By David K. Shipler
It’s too bad that Donald Trump wasn’t president during the Vietnam War, because he would have declared victory and avoided years of bloodshed, as Vermont Senator George Aiken proposed in 1966. And judging by today’s gullible Trump supporters, 40 percent of Americans would have believed him. Imagine Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, had they been around, hailing the North Vietnamese tanks rolling into Saigon, without resistance, as Trump’s breathtaking achievement in peacemaking. The war was over!
If you lay out Trump’s various methods of appearing to win, you come up with at least three styles of fabrication.
1. A real conflict but a declaration of victory that is either premature, exaggerated, or totally made up. North Korea is the main example to date. Despite Trump’s boast about peace in our time, bragging that the nuclear problem had been “largely solved,” Kim Jong-un’s regime has not agreed to a single step toward denuclearization—no timetable, no inspections, no concrete plan. He’s suspended testing, probably because he’s done all the testing needed so far for nuclear development, and while he’s made a show of dismantling a couple of test sites, intelligence agencies see work on nuclear weapons continuing.
And Kim’s dispatch of 55 boxes of bones to the US, which Trump trumpets as the remains of “American Servicemen,” cannot be authenticated until forensic analysis can find actual matches to American families. Until identifications are made, the somber pageantry of the return of the dead is, sadly, only theater, and a cynical ritual at that. The remains could be of non-American, UN troops who fought in the Korean War—or they could be of Koreans themselves. Kim has learned quickly how easy it is to get mileage from Trump for empty gestures.
Maybe things will come out well. Through his chumminess with Kim, Trump has made it harder to obliterate North Korea with “fire and fury,” as he threatened last August. Ongoing talks are better than episodes of saber-rattling; the risks of military miscalculation are reduced. And Trump now has a big stake in progress with North Korea: to burnish his ill-founded reputation as a master deal-maker, to avoid being seen as naïve or defeated. Some of his supporters interviewed on television have cited “peace with North Korea” as one of his accomplishments. Sometimes reality attempts to live up to propaganda.
2. An imagined problem that does not actually exist, made to disappear with a flick of the pen on a new law or an executive order. This is the style of Trump’s proclaimed victories over supposedly stifling regulations on behalf of worker and consumer safety. Exaggerated hardships for business have been brushed away by allowing companies carte blanche where possible to violate the common good. But the real prize would be immigration. If Congress or Mexico would only fund Trump’s border wall, he could claim victory over the evil rapists and gangsters who are flooding into the United States and “infesting” our upstanding (read: white) society. Suddenly, America would be safe again. Will he then cite the existing data showing the relatively low crime rate among immigrants? It must be an immense frustration to Trump that he is not going to be able to declare this fictional win over a fictional problem before November’s mid-term elections.
3. A manufactured conflict that becomes real when Trump creates it, only to be overcome when he solves it by reversing himself. A telling example is the incipient trade war with the European Union and the prospective agreement, touted last week by Trump, to reduce or eliminate most tariffs. As The New York Times pointed out, Trump was simply reviving trade policies and elements of accord that Obama had fashioned, but that Trump had cast aside when he came into office. Plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery, and not only in literature, it seems.
The Obama administration was fashioning a deal under the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which Trump torpedoed—and now takes credit for essentially reviving. The head of a group representing American exporters, Rufus Yerxa, told The Times: “Most of the deal is stuff we were already on the verge of agreeing on in the TTIP negotiations, before that deal got deep-sixed after Trump’s election.” The deal so far excludes agriculture and vehicles, however, and Trump crowed about rescuing farmers his tariffs were hurting, with a one-time $12 billion bailout, but one that cannot reconstruct overseas markets that are being lost. In addition, foreign auto manufacturers that had built big factories in the US, and which now face stiff tariffs on imported parts, might rationally hesitate to make such future investments in a country that has abandoned economic predictability.
Yet Trump struts across the stage of victory. One of his chief accomplices in his cascade of charlatanism, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, said that without Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum, “we never would have gotten to the point we are now.” Seriously? We were at that point under Obama, without such tariffs.
Maybe it’s emotionally easier just to watch Fox News and not read (or believe) The New York Times. Then you can feel uplifted by having a brilliant, tough, authentic, master negotiator and wise problem-solver as president.