individual or government entity can stand in his way.

Happy Spring, everyone.

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The Great 2020 Dilemma

Alan Zendell, March 18, 2019

The dilemma is simple to explain, but don’t let that fool you. It’s extremely serious. Probably as serious as anything we’ve ever faced. The problem, of course, is Donald Trump. The dilemma is how to assure that the Democrats don’t blow the 2020 election and hand him a second term.

The highest priority in the next election for three out of every five Americans is defeating Trump. Trump’s favorable and unfavorable ratings invariably show a double-digit net negative. That ought to create a stiff breeze behind any Democrat’s sails, shouldn’t it? As we saw in 2016, that doesn’t automatically translate to victory.

Conventional wisdom tells us the most critical attribute a Democratic candidate must possess is electability, and therein lies the problem. With roughly twenty candidates having announced their intention to run, as of today, not one of them has a positive net favorability. The only Democrat who does, former Vice President Joe Biden, hasn’t even said for sure that he’s running. That ought to give everyone a chill. Did we learn nothing from the 2016 disaster?

If Democrats expect to defeat Trump, they need to find a “likable” candidate without shooting themselves in all forty feet with infighting. To accomplish that, each candidate must commit to putting his or her personal ideology and ambition on hold if it becomes clear that Priority One is in jeopardy. New Democrats who think they were elected to rebrand their party must understand that if Trump wins re-election, no amount of re-branding will matter.

It’s time for Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and Thom Perez to issue a Joint Manifesto. I’m all for democracy and free speech, but the individual expression of free will without discipline is just chaos. That will not win in 2020, because the incumbent is a master at using confusion and disarray. And hateful as he may be, he knows how to stay on message with his base. If the Democrats allow theirs to splinter, they’re doomed.

The Manifesto should begin by declaring that regardless of the policies they favor, candidates must stop using the word “Socialist” as either a noun or an adjective. The 2020 election will be for the hearts and minds of an American electorate that is woefully uninformed and dangerously susceptible to social media. The truth is that only a small percentage of Americans understand what socialism is, and for the rest it’s a bogeyman that will undermine a candidate faster than shooting someone on Fifth Avenue. No one knows that better than Donald Trump.

Next, the Manifesto must make clear that for the purpose of defeating Donald Trump, fringe theories and philosophies need to be left at the door this year, along with over-sized egos. Candidates have to know that to earn the support of the DNC, their rhetoric has to stay within reasonable bounds. Anything that degrades a candidate’s electability is out of bounds, and should be punished by withholding financial support.

The Manifesto should contain a Twitter section that’s updated daily to remind Democrats of what they’re fighting for. It can begin with the twenty-nine tweets the President posted last weekend. Consider the backdrop:

  • a White Supremacist terror attack against innocent Muslims in New Zealand
  • the disintegration of the national government in Venezuela which, even if we don’t care about Venezuelans, caused gas prices to jump 25 percent
  • flooding that could bankrupt Midwestern farmers
  • announcements that North Korea will likely resume its nuclear missile tests and Russia will begin deploying medium range missiles in Europe that could destabilize NATO defenses
  • an existential crisis at Boeing that shook the confidence of the flying public.

With all that happening Trump used his tweets to attack television shows he doesn’t like and support Fox News commentators he does like, to attack John McCain and General Motors, and to renew his baseless claims of voter fraud and election rigging. As always, Trump’s ego dominated his judgment, canceling out whatever leadership skills he might possess.

Memo to Democrats – that’s what you’re fighting to replace. This president created a national deficit crisis by passing a tax law that to no one’s surprise will threaten Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security in this Congress. He started trade wars that have no solution in sight that are hurting Americans. And he has thumbed his nose at everyone who believes our environment is at risk and that our children may inherit an uninhabitable planet. Even worse, he subscribes to no moral code except one-way loyalty to him.

Dear Democrats, if you can’t see what’s really at stake here, or you can’t put the country ahead of your own personal agendas, you’re no better than Trump. God help us if that turns out to be the case.

