Now that Kim Jong-un has completed his master class in diplomatic theatre at the border between the two Koreas, Washington is turning its attention to the details and arrangements for the coming summit between President Donald Trump and the North Korean leader.
As diplomats and nuclear experts exchange memos and perspectives, they do so with the knowledge that Mr. Trump has strong feelings about the negotiations of the past: ‘’The United States has been played beautifully, like a fiddle,’’ Mr. Trump said, ‘’because you had a different kind of leader.’’
That presidential remark has a historical significance far broader than his views on the spring summit with the Asian rival who calls himself the ‘’supreme leader.’’ It hints at Mr. Trump’s view of himself and the office he holds and it bespeaks an unusual but unavoidable truth that germinated during the 2016 presidential campaign, became apparent in his first year in office and now has come into full flower.
Mr. Trump is different from his presidential predecessors in an important, elemental way: He is determined, unlike them, to be different from his presidential predecessors. And while some presidents campaign on ending the misadventures of earlier presidents − Richard Nixon, with the war he inherited from Lyndon Johnson, or Barack Obama, with the war he inherited from George W. Bush, for example − they find that far easier to propose than to accomplish. And once in office, they never single out their predecessors for withering criticism.
Whether Republicans or Democrats, conventional politicians or outsiders, the 43 men who occupied the American presidency before Mr. Trump almost always sought to fit easily into the pattern set by those who came before them.
Some of these traditions are cosmetic: Mr. Nixon wore an American flag in his lapel and so did all of his successors. Mr. Nixon began saying ‘’God bless the United States of America’’ and after Ronald Reagan adopted the phrase, the presidents who followed did as well.
But many presidential practices and precepts are substantive, contributing to a remarkable American consensus in domestic politics and international affairs. In the years after the Second World War, American presidents generally accepted three fundamental outlooks: They sought an internationalist (and sometimes interventionist) profile for the country, supported civil rights and promoted international trade.
Mr. Trump has not emphasized any of those elements. He has opposed some, especially international trade and has opened wounds on others, including civil rights.
Unlike his predecessors, Mr. Trump has criticized earlier presidents, especially Mr. Obama. Such criticism of presidential predecessors is unheard of. Instead, presidents generally treat their predecessors with enormous respect, often, as John F. Kennedy did with both Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman, seeking their counsel at moments of crisis.
Mr. Trump’s self-confidence, his disregard for his predecessors and his sense of independence make it difficult to imagine he would consult any of the five living American former chief executives on any topic.
The four recent presidents who went to the White House from governors’ mansions and who, as with Mr. Trump, had no experience in Washington or in world affairs − Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush − generally adopted the prevailing American consensus on domestic and international issues. Mr. Trump has deliberately challenged that establishment consensus and often has held it in contempt.
Some of that contempt reflects his supporters’ impatience with establishment political figures and with long-standing political practices. Some of that contempt grows out of Mr. Trump’s inclination to view others as less able, skilled and creative as he is. And some of that contempt is simply the President’s effort to defy convention, in part because it was his defiance of conventions that won him political attention and then, after a bruising nomination and general-election campaign, the presidency.
‘’It’s not only that he wants to be the opposite of whatever Barack Obama was,’’ the University of Montreal political scientist Pierre Martin said in an interview. ‘’It’s as if he wants to break the mould of the presidency just for the sake of breaking the mould. He opposes things just because he wasn’t involved in them. But if an idea comes from him, it’s genius.’’
Some of Mr. Trump’s critics believe that analysis applies to the Iran nuclear agreement, which was negotiated by former secretary of state John Kerry and embraced by Mr. Obama and a parade of world leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron, who gave a strong endorsement of the pact in his speech before a joint meeting of Congress on Wednesday. Mr. Trump has expressed opposition to the agreement, calling it ‘’insane’’ and ‘’ridiculous’’ without providing a comprehensive alternative proposal.
Now, Mr. Trump is about to wade into the North Korea situation that has, like Afghanistan, been the graveyard of many high hopes.
American analysts on the right and left acknowledge that Mr. Trump’s signature bellicosity almost certainly led North Korea to the more conciliatory position that took its form in this month’s disavowal of more nuclear tests and the remarkable summit between leaders of the two Koreas last week.
This situation is prime for Mr. Trump: The opportunity as an amateur to accomplish what professional diplomats from the Clinton and George W. Bush years were unable to achieve. But the opportunity for a Trump triumph comes with the peril of a Trump failure − or a declaration of success that, like the ones in the Clinton and Bush efforts, were chimerical. The first agreement fell apart after North Korea began developing ballistic missile capability and employing enriched uranium in nuclear tests, the second after the country was found laundering money.
Mr. Trump won a landmark tax cut, but most of his efforts as President have been at overturning nostrums that governed American politics for generations or that repealed initiatives, such as NAFTA, the Paris climate pact, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Obamacare.
‘’He wants to be provocative and different, which he had to do to be elected president,’’ said M. Elizabeth Sanders, a Cornell University specialist on the presidency. “But because he is different from everyone else, he doesn’t have to be judged the way other presidents are judged. It’s a perfect rubric for him.’’