September 21, 2018

Why Tyrants Must Hate Trump

If you’re a Never Trumper, you probably don’t see many redeeming features in our brash and rude tweeter in chief. But hang with me for a minute as we consider how that brashness and rudeness may be just what the doctor ordered for a certain brand of foreign leaders.

In a brave essay on the NBC News website, veteran White House reporter Keith Koffler laments that we live in “a dangerous world, dominated by outsized personalities who act aggressively on behalf of their nations, including not hesitating to threaten — and even engage in — war.”

But then he adds: “Fortunately, one is President Donald Trump.”

Koffler’s claim is that Trump’s flaws — “self-indulgent, megalomaniacal, a bit paranoid, driven by self-interest and implacably domineering” — make him uniquely suited to deal with the other great tyrants of the age.

These tyrants, Koffler adds, are driven more by raw power and ambition than ideology.

“Not too long ago,” he writes, “the struggles among great nations were defined by ideology, as democracy and communism competed for allegiance around the world. During that age, a relatively non-ideological, nonintellectual man like Trump might have had trouble understanding the thinking animating Russian and Chinese communists, hampering his ability to confront them.”

Some useful things can come out of a deeply flawed president, just as bad ones can come out of a decent president.

Today, by contrast, “the president will have no problem understanding the motivations of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and the other tyrants he faces, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, newly anointed Chinese President-for-life Xi Jinping and Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.”

Koffler concludes that Trump “has the outsized strength of personality to combat them.” In other words, it takes one to fight one.

When I read the essay, it reminded me of a game I used to play with my Never Trumper friends during the presidential election. I would ask them: “If you had to choose one person to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran, who would you pick, Barack Obama or Donald Trump?” Invariably — and grudgingly — they would pick Trump.

When I asked why, they would concede that “Trump wouldn’t be afraid to walk away,” or, simply, “He’d make them sweat and get a better deal.”

Recently, I played another game. I know Trump haters who love Israel but who criticized Trump for “hurting the peace process” when he announced the move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. When I asked them if they would have had the same reaction had President Obama made the decision, they admitted that, no, they probably would not. That’s how deep the contempt for Trump can go.

Indeed, it’s a difficult task to separate emotions from outcomes. If you hate a president, it’s hard to love anything he does, no matter how worthy that thing is. I have sympathy for those who have trouble seeing past Trump’s character flaws. After all, if having a decent character is essential in our own lives, how much more so for the leader of the free world?

And yet, we must recognize the reality that some useful things can come out of a deeply flawed president, just as bad ones can come out of a decent president.

Koffler’s claim is that Trump’s flaws — “self-indulgent, megalomaniacal, a bit paranoid, driven by self-interest and implacably domineering” — make him uniquely suited to deal with the other great tyrants of the age.

When Obama first ran for president, I remember being seduced by his classy demeanor and decency. But I wondered: Would he be tough enough for our dangerous world? I rationalized away that concern by assuming (hoping) that Obama had a silent killer instinct that would earn him the respect of the bullies he’d have to deal with. In retrospect, this was wishful thinking. No dictator ever feared Obama. They saw right through him. Obama was a gentleman who could never call a tyrant’s bluff.

Trump seems energized by tyrants. He must identify with their passion for power. It’s a brutal, primal game he knows well.

As Maureen Dowd wrote last week in The New York Times, “President Trump’s peculiar form of diplomacy — a combination of belligerence, bluster, name-calling and ignorance of history — has somehow produced a possible breakthrough in North Korea that eluded his predecessors.”

Koffler doesn’t deny that Trump’s indignities are the “crass work of an uncouth man.” But he thinks voters in the last election “eschewed elegance because, they calculated, a blunt and even predatory individual is what the country needed at this moment. A man who, Kim, Xi, Khamenei and Putin will all suspect, might just be brutal and dark enough to stand his ground against them and counter their own ruthless agendas.”

As much as I value decency, I also know that, for 16 years, America got burned by two very decent presidents — first by George W. Bush’s trillion-dollar fiasco in Iraq, and then by Obama’s naive deal with Iran that empowered the world’s biggest sponsor of terror.

I doubt that our brash and rude president would have been suckered into those deals. How much is that “outcome” worth? We’ll find out soon enough.