No, I didn’t hit my head, nor am I being ironic. I honestly think Donald Trump has a good chance of pulling this off, but not for the reasons conservatives usually state. It is not because I believe Trump is a genius and world class negotiator. He is neither.
So why do I think the least competent president in American history will pull off what no other American president has managed before him?
Because in this case Trump’s ignorance, incompetence and narcissism may work very well work in his favor. The reason is that the North Korea issue might not be nearly as complicated as people think.
North Korea is paranoid about the US. The US leveled the country during the Korean war, almost turning the whole country into a parking lot. Even American generals have admitted to being embarrassed over what they did in North Korea. Now you may argue that North Korea can only thank itself for starting the invasion of South Korea, but that would be beside the point. What is relevant here is how America looks to the North Korans. To them America is the the worlds remaining superpower ready to destroy them at any opportunity.
The experiences of Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi suggests to the North Korea leadership that there is a very real threat of invasion, which would end very badly for them. This is Game of Thrones logic. Either you play the Game of Thrones or you are dead. The Roman Empire was famous for the same. You could never really step down, because if you gave up power your adversaries would kill you immediately. Nobody wants a potential competitor around.
Hence what North Korea wants more than anything else is a clear guarantee of never getting invaded or an American led regime change. America has never been willing to give them that. They always demanded that North Korea denuclearize first. But how would you view that if you were a paranoid dictator assuming America was ready to invade you any minute? We can’t rule out that they would consider it a trick to make them vulnerable for an imminent American attack. Hence they want a non-invasion guarantee first, which of course is why were are stuck. The US will not give this as such a guarantee, which would likely also require a pull back of American troops. Americans would likely view that as a trick by North Korea to launch an invasion of South Korea.
And so we are stuck because neither party trust each other. Nor do they really have a reason to trust each other, as North Korea has not been very good at following through on previous deals and the US has not been very loyal to dictatorships they have promised to play nice with in the past.
How to break this circle of distrust? Enter Trump! He can break it, not because he is a trustful guy. He isn’t by a long shot. Rather because he is a gambler and a narcissist. Trump will not care about putting South Korea at risk by pulling back troops. If doing so lets him bask in the lime light and be heralded as the big peace maker, he will do it. Remember Trump is desperate for good reviews and recognition. His generals will likely tell him not to do it, but if he senses it will give him good media coverage, he will tell them to shove it.
We also have to take into consideration that Trump himself has an autocratic mindset. He has so far gotten along far better with despotic leaders than democratically elected leaders. Look at how much he loved Saudi Arabia and how much they loved him. These people talk the same language. Neither care about liberal values. What they care about is power, influence and their own vanity. Thus it is not inconceivable that Trump will get along far better with Kim than any other previous American president.
The key thing is for Trump to not be made to look like he was played for a fool. If Kim can give Trump something that he feel makes him look like a winner in the deal, he is going to take it.
A benefit Trump has with his macho image is that he can sign up for a deal which would have denounced a democrat president as a weak fool. The Trump base has gotten so used to relentless attacks on their man, that they are not going to respond to any criticism by other republicans about Trump being weak. Trump due to his personality has the advantage of never looking weak, even when he makes policy choices which are indeed weak.
It is some of the same reason why Ronald Reagan could more easily approach Gorbachev. Through his reckless evil empire rhetoric, he never had to worry about fellow republicans stabbing him in the back and denouncing him as weak when he approached the Soviet Union.
Republicans also know that they can’t easily criticize Trump, because he is vindictive and will lash back at them immediately, which could turn things ugly for them in elections.
In sum this means Trump can in principle go through with any deal with North Korea. He has his hands free. The most significant opposition to whatever deal he strikes will likely come from the Pentagon and security oriented republicans such as John McCain.
So the potential for good things to happen is definitely there. However neither of this is slam dunk, because we can never discount Trump’s staggering ignorance and recklessness. He might just as well screw the whole thing up. Not necessarily deliberately, but because he doesn’t know what he is dealing with.