The Trump-Kim Summit Is WrestleMania for Pundits
Trump is putting on a show in Singapore, and the media is falling for it.
The greatest skill in professional wrestling isn’t the grappling but the “kayfabe” — the art of sticking to your character even outside the ring. The fans get hooked on never-ending storylines, because the personal beefs and alliances between wrestlers make for great melodrama. Fans suspend disbelief because they want the escapism, the sense of being involved in dramas bigger and more thrilling than reality.
The summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on June 12 in Singapore is nothing but kayfabe for news junkies, politicos, and policy pundits. Ever since the snap announcement on March 8 that Trump — himself a longtime wrestling aficionado and occasional participant — would meet with Kim, he’s nurtured the hopes of the peace-loving world, persuading them to suspend disbelief. Trump’s storyline positions him as the hero able to do what no other president could: bring peace to the Korean Peninsula and denuclearize North Korea.
But it’s all a farce. We know the summit is kayfabe because we know all about Trump’s corrupted, egoistic motivations and the utterly unserious way he’s approached the biggest diplomatic moment since the Cold War. We know the scandal-ridden domestic context of all of Trump’s foreign policy — especially this summit. And we know that Trump can’t possibly deliver on the grandiose promises he’s repeatedly made about what this summit could ultimately achieve. And yet we indulge our desire for escapism by hoping Trump’s theatrics might be put to use in service of the public good, or at least the good of the Korean Peninsula.
The institutionalized authority of the presidency endows Trump with a more important voice in defining the national interest abroad than anyone else. That discretion only makes sense as long as you’re willing to assume that the president is a reasonable judge of the national interest and that he will to act faithfully on its behalf. But Trump’s motivations to hold this summit have nothing to do with securing peace or even making the world safe for Americans. It’s about fueling his ego and sustaining a mythos about his deal-making prowess that’s not just unsubstantiated — it’s beginning to border on a cult of personality.
Any analysis of the summit has to start with the reality of Trump’s individual motivations, rather than falling for the pretense of national interests. How do we know that his foreign policy is about his feelings and interests rather than the interests of his nation? Because just last summer, he was threatening military strikes against North Korea — retaliation for simply conducting missile tests — without any regard for the catastrophic war it would trigger. Because he’s publicly claimed credit for the diplomatic achievements of others, including the North Korean delegation’s appearance at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea and the inter-Korean summit — both of which were primarily driven by Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Because he’s made no meaningful preparation for the summit of a lifetime: “I don’t think I have to prepare very much. It’s about attitude,” he told reporters last week, with a pride reserved strictly for the truly ignorant. Because he has no problem with his national security advisor failing to hold a single National Security Council meeting on North Korea ahead of what could be the most dramatic foreign-policy shift in a generation. And because he called off the summit temporarily at the first insult from North Korean state media just last month.
If Trump saw the summit as a means of advancing the interests of anyone or anything other than himself, he would’ve walked the necessary paces and would’ve stuck to it even in the face of pedestrian (and predictable) North Korean trash talk. Yet he walked, in a very public way, because he feared Kim Jong Un might stand him up in Singapore. As the president’s Art of the Deal co-author has stressed, “Trump has a morbid fear of being humiliated and shamed.” He won’t think twice about preemptively shutting down what he’s touted as an unprecedented diplomatic opportunity over the possibility of personally losing face.
No serious analyst should be examining Trump’s foreign-policy decisions — not least the summit — without placing them in the context of his mounting political scandals at home, or his proven obsession with steering the media toward favorable news coverage. When Trump made his impromptu decision on March 8 to meet with Kim, he went into the White House pressroom, which he never does, and gleefully told reporters to expect a big announcement, turning the attention away — at least for a moment — from the Stormy Daniels affair and the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Two days later, Trump spoke at a Republican campaign rally, where he suggested he wasn’t invested in diplomacy with Kim at all but was happy that the mere announcement got him good media coverage for a brief time. Vamping before an adoring crowd, Trump said, “Hey, who knows? If [the Kim summit] happens, if it doesn’t happen … But the press, for two hours, is going, ‘This is fantastic. This is amazing.’”
