Niall Ferguson’s new book is The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power from the Freemasons to Facebook
Over the past week – indeed, over the past year – U.S. President Donald Trump has broken one political rule after another. “When I signed up to be a conservative,” an eminent Washington think-tanker said to me on Thursday, “I thought conservatism stood for free trade, fiscal responsibility and personal character.” He might have added firmness towards dictators.
In fairness to Mr. Trump, he is not the first Republican president to impose tariffs on imports, to run a very large budget deficit and to agree to meet a Communist tyrant. (I’m pretty sure he’s the first to be sued by a porn star, but let’s leave Stormy Daniels out of this.) Both Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford imposed tariffs in the name of national security. Both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush ran substantial fiscal deficits. And if Mr. Trump goes to Pyongyang, there will be an unmistakable echo of Mr. Nixon’s famous trip to Beijing in 1972.
Nevertheless, there is a near-universal consensus among political commentators that Mr. Trump is breaking all the rules. By announcing tariffs of 25 per cent on steel imports and 10 per cent on aluminum, he not only will hurt all those sectors of the U.S. economy that depend on those imports, but also risks plunging the world into a protectionist trade war.
By agreeing to meet with the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, he is falling into a trap other presidents were prudent enough to avoid, for Mr. Kim will claim a diplomatic victory – “See! The dotard treats me as an equal!” – and then cheat on any deal, as his father did in the 1990s.
To seasoned observers of Washington life, this really is a shocking way to run an administration. Most shocking of all is not so much the policy as the way it gets made. Gary Cohn’s departure last week as Mr. Trump’s chief economic adviser was just the latest of a succession of exits from the White House. This is not the way it’s supposed to work. By Year 2 of any administration, the adults are supposed to have taken charge.
To give Mr. Trump his due, he is capable of self-mockery. His speech at last weekend’s Gridiron Club dinner might equally well have been delivered by Alec Baldwin, whose career has been relaunched by his Trump impersonation on Saturday Night Live.
“I won’t rule out direct talks with Kim Jong-un,” Mr. Trump said. “I just won’t. As far as the risk of dealing with a madman is concerned, that’s his problem, not mine.”
He also had some fun at his son-in-law’s expense. “I wanted to apologize for running a little bit late,” he began, “because Jared could not get through the security.”
Here is a man who glories in breaking the rules, because that is how he rules.
Notice, too, that in the middle of this comedy routine, Mr. Trump revealed exactly what he was planning to do on North Korea. “By the way,” he told his audience, “a couple days ago they said, ‘We would like to talk,’ and I said, ‘So would we, but you have to de-nuke, you have to de-nuke.’ So let’s see what happens. . . . We will be meeting and we’ll see if anything positive happens.” Not a single news outlet got the joke that this wasn’t a joke.
Of course, this could all end in just the kind of train-wreck-plus-dumpster-fire predicted ad nauseam by the President’s critics. But consider, if you dare, what a future historian might one day write:
“President Trump had no experience of foreign affairs, but he soon grasped how disastrously his predecessor had bungled the North Korean nuclear threat. He applied sustained pressure on Pyongyang, directly through new UN-mandated sanctions, and indirectly by menacing China with threats of military action or a trade war.
“In March, 2018, he stepped up the pressure by announcing new tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. These tariffs would have hurt the United States’ allies more than China, but Beijing got the message. Xi Jinping was well aware a trade war directed by the United States against China would hurt China much more than the United States, potentially reducing Chinese exports to the United States by as much as 20 per cent.
“The President’s critics were stunned by the subsequent U.S.-North Korean Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, signed in Pyongyang in 2019, and utterly dumbfounded by the 2020 Chinese-American Trade Agreement, which committed China to eliminate the bilateral trade deficit by the end of his second presidential term.”
Could it happen? I know it seems fanciful – and will be dismissed by some readers as an indefensible defence of a rule-breaking ruler. But, as I said, Mr. Nixon imposed a 10-per-cent tariff on nearly all imports in August, 1971. He went to Beijing in February 1972. And he won a landslide victory in November of that same year.