A much-touted two-day summit between Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un failed to reach the finish line Thursday, as talks collapsed and Trump returned to Washington, DC. It’s unclear exactly what unraveled the process; Trump says Kim asked for the lifting of all economic sanctions in exchange for closing the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Complex, while North Korea reportedly says it asked for relief on some, but not all. But throwing around blame for Hanoi misses the point: The summit was a mistake to begin with.
That’s not to say the US and North Korea shouldn’t pursue negotiations over the Hermit Kingdom’s nuclear disposition. They absolutely should, and will continue to, per Trump’s departing remarks. “Chairman Kim and myself, we want to do the right deal,” Trump said. “Speed is not important.” But within that otherwise upbeat assessment lies the main impediment to real progress in the Korean Peninsula: Trump and Kim should not be the ones doing the deal, at least not the bulk of it. Hanoi is what happens when they try.
“You don’t start with the summit. You finish with the summit.”
Former ambassador Robert Gallucci
Trump has built his brand as a master negotiator, despite unevenresults in the political realm. And in fairness, his gambit to meet with Kim in Singapore last summer resulted at the very least in what international relations wonks call confidence-building measures. Importantly, North Korea hasn’t tested a ballistic missile or nuclear weapon in over a year. And its relationship with South Korea, while still tense, has somewhat thawed.
“These are positive steps, and they show that the North Koreans are at least willing to have negotiations and engage in diplomacy with South Korea and the United States,” says James McKeon, a policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, a DC-based nonprofit.
But in the months since Singapore, North Korea has offered little to no evidence of curtailing its weapons programs. And why would they? Despite Trump’s declaration last June that “there is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea,” the Singapore accord affirmed only that “the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization.” They’ll get to it, eventually, at some point, or at the very least give it some serious thought.
Chalk the vague language, and the resulting lack of verifiable progress, up to Trump’s untraditional diplomacy. “When we first were looking at this going into the Singapore summit, we were saying that it was ass-backwards. This is not the way you’re supposed to do it,” said former ambassador Robert Gallucci in a call with reporters. “You don’t start with the summit. You finish with the summit, and you make sure all the prep work is done, and then the two big guys presumably come together and sign something.”
Gallucci would know; as chief US negotiator, he helped secure the 1994 Agreed Framework, which tamped down North Korea’s nuclear ambitions for nearly a decade. And while he acknowledges that tensions between Kim and Trump may have escalated to such a dangerous point last summer—thanks in no small part to Trump’s own rhetoric—that a shotgun summit in Singapore was needed, he and others argue that it’s not a viable process for substantive change.
“President Trump’s unorthodox approach to diplomacy has created an opening, starting back in Singapore and continuing to Hanoi,” says Lynn Rusten, who served as senior director for arms control and nonproliferation in the Obama administration and currently works on nuclear issues at the nonprofit Nuclear Threat Initiative. “But the only way that they can capitalize on that and bring it to fruition is to revert now to the more traditional negotiating process.”
Hanoi was anything but. Trump appointed the widely respected Stephen Biegun as special envoy to North Korea six months ago, but Biegun has only been able to conduct a single round of working-level talks with his North Korean counterparts. And even that came only in the last three weeks, after Trump announced when the summit would take place during his State of the Union address.
Nuclear diplomacy is not American Ninja Warrior. You don’t get bonus points for navigating obstacles faster. “It’s completely unrealistic to think that you can just go in with very little preparation and reach an agreement on something that is so complex,” says Rusten, especially given how enmeshed the nuclear issues are with a broader set of regional economic and security concerns. “There’s got to be an incremental, step by step approach.”
“It’s somewhat surprising that they would play such high-stakes poker at such a high-profile event.”
Jenny Town, 38 North
That should be especially evident given North Korea’s long history of failing to keep its nuclear promises. As much as Trump has touted denuclearization as the endgame, arms control experts widely agree that there’s likely no way to get there overnight, or in a single sit-down. What it will take is weeks or months or more of people on the ground hammering out fine details, not a single two-hour meeting between two heads of state. Especially when at least one of them likely has other things on his mind.
And while Thursday’s failure could have been worse—Trump could have, say, promised to withdraw all US troops from South Korea, or Kim could have threatened to resume missile testing—it extracts a real cost. By trying for a grand bargain, Trump and Kim missed the opportunity to establish clear, specific goals that their teams could work then work towards.
“It’s somewhat surprising that they would play such high-stakes poker at such a high-profile event,” says Jenny Town, analyst at North Korea watchdog 38 North. “It’s really hard to see how we might maintain momentum going forward.”
Maintaining the status quo is preferable to more nuclear tests, but it’s not a viable long-term solution. “While it’s good that tensions are down, North Korea is continuing to churn out fissile material and produce weapons,” says Rusten. “The facts on the ground continue to change in a negative direction.”
It’s admirable that Trump has made neutralizing the threat from North Korea a top priority. The relative calm of the last eight months shouldn’t be dismissed. But if the White House wants to make actual progress, it needs to put in the work before the next high-profile meeting. That’s one concession Trump, so far, seems unwilling to make.
