Twitter’s new, 280-character format hasn’t been a boon to presidential dignity. On Saturday, while traveling in Vietnam ahead of a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Donald Trump decided to chaff North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un, on the social-media platform. “Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me ‘old,'” the president tweeted, “when I would NEVER call him ‘short and fat?’ Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend – and maybe someday that will happen!”

I know we aren’t supposed to get worked up about the president’s tweets. This is who Trump is, his more conscientious defenders argue, and he isn’t going to change. Better, then, to focus on strategy and policy, where he’s making some good moves. I have been trying to look at the policy upside, believe me (as the Tweep-in-Chief might say). I have cheered Trump’s choice of Neil Gorsuch to take Justice Scalia’s seat on the Supreme Court; his vision of a liberal but limited international order that respects sovereignty and nationhood; his decision to withdraw the U.S. from the anti-Israel, and anti-Semitic, UNESCO; his proposed corporate tax cuts; and more. And I will continue to give policy credit where it is due.

But the tweets aren’t insignificant. Sometimes they are harmless. But too often they cheapen Trump’s noble democratic office and degrade the American voters who entrusted him with it. Occasionally they undermine his own administration’s policies and the national interest. The Kim Jong-un tweet falls into this third category. Here was Trump’s signature mixture of childish insult and narcissistic grievance applied to the world’s least free, and most dangerous, rogue state.

Kim deserves ridicule, to be sure, and liberals are wrong to get queasy about “disrespecting” the evil ruler of the Hermit Kingdom. Disrespect isn’t the issue. The problem was that Trump made light of a regime that is no laughing matter. This a regime that has brought the gulag–a system that should have been buried in the last century–into the 21st century. As Human Rights Watch noted in a harrowing report,

North Korea discriminates against people and their families on political grounds, and systematically represses basic civil and political rights, such as freedom of association, assembly, and expression, and targets those involved in any sort of religious activities. The government also uses forced labor from ordinary citizens and prisoners to control the people and sustain its economy. In preparation for the 7th Congress of the ruling Worker’s Party of Korea held in May 2016, the government compelled its people to undergo a 70-day ‘battle’ of forced labor to complete work targets. . . . [S]ystematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations committed by the government included murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortion, and other sexual violence, constituting crimes against humanity. North Korea’s rights record has been condemned by the UN Human Rights Council, the General Assembly, and the Security Council.

Kim’s regime also poses an existential threat to America’s closest allies in East Asia and, given its recent advances in missile technology, a potentially catastrophic nuclear threat to the U.S. homeland. Yet, as a matter of public diplomacy, Trump’s chaffing risks reducing this threat into a silly feud between characters out of a South Park cartoon or a Judd Apatow movie. The day may soon come when the Trump administration needs to win the support of friends and rivals in the region, as well as the American people, for military action to contain or neutralize the Pyongyang regime. Kidding around with Kim risks undermining American seriousness.

But the president’s chaotic communications strategy, his conservative defenders will argue, is ordered to our chaotic, high-tech, postmodern world. Look how far it has brought him already, from reality-TV charlatanry all the way to the Oval Office. Perhaps they are right. Then again, conservatives used to hold that no amount of technological change would alter the fundamentals–of human nature, of leadership, of the life of nations in war and peace. Now that core insight has fallen out of fashion among the Trumpian right. They better hope that the nation won’t pay too high a price for the loss.


+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link