Just six months into his presidency, Donald Trump has managed to get himself into a war of insults and threats with Kim Jong-un. Most likely this situation will de-escalate without shots being fired and bombs being dropped, but there is some grounds for real concern. Unlike past presidents of both parties, Donald Trump cannot be viewed as a stable adult who will ultimately make rational decisions.
Trump has such a long history of irrational and absurd claims that it is difficult to know where to begin the account. He made his entry on the national political stage by questioning whether President Obama was born in the United States. This matters because the constitution requires that the president be a native-born citizen, so Trump was effectively questioning the first black president's legitimacy.
Trump publicly disputed Obama's citizenship for almost five years, finally abandoning the claim last year as his own presidential campaign was moving into its final phase. It is important to realize that Trump literally had zero evidence for questioning whether Obama was born in the United States. There was nothing suspicious about the circumstances of President Obama's birth or any reason to question his own account of his background. This was straight out racism.
More recently, Trump is upset by the fact that he lost the popular vote in last fall's election. The presidency is determined by winning the Electoral College, which depends on winning states. It doesn't matter whether a state is carried by a huge margin or single vote. Since Hillary Clinton in effect wasted large numbers of votes in winning large states with large margins, she managed to lose in the Electoral College even though she beat Trump by more than two million votes.
Since it apparently hurts his ego not to have come in first, Trump asserted that millions of people illegally voted for Clinton making up her margin of victory. Here also he had zero evidence for this claim. There has been considerable research on the topic of vote fraud, all of it showing that it is quite rare. Needless to say, it would be very difficult to arrange to have several million people vote illegally and keep it secret.
When newspapers or news shows report things that are critical of President Trump he routinely denounces them as "fake news." Just to be clear, he doesn't point to specific items in news stories that he disputes, he just offers blanket denunciations. He has even denounced the news accounts of coordination between his campaign and the Russian government as fake news, in spite of the fact that there is a now public email exchange with his son which refers explicitly to the Russian government's efforts to help Mr. Trump.
Trump is also astoundingly ignorant of the most important issues facing the country. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) reform of the health care system put in place by President Obama has been a central issue in U.S. politics since it was passed in 2010. After he took office in a campaign where he furiously denounced the ACA at every opportunity, Trump publicly said that "no one knew health care could be this difficult."
Incredibly, he revealed in a press interview that he literally has no idea how health insurance works, confusing it with life insurance. In the United States the two types of insurance have almost nothing in common and most insurers would specialize in one or the other.
One of Trump's top campaign promises was to build a huge wall along the U.S. border with Mexico to keep out immigrants. Apparently he did not realize that much of the border is the Rio Grande River, which the two countries share. Since building the wall on the U.S. side would effectively cede the river to Mexico, Trump decided after the election that the wall would be put up on the Mexican side. Needless to say, Mexico's government is not agreeing to that plan.
The list of absurdities surrounding Trump is literally endless. He has his staff prepare him two briefing books a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, of positive news stories about him. He is convinced he is widely adored and all his speeches are resounding successes even when they are in fact profound embarrassments.
Trump is a spoiled rich kid who has never known war or suffering. He managed to avoid the Vietnam draft with a medical deferment even though he appeared to be in fine health at the time. Prior to the presidency his main claim to fame was as the host of a reality TV show. He seems to think this is still his job, constantly promising big surprises and telling the public to wait and see rather than giving clear answers to questions.
The one positive part of this story is that the administration's top defense and foreign policy people, most importantly defense secretary James Mattis, are sane and sober people. They will likely act to try to put a brake on any needless push to war. But they do serve at the discretion of the president and ultimately the decision to take military action rests with the president.
In short, in this escalating way of words between the United States and North Korea, the people of Korea, the United States, and the world will have to count on Kim Jong-un to show restraint.
This article originally appeared in The Hankyoreh (Korea).