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What Happened: Donald Trump Jr. maybe doesn’t know what Saturday Night Live is, or at least maybe doesn’t fully understand the name of the NBC show.
What Really Happened: There are burns that are so good those around are left dumbstruck such an insult has been delivered in such a manner. And then there are burns so bad that those around are left dumbstruck at how much the perceived insult has backfired and embarrassed the jokester responsible. Last week when Donald Trump Jr. tried to get in a dig at the Democrats, he definitely suffered the latter kind of sick burn.
Wait. A skit on what? Internet, time to do what you do best and correct and lampoon him.
As could only be expected, theresponsetoTrumpJunior’sgaffewentviral by itself. Still, at least some people were being pretty understanding about the whole thing, even if that didn’t mean they were being particularly kind.
Perhaps the most appropriate response came from a former SNL cast member.
The Takeaway: The most charitable version of events may be the one that suggests that this was a learning experience most of all. Admittedly, learning something that everyone else knew in the first place, but that’s something, right?
Trump National Golf Course Hired Undocumented Workers
What Happened: Despite his comments about undocumented workers taking American jobs, President Trump’s golf club in New York state employed undocumented workers. Until the government shutdown.
What Really Happened: Last weekend, The Washington Post published a bombshell report examining the employment of undocumented immigrants at the Trump National Golf Course in Westchester County, NY. It also revealed that the club had recently fired those workers during the government shutdown.
Within a couple of days of this coverage, it was announced that the Trump Organization would install new guidelines to ensure that it wouldn’t get caught doing this kind of thing again. Well, we say “new” guidelines; really, I mean newtoTrumpproperties.
Except that, too, revealed the gulf between Trump’s rhetoric and reality, given statements that had been made about already using E-Verify in 2016.
Well, that seems embarrassing.
The Takeaway: For those in the White House who hoped that the whole sorry moment would be one easily left in the past with the adoption of the E-Verify system, disappointment was lying in wait thanks to the annual sport of Stunt Casting for the State of the Union Address. It’s almost as if you can’t just sweep people under the rug forever or something.
Object Permanence Isn’t Just a River in Egypt
What Happened: With record-breaking low temperatures overtaking much of the country, it was undoubtedly the perfect time for the leader of the free world to suggest that climate change isn’t real. Who doesn’t like some well-timed denial, right?
What Really Happened: As much of the country prepared for weather that only could be described as a cold snap if we were talking about the kind of snap that Thanos used, President Trump took to Twitter to try and put the country at ease while pushing one of his favorite talking points—namely, that climate change isn’t actually a thing.
Along with the stunned disbelief, responses also included attempts to explain that “global warming” didn’t just mean things are getting warmer, with even a federal agency having to clean up their boss’s mess. As it turned out, there was actually another reason to feel embarrassed about the tweet that many hadn’t even noticed in their initial reading of it:
Please don’t let the typo distract you, however.
The Takeaway: Remember a time when the President of the United States was expected to raise the level of national discourse?
The Polar Vortex Descends
What Happened: Meanwhile, for those who live in the real world where climate change is real, it was a week in which the effects of global warming were felt in a very dramatic way.
What Really Happened: Let us, for a brief second, ignore the presidential tweets and instead focus on the chilly reality of what people have been going through this week with regards to the weather. Because, for many, it was brutal.
As of this writing, the cold weather is expected to end soon with a dramatic 70 degree upswing. Don’t get too excited, though; that’ll just bring things to the low 20s.
The Takeaway: Last week was, for better or worse, the kind of experience that made you wonder just how cold things could really get and what that means in the grand scheme of things. Although, really, what that might mean is open to question.
Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better
What Happened: President Trump wasn’t just pontificating on scientific matters last week. He also underscored his ongoing feud with the intelligence community by declaring he knew more than them when it comes to social media.
What Really Happened: Wednesday morning started with another of those moments concerning the president that was, somehow, simultaneously surprising and entirely in line with expectations, thanks to the following tweets.
That the president was behaving in such an outspoken and irresponsible manner wasn’t something that went uncommented upon by many, understandably.
Later in the week, the president tried to repair his relationship with intel chiefs, by suggesting that, really, they agreed with him entirely.
It was not the most compelling argument, shall we say.
The Takeaway: Maybe we’re being uncharitable in considering this a particularly clumsy attempt at gas-lighting. Could there be another, less disturbing and far more nostalgic explanation for what the president is apparently trying to do?
The allegation, which Buzzfeed sourced to two federal law enforcement officials, simultaneously adds new information to both the “collusion” and “obstruction” sides of the Russia probe. The idea that the President of the United States directed his personal attorney to lie to Congress about his attempt to complete a multi-hundred-million-dollar deal with Vladimir Putin in the midst of the presidential campaign is, in short, as big as it gets.
