When I first heard Donald Trump threaten North Korea with “fire and fury,” I immediately despaired—because I’m sick and tired of hackneyed Game of Thrones references. Amongst American pundits, mentioning the hit show has become a desperate way of showing off one’s knowledge of popular culture. To that end, Steve Bannon isn’t Rasputin or Jean-Paul Marat; he’s Qyburn, of course, and Sean Spicer is Hodor. Now this lazy form of posturing has infiltrated even the highest levels of the United States government. What have we come to?
Despite its fantasy undertones, however, Trump’s “fire and fury” remark didn’t originate on HBO; it was improvised by the president during an event addressing the American opioid crisis (of all things) after he learned North Korea had alleged it could miniaturise a nuclear warhead and place it inside a ballistic missile. That left only my secondary concern about Trump’s remarks: they sounded like a threat to start a nuclear war. In the past, America’s nuclear deterrent has operated on the Teddy Roosevelt principle: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Everyone knows we have the ability to wreak massive devastation, so we don’t really need to go around advertising it.
Trump’s comment was a vertiginous departure from that precedent. Even Ronald Reagan’s famous nail-biter in 1984—“My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes”—was intended as an off-the-air joke to a crew of radio technicians. Trump was deadly serious and has followed it up since, warning that North Korea could be in trouble “like few nations have ever been” and suggesting that maybe “fire and fury” “wasn’t tough enough.” I’m not sure what’s more punitive than a nuclear strike. Killer bees? The Wildfire used by Tyrion Lannister to destroy Stannis Baratheon’s—oh dear.
You have to find levity during such maddening times. Even the people of vulnerable Guam are reportedly going about their business, unfazed by the threats that have been hurled their way over the past week, setting an example for the rest of us. The western Pacific island, which the United States captured from Spain during the Spanish-American War, is home to a powerful American military presence, including Joint Region Marianas, a base operated by the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force. It’s defended by a THAAD missile defense system, but Kim Jong-un’s promise to fire four missiles within 30 kilometers of Guam is still unnerving, especially since the Kim regime indicated the strike could happen within days.
Amidst all this, the verbal grenades have continued to fly, with North Korea vowing to “mercilessly wipe out the provocateurs” and Trump on Friday taking to Twitter—that venerable diplomatic channel—to warn that America is “locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely.” There is nothing in the annals of presidential history that compares to this; no instance of a commander-in-chief so wilfully engaging in verbal nuclear brinksmanship. John F. Kennedy prevailed during the Cuban Missile Crisis precisely because he ignored the counsel of his heedless advisors who were—at times uniformly—advocating an invasion of Cuba. Trump, in fairness, hasn’t floated deploying troops to North Korea, demanding instead changes from within: Pyongyang needs to “get its act together,” he says. That translates to: stop making threats, stop trashing the U.S.
Trump, in contrast to Reagan’s cheery dismissals of negative coverage and George W. Bush’s self-imposed cone of silence from the media, takes rhetoric very seriously, and rarely misses an opportunity to counterpunch when he’s verbally attacked. That means journalists, of course, who have frequently elicited the president’s wrath, but also world leaders like Malcolm Turnbull and now Kim. Trump at times seems to be treating North Korea’s leader like another rival real estate developer up in New York, to be softened up mercilessly with attacks in the press and then approached for a deal once he shapes up. The problem is that those mouthy Manhattanites couldn’t fire thermonuclear warheads at each other, and if they could have, much of the northeastern United States would be presently uninhabitable.
Still, maybe a modicum of comfort can be found in Trump’s lifelong determination to make partners (or at least subordinates) out of enemies. He isn’t some ideologically inflamed neoconservative determined to evangelise Pyongyang with the gospel of democracy—thank goodness for that. And as the commentator Buck Sexton observed on Twitter the other day, North Korea is a bully and bullies sometimes need to be reminded that you’re willing to throw a punch. Contrary to the “Team America” portrayal, the Kim regime is quite sensible in its own perverse way; as former defense secretary William Perry was assured when he visited North Korean in 1999, they maintain a nuclear program for deterrence. They’re not trying to realise some apocalyptic death wish.
Hopefully those underlying rationalities will prevail—hopefully. Because if you had to pick two men with which to entrust the security of the world, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un would not be among your first choices.