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Trump As Seen By a Brit

Alan Zendell, March 6, 2019

In response to the question: “Why do some British people not like Donald Trump,” Nate White, an articulate and witty writer from England, wrote this magnificent response. It was referred to me by some good friends, and it has appeared in several places on the internet, one of which is here.

It’s not clear that Nate White actually exists except as a pen name. I couldn’t find anything biographical about him, but honestly, I don’t care. The essay is brilliant no matter who wrote it.

***

A few things spring to mind. Trump lacks certain qualities which the British traditionally esteem.

For instance, he has no class, no charm, no coolness, no credibility, no compassion, no wit, no warmth, no wisdom, no subtlety, no sensitivity, no self-awareness, no humility, no honour and no grace – all qualities, funnily enough, with which his predecessor Mr. Obama was generously blessed.

So for us, the stark contrast does rather throw Trump’s limitations into embarrassingly sharp relief. Plus, we like a laugh. And while Trump may be laughable, he has never once said anything wry, witty or even faintly amusing – not once, ever.

I don’t say that rhetorically, I mean it quite literally: not once, not ever. And that fact is particularly disturbing to the British sensibility – for us, to lack humour is almost inhuman. But with Trump, it’s a fact. He doesn’t even seem to understand what a joke is – his idea of a joke is a crass comment, an illiterate insult, a casual act of cruelty.

Trump is a troll. And like all trolls, he is never funny and he never laughs; he only crows or jeers. And scarily, he doesn’t just talk in crude, witless insults – he actually thinks in them. His mind is a simple bot-like algorithm of petty prejudices and knee-jerk nastiness.

There is never any under-layer of irony, complexity, nuance or depth. It’s all surface. Some Americans might see this as refreshingly upfront. Well, we don’t. We see it as having no inner world, no soul.

And in Britain we traditionally side with David, not Goliath. All our heroes are plucky underdogs: Robin Hood, Dick Whittington, Oliver Twist. Trump is neither plucky, nor an underdog. He is the exact opposite of that. He’s not even a spoiled rich-boy, or a greedy fat-cat. He’s more a fat white slug. A Jabba the Hutt of privilege.

And worse, he is that most unforgivable of all things to the British: a bully. That is, except when he is among bullies; then he suddenly transforms into a snivelling sidekick instead. There are unspoken rules to this stuff – the Queensberry rules of basic decency – and he breaks them all. He punches downwards – which a gentleman should, would, could never do – and every blow he aims is below the belt. He particularly likes to kick the vulnerable or voiceless – and he kicks them when they are down.

So the fact that a significant minority – perhaps a third – of Americans look at what he does, listen to what he says, and then think ‘Yeah, he seems like my kind of guy’ is a matter of some confusion and no little distress to British people, given that:
* Americans are supposed to be nicer than us, and mostly are.
* You don’t need a particularly keen eye for detail to spot a few flaws in the man.

This last point is what especially confuses and dismays British people, and many other people too; his faults seem pretty bloody hard to miss. After all, it’s impossible to read a single tweet, or hear him speak a sentence or two, without staring deep into the abyss. He turns being artless into an art form; he is a Picasso of pettiness; a Shakespeare of ****. His faults are fractal: even his flaws have flaws, and so on ad infinitum.

God knows there have always been stupid people in the world, and plenty of nasty people too. But rarely has stupidity been so nasty, or nastiness so stupid. He makes Nixon look trustworthy and George W look smart. In fact, if Frankenstein decided to make a monster assembled entirely from human flaws – he would make a Trump.

And a remorseful Doctor Frankenstein would clutch out big clumpfuls of hair and scream in anguish: ‘My God… what… have… I… created?

If being a twat was a TV show, Trump would be the boxed set.

