Watching President Trump’s diplomatic maneuvers — in Singapore last month and during the run-up to his meetings over the next week in Brussels and Helsinki — I wonder whether analysts have been making a mistake explaining his bargaining style in terms of the brash young personality described in his 1987 memoir, “The Art of the Deal.”
The Trump we’re watching is a much needier person than the youthful tycoon who vaulted to the top of the world. The current version of Trump sees himself as chief executive not of a thriving enterprise but of one that has nearly been run into the ground by his predecessors. Rather than warmly embracing longtime partners in Europe, he resents them and their success. He picks needless fights and tries to humiliate people he feels have slighted him.
This scarred, prickly Trump is looking for new friends and investors. It’s almost as if he is ready to fold what he sees as a losing hand and draw a fresh set of cards — ones in this case bearing the faces of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Perhaps the Trump book to read these days is his 1997 memoir of life as a near-bankrupt, “The Art of the Comeback.” The author is feisty, but he’s also wounded. He has bluffed and bargained his way back from the brink. And he made a lot of enemies in the process. Many of his former lenders mistrust him. In the book, he’s already hanging out with Russian, Chinese and Arab big shots who may be able to recapitalize his business.
“I took tremendous punishment as I watched my empire collapsing around me. . . . It crushed my ego, my pride,” he says of his 1990 risk of personal bankruptcy. Trump survived through a combination of bluster and sweet talk. He warned his lenders that he could tie them up for years with lawsuits and bankruptcy proceedings. But instead, he offered the bankers a deal: If they provided an additional $65 million line of credit and backed off for five years, he’d pay them all back. They agreed, and Trump floated back to prosperity during the boom of the 1990s.
What does this narrative tell us about the zigzag diplomacy of the past few months? First, Trump’s braggadocio masks a deep uneasiness about America’s position in the world. The idealistic, generous national self-image that sustained America through a century of global dominance doesn’t seem to resonate with Trump. He sees the country as exhausted, played out, bled financially by its allies and manipulated by its trading partners.
Trump’s core pessimism goes against the American grain, in my view, but perhaps it’s understandable in a man who almost went bankrupt. This bleak vision has shaped his presidency ever since he spoke of “American carnage” in his inaugural address. That speech included a line that may be the Rosetta Stone of his foreign policy: “We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon.”
A resentful Trump has scorned old allies. We’ll see the latest iteration at this week’s NATO summit. He continued his whining Tuesday as he headed for Brussels, claiming, “We’re being taken advantage of by the European Union,” and that U.S. support for NATO “helps them a lot more than it helps us.”
Meanwhile, Trump is investing in a new set of friends and forgiving past transgressions to build a new portfolio. The president expresses this slate-clearing agenda with almost childlike simplicity: “I think that getting along with Russia, getting along with China . . . is a good thing.” Who could disagree, but at what cost, and with what benefit?
Trump’s diplomacy with Kim is the most interesting test of where his reshuffle-the-deck strategy is headed. Trump wanted success in Singapore so badly that he staged the triumphal handshake first, against a backdrop of inter-furled North Korean and American flags, and left the actual negotiations on denuclearization for later by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
North Korea’s rebuke of Pompeo for “gangster-like” demands on denuclearization got the headlines last week. But perhaps a more telling part of the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s statement was its elaborate flattery of Trump and a plea for concessions. Before Pyongyang delivers an inventory of weapons to begin denuclearization, for example, it seems to want a formal declaration ending the Korean War.
“We still cherish our good faith in President Trump,” said a fawning passage in the otherwise snarling statement. It must be said, they know their man — the embattled, wounded, hungry-for-new-partners “Comeback” artist.