The dog days of August are normally a time when politics disappears from the front pages and the main excitement is provided by the weather forecast and sports. Records are broken in humidity levels and temperatures, facilitated by global warming, and baseball teams gear up for their run towards the post-season while golfers and tennis players get ready for their final major. I had hoped that there would be an opportunity to reflect on the ‘achievements’ of the Trump administration, which, in spite of its inability to pass health care legislation that would have hurt millions of Americans, has been able to wreak havoc in many other areas. The EPA has reversed pretty much every environmental protection measure implemented under Obama, affirmative action in college admissions is again challenged in the Supreme Court, Wall Street is being deregulated, setting the US up for the next financial crisis, the Secretary of the Interior is reviewing if the country really needs this many national parks, funding for the National Institutes of Health is cut by $5 billion, and ICE is raging among illegal immigrants.
This is only a modest selection, but there is no room to expand it here because Trump brought politics back with wild rhetoric directed at Kim Jong-un. After a leaked report from the DIA that North Korea has succeeded in miniaturizing a nuclear warhead to fit it on an ICBM – the same assessment the agency produced four years ago and that turned out to be incorrect – the US President surprised even his military advisors with the threat that North Korea would experience never before seen ‘fire and fury,’ doubling down the next day by announcing that US arms are ‘locked and loaded,’ just in case North Korea would threaten any US territory or ally. There are four competing explanations for Trump’s sudden outburst, two of a domestic nature, one international and one psycho-pathological. The first is that Trump’s popularity in the polls is going down and that the messaging is really meant to shore up his base, the second is the ‘Wag the Dog’ scenario, the idea that the Mueller investigation will have to back off from a president who is engaged in an international conflict that may very well result in a nuclear war.
The international explanation is that diplomacy and sanctions have failed to make North-Korea abandon its nuclear and long-range missile programs, and that Trump is therefore simply trying something new and can reverse course anytime. The psycho-pathological narrative, finally, is that Trump experiences the world as a reality show in which he is an action hero who fights evil with all the tools available to him, knowing that his side always wins, as they do in comic books.
The four explanations are not mutually exclusive, although the first three are more or less rational and the fourth is not. What makes this last explanation extra feasible, however, is the fact that Trump has now expanded his threats to Venezuela, and the visible delight with which he keeps repeating the words ‘military option,’ changing from a bullfrog into a nuclear knight in fluorescing armor.
In spite of his focus on South East Asia Trump also found the time to thank Putin for expelling US embassy personnel and attacking the man he needs most in DC, Senate Leader Mitch McConnell. Rationality is not his strong suit, which once more supports the fourth explanation.