The chant went up from the crowd Saturday night at President Trump’s rally in Michigan: “Nobel! Nobel!” On Monday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in added his vote. “President Trump should win the Nobel Peace Prize,” Moon said. “The only thing we need is peace.”
This kind of talk is premature, given how tenuous is the progress of talks between North Korea and South Korea toward ending the hostilities between their two countries and denuclearizing the region. And for all the end zone dancing we are seeing among the president’s fans, Trump’s face-to-face meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un has yet to happen.
Nonetheless, a campaign is underway — in part because it feeds Trump’s insatiable appetite for flattery. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) has talked about the possibility, saying “a lot of liberals would kill themselves.” A British oddsmaker has set the chances of Trump winning at 2:1, though Trump’s son Donald Jr. has tweeted that “the globalist elite would never give him that win.”
So is it plausible that Trump could be a serious contender for the world’s most prestigious honor?
If you look at history, yes.
It would not be the first time the prize committee has cast its votes for its hopes, rather than an actual achievement, or that it gives a prize as a means of sending a message. In 2009, Barack Obama won it when he had been in office less than nine months. Why? “To be honest, I still don’t know,” Obama deadpanned when comedian Stephen Colbert put that question to him.
The same was true in the case of an earlier Korean Peninsula peace effort that turned out to be fruitless. In 2000, South Korean president Kim Dae-jung won for organizing the first inter-Korean summit. It later turned out South Korea had paid North Korea nearly a half-million dollars for participating in the talks.
Another U.S. president, Theodore Roosevelt, was the first American to be awarded the medal. It was a controversial choice, given Roosevelt’s reputation for militarism. “The prize will, we trust, modify his own conventional ideas about the necessity of being armed to the teeth,” the Nation magazine wrote. But Roosevelt biographer Edmund Morris notes that Roosevelt merited the Nobel Prize for his deft diplomatic achievements. “He won it for his widely praised mediation of an end to the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, as well as for subtle diplomacy in the Moroccan Crisis of 1906, which threatened to degenerate into world war,” Morris wrote in an email. “At the time of his award in 1906-1907, TR was the most admired statesman in the world.”
Roosevelt was scornful when one of his successors, Woodrow Wilson, declared war in 1917 because “the world must be made safe for democracy.” Wilson nonetheless won the peace prize in 1919, for being the chief architect of the League of Nations, But given the fact that the United States itself was refusing to join the organization, it was perhaps more a nudge than an accolade.
The only other U.S. president to win was Jimmy Carter, though he was decades out of office by the time he won in 2002. His win was widely read as a dig at then-President George W. Bush. “The peace prize often carries a political message, but never before has it been so pointed,” the New York Times wrote at the time.
Former vice president and failed White House contender Al Gore got the honor in 2007 for his environmental work. Gore’s former boss Bill Clinton, on the other hand, had been nominated so many times by his final year in office that Slate dubbed him the “Susan Lucci of the Nobel Peace Prize,” after the soap opera actress famous for her many daytime Emmy near-misses. (Unlike Clinton, she finally won.)
Where American presidents and Nobel Prizes are concerned, the politics and the imperatives of the moment can matter more than their actual accomplishments. “That’s very nice. Thank you. That’s very nice — ‘Nobel,'” Trump said, when the chants broke out on Saturday night. After all, unlikelier things have happened — like Trump getting elected president in the first place.