In the 1970s, only Nixon could go to China. Today, only Trump could go to North Korea. It may sound trite, but bear with me.
The phrase “Only Nixon could go to China” has faded a bit, lost in cultural irrelevance and the smoothing edges of time, but it was not a pat observation. The understanding that Nixon was uniquely able to open that door was astute.
For a brief reminder: China, like Russia, was a great Communist menace and geopolitical foe. The Communist threat was, in modern parlance, a Big Effin Deal. It’s not of much use to go into well-worn political history, but it’s worth reiterating that the threat was real, Americans were suspicious of Communists abroad and at home, and just the idea of détente with a nation such as China would draw suspicion if not ire.
Unless you were someone whom most people trusted with the absolute utmost confidence to be virulently anti-Commie. Nixon, suffice it to say, was that.
Like any idiom, or any historic encapsulation, the Nixon–China moment has been boiled down to its bare essence. The notion that only Nixon could have pulled off rapprochement may historically be an exaggeration, but as political metaphor it’s useful. And apt here.
It’s virtually self-explanatory why this applies in the case of Trump and North Korea. It hardly requires stating, except to note as an aside that Trump’s reputation for being a North Korea hardliner was enhanced and belabored by liberal media hand-wringing over the past year or so.
So it’s not just that Trump himself offered bellicosity, but that in every instance where there was an exchange of words or bout of posturing between Kim and Trump, the media painted Trump as the more unruly, irresponsible, and unpredictable of the two. Trump was the danger. That characterization turns out to have been, somewhat perversely, incredibly useful in empowering Trump to act in the name of peace.
Again, though, it hardly requires a retelling for the parallel to be apparent. What’s less obvious, perhaps, is that the Nixon–China moment is so apt in another way. Only North Korea could go to Trump. Or, more accurately, only Kim Jong-un could.
To an observer from across the Pacific, and with the caveats of a similarly dividing cultural expanse, Kim’s most prominent personality quirks are obvious and base. He’s clearly smitten with celebrity. He wants to be a somebody, to somebody who isn’t under his heel. The bizarre relationship with basketball star and TMZ regular Dennis Rodman is a great example of that obsession, and there are countless others.
Rodman, not incidentally, is friends with Donald Trump, who is inarguably an international celebrity and was one before his presidency. He’s a perfect prospect for Kim. Which, you see, makes Kim a perfect prospect for Trump.
I often think of Al Pacino’s less-famous line from the movie The Devil’s Advocate: “Vanity, definitely my favorite sin.” Vanity is a mutual flaw in the two leaders, and one that works to American benefit here.
Long-distance pop psychology being perhaps not the best or most complete analysis, however, I’d add to this that Trump speaks Kim’s language. Not Korean, of course, but the language of dictators and madmen.
Okay, take a deep breath before you explode with anger at that. In this case, it means that Trump knows how to talk with someone who has absolute power and the inclination to use it. Trump the businessman thrived by exercising those very attributes.
As we know from his long line of successes and failures, Trump’s true business acumen isn’t particularly managerial. He’s not especially prescient in markets or investments. Even his legendary gift for branding isn’t the key. His most useful talent is his relentless belief that he is the top of the food chain. Distinct from ego or vanity, it’s his unshakable perception of himself as the leading authority or best example of all things. Not just an alpha, but the Alpha and Omega.
Whether in bankruptcy court or the opening of a casino, Trump speaks from the top. That’s not as common in elected leaders as one might think. Ronald Reagan was supremely confident and incredibly effective, but he didn’t act on the impulse to grandeur. Trump clearly does.
That character trait (or flaw) is critical in speaking the language of the megalomaniac. It is Putin’s language. And it’s Kim’s, too. Trump is fluent.
John Bolton, the guy who pushed for the only effective sanctions we’ve ever leveled on North Korea, is back and has Trump’s ear.
Kim also knows of Trump’s general imperviousness to certain types of criticism. Sure, insulting his hand size or questioning the authenticity of his hair may get under his skin, but attacking him for straying from the pack has little to no effect. That separation from the need to please others is something Kim will recognize and rely on. Frankly, on that point we should agree with him. Trump and his administration will need a certain immunity from outside criticism if they hope to accomplish something of significance.
It is, in fact, immunity to certain types of criticism that is the basis of the Nixon–China framing and the essence of its utility. Trump’s bona fides in this regard are undisputed: He doesn’t have to worry about taking a credibility hit for negotiating with this tyrant.
Speaking of which: The little dictator himself obviously has other influences. China’s pressure has been variable — here a push, there an embrace, here a demand, there a look-the-other-way. The apparent collapse of his underground facility is a problem that leaves him without some of the blackmail fodder he’s relied on. John Bolton, the guy who pushed for the only effective sanctions we’ve ever leveled on North Korea, is back and has Trump’s ear. There’s also the long, hard work undertaken by South Korea’s Moon Jae-in.
Yet, with some exceptions, the conditions are the same as when, say, Obama was in office. So while it isn’t as if the mere existence of Trump and his Kim-like characteristics alone caused a sudden, spontaneous change of heart in the North Korean leader, it is also not as if those weren’t big factors. They were.
But even more than that, the reverse. Kim Jong-un and North Korea are uniquely suited to come to Donald Trump in an act of peace. Peace that, I hasten to remind you, would here be achieved out of mutual need and benefit, not as a paean to the judgment of history. A peace made, in other words, the way most peace is.
North Korea released three U.S. prisoners on Wednesday. President Trump tweeted the time and place of the sit-down with Kim Jong-un. The process is already underway. In what could be a legacy-defining moment, or a legendary disaster, Trump is going to North Korea. (Well, to Singapore, but you get the idea.)
The best evidence that something will happen because of Trump is that something is happening now that there’s Trump. We don’t know yet whether he’s headed for the Peace Prize or Palookaville, but there is one thing about which I remain absolutely certain: There would be no talks at all if Hillary Clinton were our president. Hillary couldn’t go to China, you see. Only Nixon could. Only Trump could go to North Korea.
But also and more interestingly, only North Korea could go to Trump.