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The Theater of the Deal

Donald Trump isn’t a deal-maker. He just plays one on TV.
March 8, 2019
The Theater of the Deal
(Illustration by Hannah Yoest / Photo by Vietnam News Agency/Handout/Getty Images)

Part of Donald Trump’s political appeal was based on his tabloid and television personality as a consummate deal-maker, with The Art of the Deal as one of the pillars of his public image. The sales pitch was that this political outsider, relying only on his astounding power of negotiation, could achieve unprecedented results in the realm of public policy.

So where are the deals?

President Trump’s “renegotiation” of the North American Free Trade Agreement consisted of superficial changes and a rebranding of the name. Mexico has not agreed to pay for the border wall, nor did Trump make a deal with Congress to get it. Instead, he has declared a state of emergency so he can take the money anyway—not from Mexico, but from the taxpayers—without the need for a deal. Even what Republicans accomplished in the last Congress, when they still had control of the House, were items already on the Republican leadership’s wish list, such as Paul Ryan’s tax reform, and nothing so difficult that they didn’t really want to do it, like repealing Obamacare.

The big trade deal with China that Trump officials have been teasing to the press looks more like a return to the status quo ante. For example, China is likely to agree to buy American agricultural products—which they were already doing before Trump imposed his tariffs—with little or no enforceable progress on key issues such as the theft of intellectual property.

Then of course there is Trump’s big diplomatic push with North Korea, where after a year and two personal summits, Trump walked away with nothing while Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un got exactly what he needed.

[B]y securing an extension of the process while giving up nothing on denuclearization, Kim can continue improving his country’s nuclear and missile capabilities, benefit from an ever-eroding sanctions regime, and enjoy his elevated status as a newly respected member of the international community.

That elevated status includes Trump hailing Kim as “my friend” and letting him off the hook for the murder of Otto Warmbier. Or take this surreal version of buttering up: “He had known plenty of people who had grown up wealthy and whose families were powerful, Trump told Kim Jong Un. . . . Many of them emerged messed up, Trump said. But, he added, Kim wasn’t one of them.” This to a guy who consolidated his rise to power by murdering his uncle and half-brother. Sounds well-adjusted to me.

All these compliments, and Kim still walked away. How did that happen?

The answer is that Donald Trump isn’t really a great deal-maker. He just plays one on TV.

The reliance on television and images and gestures is the point. As with his first summit with Kim, it’s all theater, and either the theater alone is enough to make the deal happen, or maybe the theater is the deal.

If there was any substance to Trump’s overture to North Korea, it was offering North Korea the same model as Vietnam. Trump referred to this explicitly: “Vietnam is thriving like few places on earth. North Korea would be the same, and very quickly, if it would denuclearize. The potential is AWESOME, a great opportunity, like almost none other in history, for my friend Kim Jong Un.”

This message was reinforced by the summit’s Vietnamese hosts, who told the North Koreans that “as long as they have a conflict with the United States, they will not be able to develop their economy properly.”

Yet there are very substantial reasons why Kim would not be interested in this model. North Korea is a one-family dictatorship where brutality is the coin of the realm, and if you don’t dominate, you end up before a firing squad, or worse, in the work camps. It is a system that is very hard to reform from the inside, particularly if you’re the guy who murdered and tortured his way to the top.

What guarantees the safety of that regime from outside threats is its nuclear program, which offers a deterrence to South Korea and the United States and is also what pressures China to remain as North Korea’s sponsor—despite the fact that the Chinese don’t really get along all that well Kim and his regime.

I suppose it’s possible that North Korea might be induced to take a deal—not likely, but conceivable—if sanctions could impose such crippling pressure on the regime that Kim feared a collapse and saw a deal as the only path to survival. A good deal-maker would understand the facts on the ground and the worldview of the Kim regime and the incentives within such a closed autocracy–and find a way to negotiate from a position of strength. Instead, Trump eased the pressure on North Korea before his first summit and offered only theatrical visuals and flattery.

Maybe Trump thought that this was enough to get a deal. It worked for him in show business, after all. Or maybe it didn’t really matter all that much whether he got the deal or not.

Consider this: Donald Trump rose to fame by flogging a self-aggrandizing image in the tabloids, by getting a ghostwriter to puff up his image in a book, and by establishing himself as a colorful celebrity on reality TV and Twitter. All of this is basically set-dressing. And this set-dressing has become Trump’s substitute for actual deal-making.

In fact, it’s starting to seem as if the theatrical visuals and photo ops and hyperbolic tweets were the whole point all along. Even when a summit fails to achieve any actual diplomatic goals, the visuals will achieve results with Trump’s supporters. To those who are not inclined to look closely at the details (or who dismiss any criticism as “fake news”) it looks like he accomplished something, even if it’s spun as showing “strength” by walking away.

The actual deal, then, isn’t the deal Trump is making with Kim Jong-Un or with Mexico or with China. The real deal is the one Trump is making with his base–and they don’t even realize that they are the ultimate target of his showy “negotiation” tactics.

Donald Trump bills himself as a master of the “art of the deal,” but he never said which of the arts it is. Now we know: it’s theater.

Robert Tracinski

Robert Tracinski is editor of Symposium, a journal of liberalism, and writes additional commentary at The Tracinski Letter.