Remember when observers marveled that Ronald Reagan was the Teflon president, because nothing thrown at him by his adversaries seemed to stick? His naturally sunny disposition and boundless optimism repelled any and all criticism. The Gipper was basically just so darned decent and nice that even his foes had to admire and like him.
Fast-forward to today, and we have the Gipper’s bad-boy brother, Donald Trump, who seems to revel in chaos and relishes any fight, huge or tiny. In Trump’s case, even his friends and supporters (including this one) cringe at his endless and unnecessary battles with every foe. But all his fighting only appears to prove that with Trump, nothing penetrates his Kevlar police-vest-like exterior.
Consider: Did Russia meddle in the election on Trump’s behalf? Almost certainly, but most Americans know in their gut that Trump almost certainly would have won even if Vladimir Putin had sat on his hands. Hillary Clinton was simply that horrible a candidate.
Does Trump overstate the lack of military effort from our allies and the threats from our trading partners? Yes, but many Americans have long had a nagging suspicion that our country has given too much and gotten too little in our relations with those countries.
Does he overstate with talk of immigrant criminal hordes and Muslim terrorists? Yes — until a wave of MS-13 gang members overwhelms your neighborhood and school, or until another nihilistic terrorist crew brings down a tower or two in your city. Americans haven’t hardened their hearts, but they have hardened their self-defenses. We still welcome those from outside our borders, but not those from outside our fundamental values.
So what does a president who’s nearly impervious to the slings and arrows fired in his direction do with this apparent indestructability? Why not put it toward some long-term good for the country? Why not continue, for instance, to nudge our allies to pony up what they owe but regularly fail to pay toward our common defense? Why not keep pushing our trading partners to renegotiate better trade deals that treat American companies and workers more fairly? Why not keep insisting that we secure our borders against very real outside threats?
And why not go further still, as Trump has also done? Why not try to break through the decades-long impasse in the Middle East by recognizing the historic fact that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, and that just as Palestinians should have a land of their own, so should Israelis? Why not push back against Iran’s dangerous aggression and strengthen our relationship with longtime friendlier nations like Saudi Arabia? Why not replace “strategic patience” on North Korea with “strategic impatience,” and demand that it disarm or face the potentially dire consequences of its own recklessness?
This last one will test Trump’s real strengths and weaknesses. His potential meeting with Kim Jong-un could be a turning point in modern international relations. It may not follow the tried and true diplomatic niceties of negotiating forever to make a little bit of progress, but it could be just the bold stroke that defangs a threat to world peace, setting a course toward de-escalating dangerous tensions and avoiding a nuclear holocaust. It will require that Trump be tough and consistent in his negotiations with Kim, and not succumb to the wily dictator’s maneuvering.
If the president could pull off a successful summit with this most challenging adversary, he would be in a much stronger position to negotiate with other foes — and friends. If he were to defuse the North Korean nuclear threat, he could devote greater attention to China’s military belligerence and economic heavy-handedness. He might even be able to turn to Putin and remind him that while his clumsy attempt to bear-hug a presidential candidate and influence the American electoral process actually strait-jacketed U.S.-Russia relations, we still have to co-exist on this planet, and should start talking again.
If Nixon could make peace with Mao in China and Reagan could make peace with Gorbachev in Russia, maybe, just maybe, Trump can make peace with nations that seem like enemies today but could be made less of a threat to future generations. And once today’s clear and present dangers are faced down, he could concentrate on further strengthening the American economy and leading a freer world into a new era of peace and prosperity — proving thereby that even bad boys can do good things.
Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column? ADAmato@liherald.com.