There is nothing more to be said about the depth of Donald Trump’s ignorance or his more consequential lack of character—his selfishness, his cruelty, his caprice, his vanity, his vindictiveness, his malignant narcissism. We know all that. What is more interesting is what it will yield.
Last Friday, he kicked off his weekend by firing off a set of abusive tweets at Carmen Yulin Cruz, the beleaguered mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico. The explanation was not hard to glean: the U.S. territory is a disaster zone in the wake of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria; he had not paid much attention to the sufferings of several million Americans for reasons easily guessed, and took a bludgeoning in the media for his negligence. And so after Cruz insisted that the plight of her city wasn’t “a good news story,” Trump decided to heap abuse on the strained leader of a suffering city. A decent president who thought Mayor Cruz’s reproaches unjustified would have gently ignored them, and perhaps pointed out what the federal government has done and can do for Puerto Rico. But then again, a decent man would not have repeatedly sneered at and damned an 81-year-old war hero with a lethal cancer.
The consequences of Trump’s preference for picking fights with some black football players rather than seeing what could be done about Spanish-speaking victims of a hurricane will be felt in predictable ways. One may expect angry voters of Hispanic extraction to exact a price at the ballot box. But his weekend tweets about his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, will have consequences that may be longer term and considerably darker.
In a series of tweets on Sunday, Trump sneered at Tillerson’s diplomatic efforts to engage with North Korea, which other members of the foreign policy apparatus (to include the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs) have dutifully and appropriately supported. “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man...Save your energy, Rex, we’ll do what has to be done! Being nice to Rocket Man hasn't worked in 25 years, why would it work now? Clinton failed, Bush failed, and Obama failed. I won't fail.”
There are two things at work here. Trump has emasculated his secretary of state, who clearly does not speak for the administration. Some of Tillerson’s predecessors have fallen out of favor with their presidents, but none has been so undercut in such a public, dismissive way. And if Trump is serious, this means war, and a war to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons could lead not only to the devastation of much of the Korean peninsula, but the first use of such weapons—by the United States as likely as by the North Koreans—since 1945.
There is no middle path between some combination of deterrence, containment, sanctions, covert action, and threats of preemption directed at North Korea, on the one hand, and a preventive war on the other. The forces impelling Pyongyang to acquire nuclear weapons are strong, and go well beyond the vanity of the grandson of the country’s founder. For a dictatorship whose slogan of self-reliance is national dogma, nuclear weapons are the ultimate source of autonomy in a world of wealthier and presumably hostile states. Nor will China squeeze Kim Jong Un hard enough to make him yield. It does not want chaos on its southern border. It does not want a unified Korea aligned with the United States. And above all, it does not intend to act, or be seen to act, as America’s sheriff.
Trump has chosen to say, and compel those who speak for him to say, that North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons and threats leveled against the United States are themselves a casus belli. Yet Pyongyang has nuclear weapons and has threatened the United States. He has now repeatedly insisted that he will resolve the problem that has bedeviled three of his predecessors, and has made it clear that diplomacy is not the way. That leaves either North Korea’s surrender, which will not happen, or war, or another broken promise.
The incalculable costs of war could include the loss of hundreds of thousands of Korean lives, and the loss of many thousands of U.S. soldiers and civilians, including military dependents in Korea. It could well bring about a Chinese intervention and direct confrontation with Beijing. It would shatter what remaining confidence America’s allies have in Washington’s good judgment.
A climb down, however, will be far worse than Obama’s abortive red line in Syria, as bad as that was. Trump will have shown, once and forever, that he is a blowhard tapping out empty threats on Twitter. On his watch the United States can and will be defied with impunity. And again, what remains of American credibility pretty much anywhere will vanish.
Against such large stakes, the humiliation of one more senior staff or cabinet member may not seem like a big deal. But it is. Tillerson has to quit. His boss has publicly and mockingly stripped him of his credibility as the chief diplomat of the United States. As an envoy, he is useless, because he will speak only for himself and the tiny embattled coterie of aides that surround him. Having taken a pickaxe to the department entrusted to his care, his departure would do the battered State Department some good, as well as enabling him to salvage what remains of his dignity.
But Tillerson may very well stay on, as others have until Trump has decided that it’s more fun to kick them out than simply to kick them. If he does remain, it will be yet another sign of the collapse of self respect among those who are now willing to serve in senior positions in government. Dean Acheson or George Shultz would never have tolerated such treatment; neither would Condoleezza Rice or Madeleine Albright. And not one of them would have let desperation to cling to office delude them into thinking that patriotism motivated and justified their tolerance of the president’s swinging boot.
What will be left are men and women with pliable spines (if they had them to begin with) or those, such as Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, who are natural sycophants, willing to parrot whatever absurdity the reality television star for whom they work ordains. No one will be immune from the test of character that would lead someone with self respect to tell the president, “This is intolerable. I quit.” It is a puny test at that. None of those facing it risk financial loss, physical peril, or jeopardy to their spouse or children by acting with a backbone. But it is a safe bet that most of them will fail it, ignominiously.
An administration is not just a president, but a vast team, led by a score or so of senior officers of the government. What the Tillerson test may reveal is what a pathetic group most of them are. And the surrender or war over Korea that may follow will be but one part, however distressing or bloody, of the price this country will pay for a government administered by moral weaklings and lickspittles.