As US senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island), a former prosecutor, laid out, the accusation at the core of the BuzzFeed report constitutes at least four potential felonies: “criminal obstruction of justice (18 U.S.C. 1505, 1512), subornation of perjury (18 U.S.C. 1622), conspiracy (18 U.S.C. 371) and likely aiding and abetting perjury (18 U.S.C. 2).” Those phrases also meant something specific to students of recent political history: Suborning perjury was part of the articles of impeachment that targeted both Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.
While we’ll be unpacking the implications of the apparent revelation for days to come, there are six aspects of the new report which, if true, make clear the scale of the political peril facing the president as of Friday morning:
1. Mueller has the receipts.According to Buzzfeed, special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators have more than Cohen’s word to support the claim. In fact, the lead instead originated with documents and witnesses inside the Trump Organization, a great sign of how much visibility Mueller has into the private business world of Donald Trump pre-presidency.
Remember that Trump Organization chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg received immunity from prosecutors and is cooperating. To have both your company’s accountant and your personal fixer—Cohen—turn on you usually is criminally fatal. This report from BuzzFeed, as rich in detail as it is, probably represents just the tip of the iceberg of Mueller’s knowledge. Every single indictment and court filing from Mueller has been more detailed, more knowledgeable, and better informed than we imagined. And this is just one of at least 17 investigations targeting the president’s circle right now, run by at least seven different sets of prosecutors. The potential criminal liability remains enormous.
2. The politics just changed in a big way. Any investigation that targets the president of the United States is more a political question than a criminal question. The ultimate judge and jury would almost certainly be Congress or the voters, either in an impeachment trial or a reelection bid.
The president’s family is potentially in lots of legal trouble.
These allegations are about lying to Congress, which makes it harder for Congress to brush them away—and given the new Democratic majority in the House, they’re certainly not inclined to. Democrats in Congress were quick out of the gate hinting at the “I” word (which coincidentally also appears on the cover of the latest issue of The Atlantic, out yesterday). The chair of the House Judiciary Committee, where impeachment articles would begin, moved further than he has before in discussing the seriousness of the accusation.
The allegation that the president is instructing people to lie to Congress cuts to the heart of its legitimacy as a co-equal branch of government. While they’ve so far seemingly ignored the fact that the president, aka Individual 1, is already an unindicted co-conspirator in Cohen’s campaign finance case, lying to Congress is the kind of violation that gets even staid institutionalists squawking.
3. The obstruction case could be much bigger than Comey.The BuzzFeed report also helps provide context to our evolving understanding of a potential obstruction-of-justice case focused on the president. Whereas we’ve tended to shorthand that area of the probe as focusing on the firing of FBI director Jim Comey, it’s quite possible that Mueller won’t in the end focus on any single incident, but will instead paint a broader picture of Trump’s apparent years-long effort to hide the truth of his dealings with Russia, during the campaign, the transition, and even into the White House.
We’ve known for some time that Mueller was interested in the cover-up of the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting, as well. As I mentioned in December, he has already pointed us to what worries him: “A specific line from the special counsel’s filing in Cohen’s case also jumps out: ‘By publicly presenting this false narrative, the defendant deliberately shifted the timeline of what had occurred in hopes of limiting the investigations into possible Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election.’ It’s not hard to imagine that same line cut and pasted into a future obstruction case regarding Donald Trump’s personal handling of a false narrative put out by the White House after reports first surfaced of the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower.”
If Cohen was conspiring with the president, after the fact, to cover up the Trump Tower Moscow project, that would alter the whole timeline of an obstruction case. It would no longer hinge on Trump’s thinking on the precise date in May 2017 when he fired Comey, but instead could point to a pattern of actions and behaviors over nearly three years—up to present day, potentially—that would be hard to explain away as constitutionally valid.
4. The president’s family is potentially in lots of legal trouble. The BuzzFeed report also says that Cohen kept the Trump children up to date on his plans, which was hinted at in the earlier court filings around Cohen’s guilty plea concerning his lies to Congress. We’ve long known that unnamed “executives” of the Trump Organization were involved in both the campaign finance conspiracy surrounding the hush money payments to Stormy Daniels, as well as the Moscow Trump Tower project. The most likely suspects have always been Trump’s children—the idea, after all, that the vaunted “Trump Organization” is anything more in day-to-day reality than a small family business has long been a fiction. It’s Donald Trump and his children. The BuzzFeed reporting now attaches names—Ivanka and Donald Jr.—to that suspicion and shows that the president’s family and his innermost circle are almost certainly going to be wrapped up in the investigation in the days, weeks, or months ahead. That’s doubly true given that the House Intelligence Committee plans to hand over additional evidence to Mueller of other witnesses it suspects lied to Congress—a list that seems likely to include Donald Trump Jr.
The president has brushed away other targets of Mueller’s probe as coffee boys, short-timers, or people he hardly knew. It’s tougher to do that if it’s your son or daughter, but not impossible given the president’s only casual affiliation to the truth.
