Remember that time when President Donald Trump was going to win the Nobel Peace Prize for ending the threat of nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula?
It was almost exactly a year ago. The president was about to meet North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in Singapore. A group of House Republicans nominated the president for a Nobel Peace Prize. The crowd chanted “No-bel!” at a Trump rally.
In the end, the main achievement of the summit, a propaganda victory for North Korea, was mollifying Trump, who had been threatening nuclear holocaust. Kim Jong Un agreed to work toward denuclearization, but as even casual news consumers know, the North Korean definition of denuclearization includes the lifting of the U.S. nuclear umbrella over Northeast Asia. Actual North Korean concessions were minimal.
Nevertheless, from the right arose a thundering, bullying demand that Trump be given credit. And a few progressives cautioned against making too much of the summit’s inadequacy, arguing, in part, that it was better for Trump to get suckered and claim victory than to lash out. Democratic critics of the summit, wrote The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart, risked becoming “de facto allies of ultra-hawks like John Bolton,” who wants to discredit diplomacy with North Korea.
It was a fair enough point, but also a tacit acknowledgment of the inescapable degradation of living under this president, which often feels like being stuck in a house with an unstable and abusive father. You can either placate him by humoring his delusions, or puncture them and risk unpredictable fallout. The choices are complicity or destruction.
Which brings us to Trump’s recent deal — or “deal” — with Mexico. Once again, Trump made a series of unhinged threats against another country, leading to high-stakes diplomacy, and the announcement of a breakthrough. Once again, chest-beating conservatives jeered at Democrats for refusing to concede that Trump’s belligerence had borne fruit. Once again, when the details were revealed, it became obvious that Trump had accomplished very little of any substance. And once again, Trump has created a situation where it’s hazardous for his opponents to say too much about his incompetence.
On Friday, as the clock ticked down to Trump’s threatened imposition of 5% tariffs on Mexican goods, the two countries announced a last-minute deal. The U.S. would hold off on imposing the levies, and Mexico would take action to deter Central American migrants. For a moment, it looked as if Trump had cowed America’s neighbor with his madman foreign policy.
But giving Trump the benefit of the doubt is almost always a mistake. The president had claimed, using the floridly Stalinesque language we’ve all had to become accustomed to, that Mexico had agreed to “IMMEDIATELY BEGIN BUYING LARGE QUANTITIES OF AGRICULTURAL PRODUCT FROM OUR GREAT PATRIOT FARMERS!” This appears to be untrue. In fact, as The New York Times reported Saturday, the deal consisted “largely of actions that Mexico had already promised to take in prior discussions with the United States.”
Months ago, Mexico consented to expanding a program in which migrants seeking asylum in the United States wait in Mexico while their claims are adjudicated, and to deploying more of its national guard to block migrants. It looks as if negotiators of the deal made Friday simply ramped up the scale of these agreements to give Trump a face-saving way to back down from tariffs that threatened the U.S. economy as well as the Mexican one.
As it became clear — at least to those outside the Fox News bubble — how little Trump had achieved, he grew even more splutteringly incoherent than usual. “Mexico was not being cooperative on the Border in things we had, or didn’t have,” until the deal, he wrote in one tweet. Trump went on to claim that Mexico had made further, secret concessions that would be revealed at a later date, which Mexico’s foreign minister denied. (Some have reported that Trump was referring to a potential regional pact on asylum that would include Central and South American countries and the United Nations, which Mexico said it could be open to discussing.)
All this was just the latest demonstration that, personal branding to the contrary, the president is terrible at making deals. What he’s good at is what might be called deal theater — made-for-TV melodramas with self-generated crises, over-the-top demands and suspenseful arbitrary deadlines. The point of these exercises isn’t to solve a problem but to pacify Trump with the illusion that he is winning so that he doesn’t feel the need to break anything.
The question for everyone else is whether to play along, because Trump is less dangerous if he thinks Mexico has submitted. Until now, the president has regularly stoked his nativist base by treating the humanitarian emergency at the border as a security threat. Now he has an interest in exaggerating the degree to which the problem has been solved, just as he now plays down North Korea’s nuclear capabilities rather than admit his own failure.
Facing widespread mockery for his Potemkin deal, Trump tweeted Monday that if Mexico’s legislature fails to enact the provisions of its purported secret agreement with the U.S., the tariffs will go into effect. There’s an implicit threat here: Don’t provoke him. If he doesn’t get the headlines he wants, there’s no telling what he might do.