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Madman Diplomacy

Alan Zendell, March 4, 2019

Donald Trump, who never met a boast he couldn’t embrace, recently declared that it was his feigned irrationality that forced Kim Jong Un to negotiate. That was before the second summit between the two men in Hanoi, last week. When Trump talks about negotiation, he inhabits a surreal space that few people are in a position to utilize – namely, that when your opponent knows you have the ability to completely obliterate him, you can pretend to be crazy and make irrational threats, and that unpredictability will force concessions.

The idea isn’t new to Trump. Richard Nixon, who Trump reveres, reveled in creating uncertainty in his adversaries, domestic politicians and foreign leaders alike. But the idea goes back much further than Nixon. It traces its roots back to Nicolo Machiavelli in the sixteenth century.

Machiavelli famously distinguished between the values and beliefs of individuals and the actions of political leaders which are usually “indifferent to religious and moral guidelines.” He asserted that rulers who ignore normative establishment values and methods will be more successful than those who follow established procedures, but some modern historians believe that approach leads to ill-founded conclusions, and that “irrational and egocentric understanding of politics … will ultimately result in mutual destruction.”

Nixon believed that convincing Ho Chi Minh that he was frustrated and crazy enough to use nuclear weapons would end the Vietnam War. In 1971, he directed National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger to privately inform the North Vietnamese that the use of nuclear weapons was on the table. The Washington Post’s James Hohmann reports that Kissinger similarly advised Trump in advance of his meetings with foreign leaders like Kim and Chinese president Xi. It’s unclear whether Kissinger specifically advocated what Trump calls the “madman theory” of diplomacy, though there’s no doubt that Trump believes it works. But does it?

As Hohmann pointed out, after Nixon’s warning was delivered to Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnam War dragged on for another three-and-a-half years at the cost of 21,000 more American lives. There is no evidence that Nixon’s threats caused the North Vietnamese to negotiate, and the end of that war was a humiliating defeat for the United States. Then why does Trump persist in believing that irrational-sounding threats and rhetoric are effective diplomacy?

The first Trump-Kim summit was a huge propaganda win for Kim that cost him nothing. In light of the diplomatic failure of both summits, it’s worth asking how much Trump’s threats of total annihilation influenced Kim to meet with him. Both Kim and Trump had to realize that the escalation of the war of words could only go so far before it led to unacceptable risks. The missile scare that had Hawaiians running for cover in January of 2018 made it clear that something had to change. Does that make the ensuing bromance between Trump and Kim believable? Even in the unlikely event that the two leaders actually like each other, only the most naïve observer could imagine that that would soften Kim’s resolve to retain his nuclear missile capability.

Lest we forget, the process that led to North Korea seeming to want to rejoin the society of nations began with Kim’s initiative to send a delegation to the 2018 Olympics, a decision that had nothing to do with Trump, and one that he actually ridiculed. Further, most observers credit the renewed communications between North and South Korea to the peace initiatives put forth by South Korean president Moon in July of 2017, which seemed also to have little or nothing  to do with Trump-style diplomacy.

While it’s obvious that as the chief protector of South Vietnam, American military power was a significant factor leading to the two Trump-Kim summits, the more likely explanation of the effect of Trump’s threats to obliterate North Korea is what always happens when two bullies face off against each other. They have no choice but to either fight or make nice and scale back their rhetoric.

In the aftermath of two failed meetings, does anyone believe that Kim Jong Un is intimidated by Donald Trump? Did Trump’s “crazy” act accomplish anything? Did nominating himself for the Nobel Peace Prize win him any admirers?

The reality is that if Trump’s priority had been to make progress in getting North Korea to denuclearize, the second summit never would have happened until a deal had been brokered at the ministerial level. Trump’s belief that his personal magnetism could overcome what professional diplomats viewed as a summit that had to fail proved baseless.

Ironically, in going ahead with a meeting that could never have resulted in anything positive and then walking away, Trump is praised by his supporters for not giving away his only negotiating leverage to save face. Does that sound like a victory for “madman diplomacy?” Trump must not either, since he blamed his failure on Michael Cohen today.

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