5. Trump’s incoming attorney general already said it’s a crime. This week, US attorney general nominee Bill Barr appears to have already boxed himself in. While much of the questioning of Barr focused on how, when, and what he might make public from a still-theoretical “Mueller Report,” US senator Amy Klobuchar zeroed in on what Barr would consider troublesome behavior by the occupant of the White House: “The president persuading a person to commit perjury would be obstruction, is that right?” Barr’s answer was simple: “Yes.” Which is to say, two days before tentative evidence emerged that Trump allegedly did just that, his presumptively incoming attorney general said that behavior would surely represent a crime.
And remember, we again likely only know a fraction of the evidence Mueller could present about the president’s behavior at this point.
6. Trump’s defense team is rattled. Lastly, the president’s TV lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, tried unsuccessfully to move the goalposts of the investigation this week. After months of endlessly repeating the phrase “no collusion,” Giuliani tried to tell CNN’s Chris Cuomo that he had only meant there was no personal collusion by the president himself—he can’t speak for the rest of the campaign: “I never said there was no collusion between the campaign, or people in the campaign. I said the president of the United States. There is not a single bit of evidence the president of the United States committed the only crime you can commit here, conspiring with the Russians to hack the DNC.”
Most of the umbrage at the absurdity of Giuliani’s statement focused on the first half, but the second half is almost more interesting from the standpoint of how the president’s potential defense is shaping up—evidently, that it would only be a crime if the president actively conspired in advance with Russian intelligence to attack and leak Democratic officials’ inboxes. Of course, that’s absurd. There are any manner of crimes Donald Trump could have committed either before or after the DNC hack—and while we haven’t seen public evidence of such crimes, it certainly seems like the president’s own defenders are worried evidence exists.
Putting it all together, unfortunately, we’re still left with this: The president should almost hope that Robert Mueller concludes he’s a Russian agent, because the alternative might be even worse. As I wrote earlier this week, a lifetime ago in this investigation given Thursday’s new bombshell, “We’ve reached a point in the Mueller probe where there are only two scenarios left: Either the president is compromised by the Russian government and has been working covertly to cooperate with Vladimir Putin after Russia helped win him the 2016 election—or Trump will go down in history as the world’s most famous ‘useful idiot,’ as communists used to call those who could be co-opted to the cause without realizing it.”
Thursday’s revelations—lending new weight to both the obstruction and collusion questions—clear that the answer might be, simply, “Both, all of the above.”
A few days before the 2016 election, journalist Andrew Sullivan wrote this about Donald Trump: “He has no concept of a nonzero-sum engagement, in which a deal can be beneficial for both sides. A win-win scenario is intolerable to him, because mastery of others is the only moment when he is psychically at peace.”
I’m not sure dominating other people is the only occasion when Trump feels at peace. Presumably there’s a moment during what is reportedly his standard McDonald’s meal—two Big Macs, two Filets-O-Fish, and a chocolate milkshake—when all seems right with the world.
Still, in Trump’s hierarchy of bliss, dominance does seem to rank at the top. “I love to crush the other side and take the benefits,” he wrote in a book called Think Big. “Why? Because there is nothing greater. For me it is even better than sex, and I love sex.” He went on to observe: “You hear lots of people say that a great deal is when both sides win. That is a bunch of crap. In a great deal you win—not the other side. You crush the opponent and come away with something better for yourself.”
Some of the articles attached to these headlines are about economics. They may lament Trump’s gleeful anticipation of “winning” the trade wars he starts—as if trade were a zero-sum game—and his seeming obliviousness to the fact that trade wars can have lose-lose outcomes. Other articles focus on world affairs more broadly. Nations come together to pursue win-win outcomes in the face of all kinds of problems, from financial meltdowns, climate change, and weapons proliferation to overfishing of the seas. And Trump’s attitude toward the institutions that embody such nonzero-sum engagement is notably lacking in warmth.
As journalist Jonathan Swan wrote on Axios this summer, “Trump has expressed skepticism, and in some cases outright hostility towards NATO, the European Union, the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, and the Group of Seven.” Swan added that Trump has “already withdrawn the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Iran deal” and “announced his intent to withdraw from the Paris climate accord.”
The zero-sum label applies not just to Trump’s policy preferences but to his political style. He’s expert at evoking reactions that seem to have been engineered by evolution for zero-sum situations, notably fear of, hatred of, and contempt for a perceived enemy. Bill Clinton presumably had Trump in mind when he said, five months into Trump’s presidency, “We’ve seen a resurgence in the oldest of all social reactions—the tendency to look at people first as the other, to think of life in zero-sum terms, it’s us versus them.”
I claim an increment of credit for Clinton’s conversance in game theory. During his presidency I published a book about human history and the future called Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, which he read and said some nice things about and assigned to White House staffers to read. Clinton even said the book had a big influence on his presidency.
As a result of all this, I once got some face time with Clinton. And when the subject turned to my book (which I made sure it did), he said what he had liked about it was that it was realistic—not naive—yet hopeful.
