When Donald Trump’s recent government shutdown was roughly four weeks old, there were multiple reports that suggested the Republican president was driven by some twisted version of Richard Nixon’s “madman theory.”
The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne summarized the meaning of the theory nicely: “The idea is that if one party to a negotiation behaves in a particularly crazy and dangerous way, the more reasonable people at the table will give in simply to end the lunacy and avoid catastrophe.”
In the context of a government shutdown, Trump wanted Democratic leaders to believe he’d impose harsh consequences on federal agencies, federal workers, and the public at large unless his non-negotiable demands were met. The gambit failed spectacularly; Dems gave him nothing; and the president ended up in a worse position than when he started.
The Washington Post’s James Hohmann puts a new spotlight on Trump and the “madman theory” today, arguing that the president is applying the same tactic to his foreign policy.
The president gleefully recounted his own bellicosity to suggest that his rhetoric scared North Korean leader Kim Jong Un into coming to the table in pursuit of peace. “’Fire and fury,’ ‘Total annihilation,’ ‘My button is bigger than yours,’ and ‘My button works.’ Remember that? … And people said„ ‘Trump is crazy,’” Trump said in the Rose Garden. “And you know what it ended up being? A very good relationship. I like him a lot, and he likes me a lot.”
The president’s comments are instructive ahead of his second summit with Kim on Wednesday in Hanoi, where he just touched down on Air Force One…. When Trump seems crazy to his critics, sometimes he is being crazy like a fox. Friends and former aides say he is more aware than most people think of how he’s perceived at home and abroad. He has repeatedly sought to use his reputation for rashness and unpredictability to his advantage, sometimes successfully.
In theory, I can appreciate the appeal of the thesis. It would suggest the president has a coherent strategy in pursuit of his goals, and he has the intellectual wherewithal to execute that strategy.
There is, however, one serious flaw in the argument.
Indeed, it came up in a high-profile way last week, when White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told a national television audience, in reference to the nuclear talks with North Korea, “[Trump] has had great success here in the fact they were able to even sit down at the table. The fact he is able to do it again is in itself a big success.”
It’s really not. Kim Jong-un wanted this meeting, just like he sought the first summit in Singapore. Indeed, last year’s meeting was Kim’s idea and his invitation that the American accepted. Trump agreeing to these meetings is a concession that Trump was willing to make – elevating North Korea’s rogue dictatorship and validating its international legitimacy – in exchange for nothing.
If the “madman theory” applied, the North Korean leader only agreed to participate in talks because he was terrified of what the crazy man in the White House might do. But in reality, Kim would’ve been every bit as eager to join Trump at the table if the U.S. administration had adopted a sunshine-and-rainbows posture, instead of a fire-and-fury posture.
What’s more, months after the first round of talks, the White House hasn’t actually gotten anything of value, even after making a series of concessions.
In other words, Trump’s “madman” tactics, at least for now, appear to have been pointless and unable to produce any tangible results. It didn’t force a dictator into talks he already wanted to participate in, and it didn’t force Kim into giving up weapons that U.S. officials expect him to keep indefinitely.
The resulting dynamic is an awkward one: what’s the difference between a sane man, pretending to be mad for no meaningful reason, and a man who’s simply mad?