The Art Of The Deal: “[T]he old prejudices and practices worked as obstacles, but we have overcome them and we are here today.” North Korea's Kim Jong Un responds to President Donald Trump's introductory remarks at their historic summit-meeting in Singapore on Tuesday, 12 June 2018.
THE NOTE OF SURPRISE in the voices of the talking heads on CNN was unmistakable. How could this be happening? How could these two men – both of them routinely ridiculed by those claiming expertise in international relations – have gotten even this far? The leaders of USA and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, meeting in Singapore on Tuesday, 12 June 2018 and exchanging warm handshakes across the table. The eccentrically-coiffed and generously-fleshed scion of the redoubtable Kim dynasty, Kim Jong Un, offering up to the world the amazing soundbite: “the old prejudices and practices worked as obstacles, but we have overcome them and we are here today”. How was any of this possible?
One might as well ask – how was the 1972 meeting between Mao Zedong and President Richard Nixon possible? American GIs and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army had been in a shooting war barely 20 years before that historic summit in Beijing. For quarter-of-a-century the US Pacific Fleet had shielded the Nationalist regime on Taiwan from the People’s Republic’s wrath. And yet, it happened.
In Oliver Stone’s movie “Nixon” there is a memorable scene in which Chairman Mao, through his interpreter, asks Nixon: “Is peace all you are interested in? The real war is in us. History is a symptom of our disease.” The dialogue is, of course, the work of the film’s screenwriters: Stephen J. Rivelle, Christopher Wilkinson and Stone himself; but it succinctly captures an essential truth about such extraordinary political figures as Mao Zedong, Kim Jong Un, Richard Nixon and Donald Trump.
Some political leaders are content to be guided by their advisers – like George “Dubbya” Bush. For others, it is the events in which they are caught up that provide the opportunities for extraordinary displays of leadership. Think Winston Churchill in World War II, or, Lyndon Johnson and the struggle for Black civil rights 1964-65.
Then there are the leaders who, for a whole host of reasons, become the authors of events to which all these other, lesser, statesmen must respond. Grandiloquent and narcissistic, often paranoid, they are prey to deep existential fears and driven by inner-demons of unrelenting ferocity. This kind of leader has the power to project the turmoil and tumult of their own psyches onto the world around them. The ability to, in Stone’s memorable formulation, make History a symptom of their disease.
The rest of humanity has every reason to fear such individuals. Who in their right mind would cast themselves as a plaything in someone else’s paranoid fantasy? Democracies, in particular, should reject such individuals, in whose character there is much more of the emperor and dictator than there is the citizens’ humble representative.
Except, of course, History has a way of infecting individuals with the diseases whose morbid symptoms they will subsequently cause it to display. A nation rent by anxieties and resentments can hardly avoid throwing up the exceptional individual in whom those anxieties and resentments have not only been distilled to an uncommon purity, but who is also able to express them with extraordinary clarity and force.
Democracies in decay are particularly vulnerable to such individuals. The causes of a nation’s inner corruption, when given individual political expression, become accentuated and the process of decomposition is speeded-up. A malign feedback loop emerges by which the neuroses of the nation are both fed by – and feed – the person it has made its own. Be it Julius Caesar, Adolf Hitler or Donald Trump, the people’s “drummer” renders a double service: he is both the person who beats – and the person who is beaten.
Is it really so unbelievable, then, that the America which has grown so deeply resentful and untrusting of its political elites should be willing-on the President who has so openly defied them? That the more the experts deplore Trump’s ignorance and denounce his unwillingness to be guided, the more his supporters thrill to his insouciance.
“It’s about attitude. It’s about willingness to get things done”, declared the President, who went on to claim that he would know within the first minute of their meeting whether Kim Jong Un was serious about reaching a deal. When asked how, he replied simply: “My touch, my feel – that’s what I do.”
Encountering this phenomenon, it is hardly surprising that Kim, a genuine emperor, could believe that all the old prejudices, practices and obstacles might – just – be overcome.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 15 June 2018.