To the extent that there is a Trumpian ideology, it’s that Donald Trump can and will accomplish anything by virtue of the fact that he is Donald Trump. This worldview assumes that the president has a quasi-mystical capacity to shape observable reality according to his desires. His 2016 campaign message was studded with promises that Trump — and only Trump — possesses the power to resolve every problem America faces at home and abroad. He offered no explanation for how this was possible beyond hyping his alleged deal-making prowess and promising to be "so tough" and "so smart."
This Trump ethos got an early and urgent test from North Korea and its rapidly accelerating nuclear weapons program. Not surprisingly, in the first clash between reality and Trumpian fantasy, reality came out on top.
The North Koreans successfully tested their first ICBM this week, launching a missile 1,700 miles into the atmosphere and 580 miles out to sea. It was a big step towards Kim Jong Un’s goal of being able to fire a nuclear device well beyond his own borders — the ICBM launched this week could, in theory, reach as far as Alaska. It was a destabilizing and reckless move by an authoritarian government that further increased the likelihood of another devastating conflict on the Korean peninsula.
President Trump, however, promised us this missile test was never going to happen.
In early January, before Trump took office, Kim Jong Un gave an address in which he said that the North Korean military was in the "last stage" of development of an ICBM and would soon be able to conduct test launches. Then-President-elect Trump hopped on Twitter and issued an ironclad guarantee that Kim’s boasting would never amount to anything. "North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S.," Trump wrote on Jan. 2. "It won’t happen!"
It was a classic Trumpian promise in that it was unmoored to any policy considerations and instead rested entirely on braggadocio — Donald Trump said it wouldn’t happen, therefore the issue was settled. After Trump assumed office later that month, his administration staked out a policy of manic bluster when it came to North Korea. After each provocation from Kim Jong Un, Trump and his deputies would swagger and talk tough, then either do nothing or sabotage their own position.
In March, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared that "the policy of strategic patience has ended," referring to the Obama White House’s North Korea policy. The following month, Vice President Mike Pence said the same while visiting South Korea. Then, for good measure, Pence went to the Korean demilitarized zone and scowled across the border so that "people on the other side of the DMZ see our resolve in my face." Trump himself got in on the action as well, saying last month that "the era of strategic patience with the North Korea regime has failed. That patience is over."
What was put in place of "strategic patience?" Well, no one really seems to know, but it strongly resembles the same "strategic patience" policy the Trump administration insists has ended. The biggest discernible difference in the Trump North Korea strategy is that it seems to embrace incoherence and self-sabotage.
Take, as an example, Trump’s schizophrenic approach to China. Trump cozied up to Chinese President Xi Jinping in April and insisted that "I really feel that [Xi] is doing everything in his power to help us with a big situation" in North Korea. A month later, after another North Korean missile test, Trump tweeted that "China is trying hard!" A month after that, the president tweeted that China’s efforts on North Korea, while appreciated, had failed. The day of the ICBM test, Trump floated the idea that China would "put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all." Two days later, Trump whacked China for not being a reliable partner in handling North Korea.
While making a hash of our relationship with the Chinese, the White House was also shooting itself in the foot with its attempts to intimidate the North Koreans. In early April, the administration announced that a U.S. carrier group was on its way to the Korean peninsula as a show of force. "We are sending an armada, very powerful," Trump said on TV. That "armada" was actually going in the opposite direction. That same month, Trump threatened to kill free-trade agreements between the U.S. and South Korea if Seoul didn’t pay for a missile-defense system intended as a check on the Pyongyang. Last month, South Korea announced that it had suspended the system’s deployment.
As one would expect, all this blundering and confusion hasn’t done anything to slow the North Koreans’ nuclear development. That could put us in an even more dangerous position in which the Trump administration feels it has to be still more aggressive to fulfill the president’s impossible promise to bend the world to his will.