Paul Pillar

Kim Jong-Donald

Donald Trump is well practiced in the technique of saying or doing something outrageous to attract attention, or to distract attention from something else to which he does not want public attention.  Which of these two specific motivations has been most in play has varied during his career, but Trump undoubtedly believes the technique has served him well.  It helped to gain him prominence during the early stages of what was then considered a long-shot presidential bid.  Later during the campaign, it helped to divert attention from what should have been candidacy-killing revelations such as boasts about groping women.  And then in the turbulent opening weeks of his presidency, the attention-diverting ploy, implemented most often through Twitter, has worked again.  His most recent major use of the technique was his baseless accusation about his predecessor wire-tapping him.  According to an anonymous White House official, following several days in which Trump was mostly in an angry rage, Trump was pleased that his accusation had grabbed headline space away from coverage of his attorney general’s falsehoods about meetings with the Russians.

The outrageousness of whatever it is that Trump says or does is what gives it value.  The outrage goes with the attention, and is the key ingredient in getting the attention.  This technique is quite different from the practices of most foreign governments and heads of governments, of various political stripes.  Most things that governmental leaders may do that are worthy of outrage are hidden or de-emphasized, while the leader endeavors to present a more respectable public face.

The one government that comes to mind that, like Trump, regularly uses provocative and outrageous moves to gain attention is the Kim dynasty in North Korea.  While recognizing all the major and obvious differences between the U.S. administration and the degenerate North Korean dictatorship, use of this technique is one similarity.  For the North Korean regime, the motivation has been to use moves such as nuclear weapons tests to keep the regime’s demands before the world and help its extortionate attempts to extract food aid or some other kind of support or recognition.

A large worry about North Korea is what such a regime, with an inclination to commit the outrageous, would do if—or as some analysts would say, when—its situation becomes more desperate.  This has been a big worry for China and a reason for Beijing’s hesitancy in turning screws, any tighter than it has so far, on Pyongyang.  Some specific Chinese worries, such as hordes fleeing across the Yalu, are peculiar to China, and some others, such as the military posture of a united Korea, can be refuted or made the subject of reassurances.  But the question of what a nuclear-armed Kim regime might do when in extremis is a legitimate worry that all should share.

We should have a parallel worry about Donald Trump.  The first month and a half of his presidency has looked like a train wreck taking place as the train has barely left the station.  British bookies are giving even odds on whether Trump will complete a four-year term.  What will this president, with reliance on the outrageous and a refusal to admit defeat or error, do when the going gets even tougher?  This worrisome question is in addition to the also worrisome question of whether Trump can distinguish even in his own mind between truth and falsehood, and what this implies about how he would behave in a real crisis thrust upon him, not just one of his own making.

Washington has rarely had as much reason as it does now to worry about such things.  Probably the closest experience in modern times was during the darkest Watergate days near the end of Richard Nixon’s presidency, when Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger considered it prudent to take steps to safeguard against any bizarre orders transmitted from the White House to the military.  This is the sort of preparatory prudence that senior leaders in the executive and legislative branches ought to be thinking about now. 

Image: Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, DCCreative Commons / Flickr / Gage Skidmore