And it’s true that, after documenting humankind’s historical drift toward bigger and bigger cooperative networks—a process driven by technological change—I had sketched out a pretty sunny possible future. It was a future in which the world’s nations grasp that they’re enmeshed in lots of nonzero-sum games and act accordingly: working together to solve various problems, gradually building the foundation of good global governance. I even said this political progress could involve moral progress. People of different nationalities, religions, and ethnicities, aware of their interdependence, of the correlation of their fates, could muster the tolerance that facilitates peaceful coexistence and active collaboration. We needn’t let our tribal impulses prevail over nonzero-sum logic, I opined 19 years ago.
That was then. Now we’ve got a president who not only resists playing nonzero-sum games but actively fans emotions that impede the wise playing of them. And as if that weren’t enough, the fanning of those emotions can recalibrate the games, making lose-lose outcomes even worse than they would be otherwise. The more tribalized the world is—the more antagonistically divided along national, ethnic, religious, ideological lines—the more danger there is in, for example, letting arms control challenges go unaddressed: The more nations will be in the mood to lob missiles, the more terrorist groups there will be that might get ahold of a nuke or a bioweapon. Trump’s policy instincts make good governance hard, and his political style makes the consequences of bad governance grave.
Still, hope springs eternal, and so does my belief that hope can be reconciled with realism. There’s reason to think that, in a weird way, the Trump presidency, rather than drag us into a death spiral of tribalism and lethal technology, could be a roundabout path to a higher plane. But to see this cause for hope you have to see that the conventional view of Trump as the zero-sum president has its shortcomings.
In a weird way, rather than a disaster, the Trump presidency could be a roundabout path to a higher plane.
For starters, to view Trump as someone who ushered in an era of zero-sum politics and policy is, in a sense, to give him too much credit. Many of the tensions that fueled Trump’s rise—tensions between globalization’s losers and winners, between nationalism and cosmopolitanism, between unfettered national sovereignty and global governance—were building up long before he arrived, and were bound to keep building up, thanks to the relentless impetus of technological evolution. If Trump hadn’t won the lottery to represent one side of this dialectic, someone else would have. Once you step back and view this moment in the full sweep of history, Trump starts to look like so much froth on a very big wave, a wave that’s been growing for a long time and was bound to crest at some point.
The same could be said for Trump’s counterparts across the Atlantic—stridently nationalist European politicians in France, Hungary, Italy, and elsewhere whose zero-sum rhetoric has gained them a following. The very fact that the ideology they share with Trump transcends continents suggests that it grows out of something deep and broad—and that they personally are, in a sense, incidental to it.
There’s a second problem with the zero-sum president label. To see Trump, in his disregard for nonzero-sum logic, as a radical break with America’s past is to give too much credit to his predecessors. In exploiting the tensions of our time, Trump feeds on the failure of past American leaders to really confront those tensions and, more broadly, on their failure to successfully play the many nonzero-sum games that are part of the modern world. (A note on lingo: When social scientists talk about playing nonzero-sum games, they just mean pursuing certain kinds of strategic logic, not doing anything especially playful.)
Even the most rhetorically nonzero-sum of our past leaders—the ones who most emphasized global cooperation, like Barack Obama—haven’t shown full awareness of the magnitude of the change that is necessary, haven’t charted all the new political paths that need charting. The Trump moment is a product both of inexorable tectonic shifts and of officials who failed to reckon with them, and if we want to deal with this moment skillfully we need to understand both.
There’s one more thing we need to understand, and it’s pretty strange. Donald Trump—who used his most recent address at the United Nations to denounce global governance—may be, here and there, and unbeknownst to himself, laying the groundwork for future global governance. And it’s a kind of global governance that could help resolve some of the tensions that made him president. Two years from now, or six years from now, as we crawl through the wreckage of Trump’s tenure, we’ll find things worth building on. And maybe we’ll build something great—great in a way that Trump wouldn’t like.
So how long have the subterranean forces that brought us to this juncture been at work? Oh, 10,000, 15,000, maybe 20,000 years. At least that was the view presented in Nonzero. The book charted the evolution of human social organization from hunter-gatherer village to global village—or, rather, to the verge of a global village, to the threshold of a cohesive global community of the kind Trump so often seems determined to keep from crystallizing. Along the way humankind has passed through various fairly distinct stages of social structure: multivillage agricultural polities known as chiefdoms, ancient city-states, ancient regional states, empires, modern nation-states, alliances of nation-states, and so on.
This erratic but stubborn growth in the scope and depth of social complexity is driven by technology. In particular: New technologies keep arising that permit the playing of new nonzero-sum games involving more people over greater distances. For example, ancient innovations in engineering permitted the building of stable roads along which goods could travel. And the technology of writing permitted contracts and systems of accounting that further lubricated long-distance exchange—nonzero-sum games between people who, in the absence of roads and writing, couldn’t play those games.
Throughout history, polities that have efficiently harnessed the latest in nonzero-sum technology have tended to survive and flourish, while rival polities fell by the wayside. But harnessing these technologies means not just putting them to use; it means providing a stable platform on which the nonzero-sum games they facilitate can be played. It means good governance. The Roman government both built roads and developed a legal system that applied empire-wide, smoothing the flow of long-distance commerce.
