the national circus

Trump’s Summit Spectacle Was Just a Momentary Distraction From His Bigger Problems

Working it while he can. Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, the Trump-Kim summit, the G7 debacle,
and the president’s public feud with Robert De Niro.

Donald Trump says he developed a “special bond” with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and declared the summit a success despite few tangible results. Did Trump get what he wanted?

Yes. But the shelf life of this “win” is likely to expire in about a week. Let’s be precise here about what Trump wanted. His goal was not to enhance American security by achieving complete and verifiable denuclearization of North Korea — a cause that his Potemkin summit arguably set back rather than advanced. The goal instead was entirely personal. He thought that by staging a big television show hyped by cliff-hanger developments along the way he would achieve a miracle of prime-time counterprogramming: The summit in Singapore would drown out the rising drama of the Mueller probe in Washington. And he was correct — it did. For the moment.

What is going to dawn on Trump now is that in television terms the summit was only a limited series while the Mueller inquiry, and its many attendant subplots, is an open-ended series with no season finale yet in view. Trump has already milked the Kim story for all that he could. Now that the summit is over, he can no longer create artificial suspense by threatening to cancel it or suggesting he might walk out if Kim wasn’t to his liking. He can no longer bask in its photo ops. He can no longer brag about his ability to take the measure of a new acquaintance in less than a minute (“My touch, my feel — that’s what I do” is how he described this process, which apparently he has also applied to non–world leaders like Stormy Daniels).

The end credits have rolled, and Trump must now return to signing pardons and executive orders rather than summit documents. Meanwhile, the North Korean dictator owns the rights to make any sequels. Kim can launch another missile test and make Trump look like a dupe. Or he can indefinitely deflect, stall, or simply ignore any American requests for verification that he will “work toward” denuclearization (as the weak and unenforceable language in the one-page joint agreement had it). Trump gave up all his cards in Singapore, and not only does he have no national security achievements to show for it, but he will soon have no selfish political gains to show for it either. North Korea will vanish into the ever-churning news-cycle ether by next week. Its fading memory will not derail the scandals at home, and will not be a factor in the midterms. Americans don’t cast their votes on foreign-policy issues short of cataclysms like long-running, blood-drenched quagmires in Vietnam and Iraq.

This won’t stop Trump from repeatedly trying to hawk the summit as a great achievement in world peace. He values a Nobel almost as much as an Emmy. Still, for all the throwing around of the word historic this week, what’s most historic about the event is how closely it seems to emulate Munich. Upon returning to England from his meeting with Hitler in September 1938, the British prime minister Neville Chamberlain used triumphant language much like that we find in Trump’s Twitter feed today. “This morning I had another talk with the German Chancellor, Herr Hitler, and here is the paper which bears his name upon it as well as mine …[It is] symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again … I believe it is peace for our time.” Hitler invaded Poland six months later.

Then again, Trump’s fawning over Kim actually exceeds Chamberlain’s deference to Herr Hitler. The grandiose four-minute propaganda film he gifted to the murderous North Korean dictator to celebrate their “very special bond” is Springtime for Kim as Leni Riefenstahl might have made it, minus the tap dancing.

On his way to Singapore, Trump faced withering criticism from western allies for his refusal to sign the joint statement produced by last weekend’s Group of 7 meeting and for insults he tweeted at Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau. Have Trump’s antics begun to disrupt America’s closest alliances? 

As everyone in the Western (and much of the Eastern) world has already observed, we now have an American president who admires the world’s most brutal strongmen over America’s allies. As if it weren’t enough to insult the Group of 7 last week, Trump also dissed South Korea by failing to tell its leaders in advance of his plan to end the annual joint South Korean–American military exercises. Every move Trump has made and continues to make since entering the White House is so aligned with Vladimir Putin’s interests that there’s no longer any ambiguity to the charge that he is acting as a Russian agent. Whether he has been paid to do so, is being blackmailed to do so, or is simply a useful idiot is one of the mysteries we must hope Robert Mueller will unravel.

Trump’s vilification of Justin Trudeau is so over the top you have to wonder what else is fueling it beyond the ostensible trigger for presidential rage, a perfectly reasonable and mild press appearance standing up politely for his own nation’s interests. What worries me is that Trump has belatedly figured out that if you want to stage a wag-the-dog stunt to upstage your scandals, signing a phony peace treaty with North Korea won’t remotely do; successful wag-the-dog scenarios always involve ginning up a war. It would not be the strangest thing to happen during the Trump presidency if the fictional American-Canadian war in South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut becomes Trump’s next move in his increasingly panicked effort to evade the special counsel. But a more serious and far more worrisome prospect is that Kim might take some action that humiliates the American president in the aftermath of his Mission Accomplished victory lap; no one can doubt that Trump would revert to “fire and fury” in a nanosecond.

Trump also attacked Robert De Niro, whose profanities at the Tony Awards inspired a standing ovation in the room. Do De Niro’s comments help support people opposing Trump, or are they simply more viral social-media noise?

Let’s face it, the Tonys audience, both in the theater and at home, contains very few members of the Trump base. (Though perhaps that is about to change: Liberty University, the Christian-right diploma mill run by Jerry Falwell, Jr., has announced a “multifaceted Bachelor of Fine Arts program in musical theatre” starting this fall.) However “viral” De Niro’s break with decorum and however illiterate Trump’s tweet (“to many” for “too many”) accusing De Niro of a “low IQ,” my guess is that this whole kerfuffle basically happened within the liberal echo chamber.

Half-forgotten in the Trump biography, by the way, is his own attempt to become a theater producer. He was billed above the title when he brought the comedy Paris Is Out!, about a middle-aged couple taking a fraught European tour, to Broadway’s Brooks Atkinson Theatre in 1970. Alas, it folded in three months. The Times critic Clive Barnes wrote that “the writing is deplorable” and that the play might only appeal strongly to a “great silent majority” who “are probably people who shouldn’t go to the theater,” like “Aunt Louise from Iowa.”

Even then Trump had a cynical sense of his target audience. If only his show had bucked the fake-news reviews, been profitable, and won a Tony or two, perhaps he would have stayed on Broadway for keeps. America might have been spared his presidency, and this year’s Tony nominees might have included a Trump revival of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.

Trump’s Summit Spectacle Was Just a Momentary Distraction