Consider that a friend of Trump’s said he didn’t want to choose uber-hawk John Bolton as his national security advisor, but “he wanted to change headlines that weekend” as an interview with Daniels, who alleges Trump paid her hush money after they had an affair, was set to air on 60 Minutes. Even more telling, Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer and media surrogate, has repeatedly claimed that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible Trump ties to Russian election interference isn’t appropriate because Trump is dealing with high-stakes issues like North Korea on the global stage.
Trump couldn’t pull off the summit kayfabe if it weren’t for media complicity. Top journalists from around the world have converged on Singapore to cover the summit as if it were normal — just as they’ve been doing since it was first announced. Media narratives are almost entirely focused on what the summit will or won’t produce, as if this were Reagan meets Gorbachev. Giuliani and the administration get to use the summit as proof that Trump is a statesman, even though that image is entirely incompatible with the one that emerges from the mass of domestically focused political media coverage. The president politicizes the mainstream media by decrying it as fake news, and media outlets respond by taking him seriously, as if that somehow depoliticizes them.
But the problem goes far beyond the media itself. Some analysts — even those who loathe Trump — see the possibility of him delivering a lasting change for the better to the Korean Peninsula. Yet this is just another way of falling for the show. Much has been written about how Trump can’t possibly achieve what he claims he will with North Korea, so I won’t dwell here on the fact that North Korea has no theory of its own security without nuclear weapons, or that North Korea has always wanted a peace treaty with the United States precisely because it’s the quickest route to removing U.S. troops from the South. The bigger problem is our habit of analyzing Trump as if he were a normal or serious president.
Pundits who analyze Trump’s words and deeds as if he were a serious person on a serious mission do so either out of habit — because that’s how we would normally treat a president’s foreign policy — or because what Trump claims to want is what we all ultimately want: a nuclear-free peace where there has only been rivalry and violence. We delude ourselves into thinking Trump’s theatricality might go to work for our agenda, whatever that is.
Yet the Trump presidency is so deviant from historical norms that any deal reached or progress made with North Korea on his watch has a vanishingly small chance of surviving him. In decades past, deals with North Korea have failed on the U.S. side because a lack of mutual trust between the two countries combined with the politicization of North Korea policy in Washington. That problematic formula still holds.
More disconcertingly, whitewashing Trump’s motivations and methods by treating his foreign-policy decisions as somehow high-minded or in the national interest leads to what Georgetown University professor Daniel Nexon has called the “analytical normalization” of the president — essentially rendering his words and deeds into something acceptable by evaluating them in a serious way.
This gives a pass to both Trump and future politicians to have entirely corrupt, self-serving motivations as long as they deliver specific things people want to see happen. At best, that’s Nietzschean foreign policy. Analysts who treat Trump’s moves on the international stage as if he were George Shultz or Henry Kissinger are engaging in a process that gradually eliminates the need for logic or expertise, which steers us into a world where nothing is real and everything is a joke.
Instead of playing along in hopes that the game magically works out favorably for U.S. interests, pundits should never mention Trump’s foreign-policy moves without tying them to his venal motivations. They should be pointing out how other countries — especially dictatorships — continue to reap benefits from the U.S. president’s foreign-policy decisions. They should be routinely charging Trump with accusations of running a foreign policy of distraction on the American public. And above all, they should avoid calling balls and strikes as if the relationship between the presidency and the foreign-policy industry has not fundamentally changed from that of decades past. Trump is rendering us all into handmaidens to his personal agenda, and even many who despise him play along. Americans — even expert ones — seem unable to resist doing their part in maintaining kayfabe.
While Trump is putting on the performance of a lifetime, though, other world leaders are executing strategies. Kim and Moon certainly are. U.S. foreign policy is devolving into a show as allies and adversaries are advancing their national interests, sometimes at the expense of the United States. But Trump persists with the ultimate summit, because it’s the ultimate kayfabe. Are you not entertained?
Van Jackson is a professor of international relations at Victoria University of Wellington, host of The Un-Diplomatic Podcast, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and the Defence & Strategy Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies in New Zealand.