This sounds pretty straightforward, but the reality is messier. Keeping these platforms stable is hard, because conduits that carry good things can be exploited by bad things. Fourteenth-century European roads conveyed not just food and merchandise but the bubonic plague. Networks created to realize mutual gain in one nonzero-sum realm—typically trade—can thus give rise to a new nonzero-sum game: If people across the network don’t collectively meet some new threat, the outcome can be lose-lose.
In the case of the plague, that’s what happened. At least a third of Europe’s population was wiped out. But people have often responded to platform-threatening afflictions with creative governance. About a century before the Black Death, pirates were infesting a network of shipping lanes in the Baltic Sea. The Hanseatic League—an organization of German towns that long predated the German nation and cooperated on such win-win endeavors as building lighthouses—went into pirate-quelling mode.
Today, of course, we have a platform—a communications and transportation network that can host both good things and bad—that is global in scope. And, as if to toughen the inherent challenge of taking some dimensions of governance to the global level, technological change keeps giving us more bad things to worry about.
When the specter of terrorists using bioweapons first emerged, people worried about pathogens like anthrax or smallpox—not the threat of designer viruses being engineered via the new, scarily powerful Crispr gene-editing technique. They didn’t worry about electronic pathogens either—computer viruses that can wreak international havoc as a weapon of terrorists or criminals or governments. And when people first started imagining nations doing battle in outer space, outer space wasn’t full of satellites whose destruction could cripple global communications or snuff out a nation’s real-time surveillance of its enemies, thus giving a nuclear power a potentially itchy defensive trigger finger.
Threats like these, which could bring pain to various regions and destabilize the whole planet, give nations an incentive to cooperate in fending them off. But there’s also a disincentive: Cooperative solutions often carry shared costs or constraints. Nations need to refrain from making certain weapons if they want other nations to refrain, open their biological labs to inspection if they want other nations to open theirs, and so on.
Encouragingly, nations have at times judged the benefits as warranting the costs. They’ve managed, for example, to negotiate meaningful arms control—not just nuclear arms treaties but, impressively, the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention. And via the 1989 Montreal Protocol, people around the world gave up aerosol deodorant and hair spray, slowing the depletion of the ozone layer.
One of the more significant extensions of global governance has come in the economic realm, where intricate webs of interdependence can allow bad things—like rising prices caused by trade wars—to spread far and fast. The World Trade Organization features not only trade rules but also a mechanism for enforcing them: an adjudicatory body whose rulings member nations agree to accept.
The logic here—of building the rule of law on an international scale—parallels the logic of building it on a national or local scale. Though it can be frustrating when a WTO ruling goes against you, respecting these rulings struck the WTO’s founding members as being, on balance, to their mutual benefit—much as it benefits individual Americans, on balance, to let courts resolve disputes among them, even if it’s occasionally frustrating not to be able to tell your neighbors that if they don’t turn down their music you’ll burn down their house.
But the further evolution of global governance faces a big obstacle. And it isn’t just Donald Trump.
Sure, Trump is an obstacle. He’s announced America’s withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, imperiled the functioning of the WTO by blocking the appointment of new judges at the organization, unveiled plans for a “Space Force” without even nodding to the wisdom of strengthening arms control in space, and the list goes on.
But Trump’s politics are manifestations of deeper forces. And at this deeper level, the evolution of global governance faces two big problems that must be addressed if Trumpism is going to be safely deposited in the dustbin of history. One problem originates in grassroots opinion, and the other is brought to us by elites.
Our choice is between a world with international acronyms and restraints on national behavior and a world of all-engulfing chaos.
The grassroots problem is that global governance will naturally strike some people as threatening to their national identity. If you trace the lineage of some of the more extreme elements in Trump’s coalition, you’ll find decades-old warnings about the coming of the “New World Order,” whose harbinger is supposedly black helicopters dispatched by the United Nations that will land in your backyard any moment now. The Americans who are whipped up into a frenzy about this—the people who heed Alex Jones’ warnings about the globalist menace—are today only a tiny if energetic part of Trump’s base. Which is as it should be, since global governance needn’t entail the kind of centralized, all-powerful “world government” these people fear.
But a much larger number of Trump supporters, though less frenzied, can still be convinced that various international acronyms unacceptably constrain America—that, back in the good old days, we didn’t take orders from foreigners. A similar sentiment was among the ingredients that fueled Brexit. England’s greatness and glory, the story went, was being smothered by rules from the European Union.
Such nostalgia is, in one sense, misguided. Our choice, given the drift of technology, is between a world with international acronyms and attendant restraints on national behavior and a world of peril and instability, if not all-engulfing chaos.
Nevertheless, this nostalgia does seem more defensible when you view it in light of the second problem facing the evolution of global governance, the one brought to us by elites: Like governance in general, global governance is sometimes done badly. And that fact helps explain not only Brexit (some of those EU rules are excessive) but why Trump is president. His predecessors, and other national leaders around the world, haven’t done a good enough job of building a body of international governance and international law.
A good way to see this failure is to look at the specific fears and resentments that got Trump elected, because they reflect it very clearly.
