Read: Trump’s NAFTA strategy: bluff, rebrand, declare victory
Act V? Back to the Beginning
What remains unclear, in all three cases, is whether the show stops at Act IV. Can Trump sustain the fiction that he’s won a glorious victory, or does reality intrude, thus starting the cycle all over again?
Last November, The New York Times published a remarkable front-page story entitled, “In North Korea, Missile Bases Suggest a Great Deception.” At first glance, the headline implied that North Korea was deceiving the United States government about its ongoing nuclear efforts. But the text of the article suggested that the actual deception was quite different. The authors reported that “North Korea is moving ahead with its ballistic missile program at 16 hidden bases that have been identified in new commercial satellite images, a network long known to American intelligence agencies but left undiscussed as President Trump claims to have neutralized the North’s nuclear threat.” In other words, North Korea wasn’t deceiving American intelligence.
One interpretation of the Times article is that Trump was deliberately deceiving the American people so as not to puncture the illusion that he had successfully “neutralized the North’s nuclear threat.” But it’s also possible that the intelligence agencies deceived Trump, withholding evidence for fear that, were Trump forced to acknowledge that his apparent triumph had been a sham, he would take America back to the brink of war.
The question is whether, when Trump declares victory, he’s merely pretending to have won, or actually believes it. As bad as it would be for a president to deliberately and repeatedly lie to the public, it might be worse for a president to deliberately and repeatedly lie to himself. If Trump wakes up one morning and realizes that, despite the USMCA, American manufacturers are still relocating to Mexico, he might tear up the agreement and provoke a new trade war. The more Trump is forced to admit that his border wall isn’t actually being built, the more likely he is to declare a national emergency, thus creating a legal and even constitutional crisis.
Preventing the cycle from starting all over again might require allowing Trump to maintain his delusions of grandeur. It’s like dealing with small children: It’s safer to let them think they’ve won than endure the temper tantrum that will ensue if they realize they’ve lost. As dangerous as Trump is when he lies, he might be even more dangerous when forced to temporarily admit the truth.