ESTRICH: The dwagger of the deal-maker

President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un walk after lunch at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore June 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

As anyone who has ever negotiated a deal can tell you, there is always a deal to be had. It depends on what you are — and aren’t — willing to give up, whether you get as good as you give up. Almost anyone can negotiate a bad deal, once the other side is willing to come to the table — which they are more likely to do if they think they can get a very, very good deal.

Of course, that is what most people I know are accusing the president of in his dealings with North Korea: He got “snookered.” (That was one of the kinder jabs.)

You have to admit that there is some irony in hearing precisely the criticism that President Donald Trump has lobbed so endlessly at the Iran nuclear deal turned against him for the non-nuclear North Korea deal.

Giving up anything for nothing is rarely a good deal, unless you’re an old-fashioned liberal who holds on to the ideal that talking is always better than not talking, that someone has to take the first step and that standing on ceremony when lives are at stake is often misguided. If you’re old enough, you may remember the freeze movement.
But when Democrats used to say and do those things, from Vietnam to the Iran nuclear deal, they met the scorn of the Donald Trumps of the world, not to mention more-conventional Republicans.

Now that Trump is rebuffing our friends (Justin Trudeau, Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron et al.) and issuing invitations (as he did to Vladimir Putin) and offering photo ops (as he did to Kim Jong Un, of course) to our enemies, the tables, as they say, have been turned.

But not completely, sadly for Democrats. Because when Democrats used to say and do those things, they actually lost votes. Democrats spent much of the 1980s chasing white male voters who disagreed with the party on defense and security issues, believing the party’s leaders to be “too soft.” I didn’t put Mike Dukakis in the tank, but those who encouraged him to go to a tank factory did so in an effort to neutralize those very issues.

Now those voters are Trump’s. And his theatrics and rhetoric with North Korea, just days after Angela Merkel and the world tried to scold him at the G-7, only reinforced what has always seemed to be the essence of his appeal to them. He doesn’t care about playing nice with our allies. As if Canada is going to invade us or bomb us if we don’t? Like it’s an actual risk? North Korea is a risk. North Korea could destroy the world. And they might, if not handled properly. Trump handled them. Too bad for Angela and her crowd. What are they going to do: walk away from the U.S.? (Expletive) them.

He swaggers on the world stage. He is America First. He is the tough guy who is standing up to “them.” It’s populism, for sure.

I know all the things that the foreign-policy types would say are wrong with that argument: the risks in undervaluing the importance of key alliances in a dangerous world, the danger of underestimating Putin and the threat he poses, not to mention the consequences of adopting the rhetoric of North Korea in canceling military exercises, and holding out the North Korean leader as an equal — again, in exchange for nothing but a respite from the next round of threats.

But to engage in that argument is to ignore the visceral appeal of Trump, his larger-than-life persona in a world — wherever you look — full of small people.

It is his willingness to give the finger to convention (and who has not wished they could do that, and when was the last time a conventional politician did) that gives him that appeal. It makes you want to be on his side. It used to be that we wanted politicians to be on our side. Now it’s whether we want to be on theirs.

And the more he is attacked by the mainstream, as it were, of media or politics, and the more he ignores them and gives them that finger, the more appealing he is, and to more people.