Let us assume for the moment that Donald Trump is an “idiot” and a “f----ing moron” who hasn’t got a clue about the substance of legislation. (These judgments, if multiple news reports are accurate, come from the president’s current chief of staff, his former secretary of state and any number of Republican legislators, respectively). Let us draw from countless accounts of his conduct going back decades that the president is mendacious, graceless and a misogynist on steroids, whose character, temperament, historical cluelessness and utter incapacity for self-reflection make him by any measure the most unfit occupant of the White House ever.
Now: If you accepted these assumptions, how hard would it be to grant the president any credit for … anything? Could you embrace the old adage that “even a stopped clock is right twice a day”? Or would your wholesale revulsion at the president’s conduct simply make it impossible to accept even the possibility that he may have done something, anything, right?
In the wake of the head-snapping developments on the Korean Peninsula—North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in shaking hands across the 38th parallel, talk of a formal end to the war 68 years after the armistice, a meeting between Kim and Trump—voices far removed from the circle of Trump admirers, such as former acting CIA Director Michael Morrell, and diplomatic correspondents for the New York Times and the Washington Post, have offered the president measured praise. One of the president’s toughest critics, Rep. Adam Schiff, offered this backhanded compliment:
“I think it’s more than fair to say that the combination of the president’s unpredictability and, indeed, his bellicosity had something to do with the North Koreans deciding to come to the table.”
Yes, it’s probably too early to sound the trumpets; yes, there is a history of North Korea playing Lucy with the football while the U.S., as Charlie Brown, whiffs badly. Yes, some will argue that Trump has already given Kim what he and his forebears have always wanted—the respect due a nuclear power—without North Korea having to put anything tangible on the table. But when you measure where we are now from where we were just several months ago—Trump threatening “fire and fury” last August, belittling Kim as “Little Rocket Man” in September as North Korea fired missiles into the Pacific, fears of war at a near-fever pitch—we are clearly in a better place. And it is at least plausible that the president’s words and deeds mattered. Maybe China was spooked by Trump’s sabre-ratting (and threats of a trade war) into pressuring Pyongyang. Maybe Trump’s threat to pull troops out of South Korea convinced Moon that a radical change in the status quo was critical. Maybe that’s why the Seoul Olympics created an atmosphere for potential reconciliation the way China’s invitation to American ping-pong players in April 1971 set the stage for President Richard M. Nixon’s visit to China the following year and an end to more than 20 years of enmity.
If any of that is plausible, here’s the next question that arises: Will any Democrat contemplating a run for the presidency—the number is now somewhere between 20 and 50—say so? Or does the base of the party hold Trump in such revulsion that any hint of praise would be a political kiss of death? Are the sentiments about Trump so strong that we would see a replay of what happened to Republicans like Utah Senator Robert Bennett, who lost a bid for renomination in 2010 for the sin of voting two years earlier for the bank bailout that Democratic nominee Barack Obama (and lame duck President George W. Bush) supported?
You could see a hint of the answer in the dustup over comedian Michelle Wolf’s performance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Among the arguments in her defense—offered by prominent media critics and novelist Joyce Carol Oates—was the argument that the establishment press—clad in tuxes and ball gowns or seersucker while noshing on canapes at Tammy Haddad’s Garden Brunch—was recoiling at tough satire while being silent or complicit in the president’s words and deeds.
As a critique of the early coverage of Trump’s 2016 campaign—when cable networks turned over huge chunks of time to his rallies—this has merit. As a critique of how the press behaved in the last months of his candidacy, and in the 15 months of his presidency—it is wildly off the mark. No one who has followed the mainstream press—whether the New York Times, Politico, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal or the non-Fox News networks can seriously argue that the press has not been trying strenuously to hold Trump to account.
Yet the anger at the president’s behavior is so strong that the very fact that he remains in office seems to his fiercest critics an indictment of the press. To some, it is as though the news media have the power to issue subpoenas and arrest warrants and have chosen to stay their hand out of fecklessness or cowardice or worse.
It’s not hard to see why the president’s most zealous critics see him as they do. When I hear him rant to the breathtakingly credulous and complicit hosts of “Fox & Friends” in a way that embarrasses even them, or see him at a rally in full-tilt narcissistic self-celebration, or watch his White House and Cabinet increasingly resemble characters out of an Elmore Leonard novel, I sometimes think we have awakened in an alternate universe, perhaps a Bizarro World from an old Superman comic book in which every norm has been turned upside down.
But that feeling is all the more reason to retain a sense of perspective; to be able to consider seriously the proposition that this misbegotten president has somehow achieved an honest-to-God diplomatic success. After all, it won’t be long before he provides a whole new set of reasons to mourn the fact of his ascendance. If the possibility of a peaceful Korea becomes reality, let’s just let him have this one triumph.