Trump’s core issues during the election were immigration and trade. Or, to put them into the human form that gave them valence: menacing Muslims who will blow up your town, menacing Latinos who will steal your job and may rape your daughter, and workers abroad who will take any jobs the immigrants fail to take. Behind these villains were other villains: American elites who don’t care about their fellow Americans in so-called flyover country. They want to maximize profits and see their stock portfolios grow, and if that means shipping jobs abroad or giving them to illegal immigrants, so be it.
Some of these elites are captains of industry. They go to Davos and hang out with their fellow capitalists and do their (win-win!) deals with one another. Although these capitalists may lean to the right, if you view them from a distance they start to merge with liberal elites—the ones who harp on climate change and embrace the identity politics that drives some Trump supporters crazy.
One ironic thing: All of these elites, left and right, are pro-immigration; they all either advocate or accept affirmative action; and they all seem more at home with their fellow elites in Europe than with heartland Americans. All of them seem willing to elevate their own priorities above the welfare of the American worker. Elites broadly, conservative and liberal, are responsible for a system of global commerce built with little regard for the common folk.
That’s the view from Trumpland, anyway, and here’s an underappreciated fact about it: Much of it is true. The American elites who, along with their foreign peers, run the world and shape the culture don’t wake up every morning asking what they’ve done for the working class lately. One consequence is that some bodies of global governance, as they’ve evolved so far, are at best a mixed blessing for many Americans.
Consider the World Trade Organization. Yes, it performs the welcome service of preempting trade wars. But it does nothing about another source of disruption: the breakneck change brought by globalization—in particular, the relocation of jobs from affluent countries like the US to lower-wage countries.
The upside of this relocation, to be sure, is big. Hundreds of millions of people in Asia and elsewhere have risen out of poverty. From a global perspective, these benefits outweigh the costs, the lost jobs and dampened wages in affluent nations. Still, this is a reminder that a nonzero-sum game—international trade, in this case—can have a net positive outcome but still have losers.
There’s no reason to assume the losers deserve their fate, or that their losses won’t bring more problems. These particular losses have deepened the income inequality that has helped make America seem like two countries and deepened the discontent that got Trump elected. There is such a thing as change that is ultimately good but is proceeding too fast, and with too little attention to its short-term costs.
How do you know when change is happening too fast? Well, when a crudely tribal and recklessly belligerent conspiracy theorist is elected president—and has allies gaining power in other countries—that may be a warning sign.
There are ways you could amend the WTO rules to buffer some workers against rapid change, but before addressing them we have to address a prior question: How would you get such amendments made? How would you counter the influence of the Davos crowd, the people who like to see corporate profits maximized and tend to think that capital should flow to its optimally efficient use, period—and who have enormous influence over the politicians who make policy?
Oddly, Trump is illuminating an answer to these questions. Here is where he may be, without realizing it, laying the foundation for a global politics of the kind that is integral to a sturdy system of global governance—a global politics that could keep people like him from winning elections in the future.
about the backlash against globalization is its globalization. Even before becoming president, Trump was bonding with like-minded political actors abroad: saying nice things about pro-Brexit politicians, lauding their desire to reclaim British autonomy by escaping the European Union. And Steve Bannon, after being exiled from Trump’s inner circle (note to Bannon: Never call the daughter of your boss “dumb as a brick”), went on a transatlantic ethnonationalist tour, touching base with far-right leaders from France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, and Poland.
So far this emerging international league of nationalists is mainly (if Bannon will pardon the expression) an elite phenomenon. It’s not as if many pro-Brexit voters have become Facebook friends with America’s Trump voters and France’s Marine Le Pen voters.
But more grassroots bonding is likely. This kind of interconnection is a logical extension of the technological change that has helped fragment America, Britain, and France. As broadcasting has been supplanted by narrowcasting and, with the rise of social media, by ultranarrowcasting, people within nations have been segregated more finely by their interests, including political interests. It’s only natural that these channels of common interest should eventually reach across continents and oceans, especially as automated translation technologies mature. And some of these channels will, in fusion with elite networks of the kind Bannon is building, form an international interest group united by, well, opposition to internationalism. (One scholar has referred to these seemingly paradoxical but sometimes, as here, reconcilable tendencies of information technology—fragmentation and integration—as “fragmegration.”)
This may conjure up scary images: hordes of torch-bearing populists organizing globally, doing their best to sabotage international cooperation. But here’s where things could take an interesting turn. As time passes, these populists may realize that one thing an international league of malcontents can do, given the existence of international bodies whose policies they dislike, is lobby those bodies to change their policies. They may even realize that through such lobbying they can get results they couldn’t get if these bodies didn’t exist.
Donald Trump is not a one-off. He embodies a backlash that’s not surprising, given the dislocations brought by rapid social transformation.
Obviously, this has an implausible ring to it. Future edifices of international governance that draw support from people who are now fire-breathing enemies of international governance? Yet there are reasons to think this is not so far-fetched.
