A sophisticated mind can be defined as being able to deal with several paradoxes at a time. In a sense, Donald Trump can rightly be called President Paradox because of the many he has set in train. The critical question is whether Trump can turn these paradoxes into productive policies or become immobilized by them.
North Korea, at least for the moment, is no longer a nuclear threat. Yet, not one iota of its nuclear and missile capabilities has changed since Tuesday’s agreement with Kim Jong Un. Two days before, Trump widened the Atlantic divide after the G-7 meeting in Canada in which he threatened a trade war; recommended Russia be readmitted to the G-8 without reservation or caveat; and disrespected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in an insulting tweet for supporting Canadian interests.
This paradox is clear. Trump seems to favor two ant-Democratic autocratic leaders over his closest allies. How will this play out, especially with a NATO heads of government summit rapidly approaching in July?
Likewise, Trump gratuitously recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital without any quid pro quo from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Similarly, he withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord; the Transpacific Partnership Pact; and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran without any plan or policy to address the what-next question. Indeed, the president has referred to each as the worst deals ever. However, the agreement signed with North Korea has no specifics, no plan of action and no basis for honoring or achieving the generalities that filled the two-page document. Hence the paradoxes continue unabated.
Tariffs to reduce the trade imbalances such as the $385 billion with China in turn are explained to the American people as having a negligible impact on pocketbooks. If that is the case, why worry about trade deficits since they have little economic impact? This is another paradox raised by the president. And no, tariffs will impose potentially huge costs on American consumers.
Administration immigration policies are equally fraught with paradoxes. Illegal immigration from Mexico is at record lows. Despite a campaign promise, why is a wall necessary? Deporting families who escape to America to avoid repression and violence in Latin America challenges basic human rights long held dear by successive administrations. And the attorney general’s directive that all families who flee to America to protect or save their children and arrive illegally will be returned to these violent homelands likewise makes mockery of amnesty.
Truth is also a casualty of these paradoxes. The president calls the media and “fake news” as the most dangerous threats to this country. Yet, this is a president who frequently invents the “truth” to suit his purposes and regularly uses falsehoods and often outright lies to make his case. President Barack Obama was not born in America and bugged Trump campaign headquarters. The FBI “spied” on his campaign. Each of these mistruths and false statements further adds to the list of growing presidential paradoxes.
The most striking paradox of all is this: The president ran as and was elected on the basis of being a “disrupter.” And he has disrupted both foreign and domestic policy more than any president in modern times. Disruption is not an end in itself. Some positive outcomes are crucial. Otherwise disruption becomes destruction.
In philosophical terms, Trumpism has become one-sided Hegelism. There is a thesis — disruption –without an antithesis and thus no hypothesis or synthesis. The consequence is the absence of any solution or policy alternative to solve these paradoxes.
Perhaps the agreement with North Korea will lead to “denuclearization.” Perhaps rejection of the international agreements noted above and the threat of a trade war will produce positive outcomes. While the jury is out, hope is not the answer.
The president could greatly aid his cause and build support if he offered specific ideas and even policies to resolve these paradoxes. Since he considers himself instinctive in action, perhaps he believes answers will emerge fully formed as Athena did from Zeus’ brow. Or perhaps he thinks that his bullying and threats will force others to yield to his will much as maximum pressure and fire and fury brought Kim to the bargaining table.
If that is the case, beware.
Harlan Ullman has served on the Senior Advisory Group for Supreme Allied Commander Europe (2004-16) and is senior adviser at Washington, D.C.’s Atlantic Council, chairman of two private companies and principal author of the doctrine of shock and awe. A former naval person, he commanded a destroyer in the Persian Gulf and led over 150 missions and operations in Vietnam as a Swift Boat skipper. His latest book is “Anatomy of Failure: Why America Has Lost Every War It Starts.” Follow him @harlankullman.