Trump, Kim, And Xi
Not without good reason, most of us who watched President Trump’s interview with Fox News’s Bret Baier were surprised to hear the former lavish so much praise upon Kim Jong-un. Kim, the North Korean despot with whom the president had recently met in Singapore, was of course the main topic of the nearly fifteen-minute conversation. Aboard Air Force One, having just finished a politically vertiginous romp across the world (a mere two days prior to the much-anticipated summit in Singapore, Trump had been in Quebec where he stirred an international scandal first by castigating Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, calling him “dishonest and weak”, and then by refusing to sign a mutual agreement with our G7 allies), Baier asked of the president multiple questions regarding Kim, the future of America’s presence on the peninsula, and exactly where our new geopolitical stratagem begins.
First though, Baier pressed the president to explain exactly how he could, in good conscience, laud a man like Kim Jong-un. After all, belied by President Trump’s unctuous endorsement of the Hermit Kingdom’s head of state earlier that day is the fact that Kim still oversees a regime that keeps in thrall over twenty-million immiserated souls. Just as they were prior to this landmark Singapore Summit (whose ultimate impact we won’t soon know), so too will these very same citizens be prisoners of their government tomorrow, the next day, the day following that. Indeed, they’ll remain in their state of penury and squalor as far into the future as one can fear to imagine. Benighted, malnourished, impoverished, and unfree, these wretched North Koreans have no idea of what a decent, let alone a democratic world can look like. They haven’t a notion of the meaning of a life freely and well-lived. For all of this, and for all that they lack, North Koreans have their dear leader to thank.
That said, President Trump refused to turn a critical eye toward Kim’s glaring and indefensible humanitarian misdeeds.
Reminiscent of his defense of another Eurasian autocrat (some time ago, it was Russian President Vladimir Putin for whom Trump played apologist-in-chief) the president defended Kim Jong-un when Baier gently brought up these unsavory facts about the latter’s résumé. President Trump responded to Baier’s open-ended criticism of Kim by saying that no man, let alone any nation, can be expected to be faultless. After all, said Trump with a shrug, each and every one of us has in his own closet a skeleton or two buried deeply within. Though we might try to hide them, painted on all of us are these ineffaceable sins—sins which effectively leave us immune to any questions of moral equivalence. Sure, Kim Jong-un and Putin are particularly bad apples fruiting from the tyrant’s tree, sure they propagandize and terrorize and murder and steal and spit in the face of every institution we here in the West hold dear, but I suppose we all have our peccadilloes. It wouldn’t be right to chastise them without taking up the lash and first scourging ourselves. Trump did this precisely when over a year ago, he defended Vladimir Putin and it’s what he’s doing again. The difference is that this time, he’s doing so in the behalf of an even worse actor, Kim Jong-un.
Later during Baier and Trump’s conversation, the topic of China reared its head. For what it’s worth, I think it would be woefully remiss of us to omit from our considerations of East Asian and North Korean policy China’s influence. One simply can’t be blind to the inextricable role that the world’s most populous and regionally ambitious country has been playing as of late. Our focus on China, insofar as it pertains to North Korea’s future, hasn’t been in my opinion up to snuff. Should we step away from the region, China will dash into the vacuum residing therein. And just as I fear China dances beneath the radar of these recent Oriental waves, something President Trump muttered about the country’s president went largely unnoticed.
Mentioning as an aside his famously genial relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump had this to say: “he’s (Xi Jinping) an incredible guy. He’s essentially president for life…that’s pretty good”. Pretty good, indeed.
At Trump’s saying this, one could almost see the flash of envy hasten across his face. In the ill-lit cabin from which this interview was broadcast, the look was subtle, but perceptible. And while I don’t think that President Trump would actually ever attempt such a brazenly monarchical move (nor do I think Americans would suffer it—even if a plurality of Republicans have come out and said that they’d be okay with postponing the 2020 presidential election if Trump urged them to do so), it was telling to watch as he considered the idea. If age would allow it, and if energy would deem it biologically possible, it’s not beyond the pale of imagination to think that Trump might fancy himself president for life—governing until his last Tweet or breath (the former, at this pace, will likely come last).
Yet Xi’s approach to politics and to interminability is not a prescription that any American president should follow. To have consolidated power in perpetuity as Xi has, to have amended the constitution for his own political gain, to have undermined a core tenet of republicanism and democracy toward which we thought China was striving, to have obviated any potential challenge to his reign, and to have stepped one inch closer toward autocracy is not to be condoned nor celebrated here in the U.S. Certainly, it shouldn’t be declared a pretty “good thing” as Trump did. Such a royalist coup in the heart of Beijing is anathema to everything we in America hold to be dear. Term limits, executive constraints, a representative vox populi, an open and free election process, and a constant tension between three branches of government are all things China chooses on this new path to forgo. There’s nothing “pretty good” about this, even if the one man to whom these benefits accrue is your buddy, as Xi is the friend of Trump.
So, while Kim Jong-un—upon whose head President Trump’s encomia have rained—is an unmitigated autocrat, Xi Jinping, himself a recipient of Trump’s praise, has become one as well. And although it was but a fleeting moment in the course of Baier’s interview with Trump, I can’t help worrying that our president might want to add his own name to that illiberal list of Oriental kings.