For example: One brick in such an edifice was recently laid by the fire-breathing enemy of international governance in chief, President Trump. The North American trade deal his administration just negotiated—the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, aka Nafta 2.0—features a good example of a populist policy realized through an instrument of governance these populists now detest.
When Nafta was being negotiated in the 1990s, American labor unions, worried about losing jobs to Mexico, lobbied for provisions that would raise Mexican wages—whether by strengthening labor unions in Mexico or by raising wages there more directly. And Nafta did include provisions that in theory could do that, but they were oblique and ineffectual, partly because businesspeople on both sides of the border opposed stronger ones.
Trump’s trade negotiators pushed for and got something stronger: a requirement that 40 percent of the content of cars that trade freely within North America be made by workers earning at least $16 an hour. The idea is that Mexican factories can either raise wages or watch jobs migrate north. And though Mexican governments, in deference to the wishes of Mexico’s business class, have traditionally opposed such provisions, the new left-wing Mexican government likes them. (As for the irony that a Mexican president supported by workers would favor a policy designed to price some of them out of the market: Sacrificing a few jobs for higher wages is a common position of pro-labor politicians, as when Democrats in the US back a minimum wage hike that may dampen hiring.)
This one provision may seem like a small thing, and it is. But it represents something big: Bodies of global governance, like bodies of national governance, can in principle serve various constituencies. They can lean right or lean left. To take one possible, far-off scenario: A future version of the WTO could authorize punitive tariffs against—or even deny membership to—nations that don’t let unions organize. It could set baseline environmental or even workplace safety standards for factories in member nations, which not only would make for a cleaner environment and safer jobs but also would raise production costs in low-wage countries, making globalization less threatening to workers in affluent countries.
So what are the chances that Trump shares this vision, that he sees a provision he put in Nafta 2.0 leading to Global Governance 2.0? Roughly zero. Trump supported the provision not to realize a grand dream but to please a pivotal part of his base—blue-collar workers whose alienation from the Democratic Party helped swing Rust Belt votes his way in 2016. And that’s the point: What makes this vision plausible is that it has strong underlying political logic.
Indeed, the political pull of this policy was so strong that Trump, in pursuing it, was willing to antagonize the Republican establishment whose bidding he has generally done, except when it clashes with strong sentiments in his base (as on immigration). A writer in the conservative National Review, expressing opposition to the $16 per hour wage requirement, noted with disapproval that “many Trump supporters applaud this imposition” and asked, “Isn’t it suspicious that the left-winger [Canadian Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau and the right-winger Trump both like this measure? The unions also dig it.”
Yes, the unions do dig it. Because they realize that to serve their members in a globalized economy, they can’t rely on national policies alone; they have to embrace international governance and steer it left. Any politician who wants to attract the kinds of voters unions represent would be well advised to take this insight seriously. That’s why populist leaders who are now described as “nationalist” and “right wing” could wind up making peace with global governance of a left-leaning kind.
Of course, nudging global governance to the left will still strike conservative elites—the National Review writers of the world—as unacceptably radical. Even centrists and neoliberals may ask questions like: Will this erode prosperity? Is this a slippery slope toward a global minimum wage or some other form of burdensome regulation?
These are fair questions, but they should be seen against the backdrop of this harsh reality: Donald Trump is not a one-off. He embodies a backlash that’s not surprising, given the dislocations brought by rapid social transformation—in this case, the epic, once-in-a-planet’s-lifetime movement of social organization to the planetary level.
To put a finer point on it: Trump represents a political reaction, visible now in many countries, both against the jarring effects of globalization and against inchoate bodies of global governance. Given that globalization is driven by inexorable technological change, and that global governance is needed to keep an interconnected planet from self-destructing, having a powerful political movement that sees these two things as mortal enemies is dangerous. If heading off that danger requires change that sounds radical, maybe radical change is in order.
People horrified by Trump have been known to wonder: When will the people who put him in power come to their senses? When will voters see through his xenophobic fearmongering and dishonesty? It’s a natural question, but it misleads in suggesting that our political salvation awaits the dawning of enlightenment on only one side of the political spectrum. In the end, a bigger question may be whether the elites who make up the American establishment can see the light—whether they can reconcile themselves to forms of global governance many of them now find unacceptable.
That’s only the half of it. If global governance is going to work, not only will it have to change in form; its rules will have to be widely acknowledged and heeded. International law—the amorphous body of treaties and other agreements that has been honored as much in the breach as in the observance, and which typically lacks a mechanism of firm enforcement—will have to carry more weight than it has carried. If that is to happen, then the United States, the world’s most powerful nation, will have to evince consistent respect for it. This means the American establishment, including lots of elites who oppose Trump, will have to start evincing such respect.
You could be excused for thinking they already do. After all, part of the standard elite indictment of Trump is that, in his disdain for international acronyms, in his contempt for international norms and laws, he is abandoning the “rules-based international order” earlier presidents painstakingly built and maintained. George Packer, writing in The New Yorker, has warned that as Trump escapes the constraint of these rules, “American foreign policy largely depends on what goes on inside Trump’s head.”
That is indeed an alarming prospect. And it’s true that Trump feels less constrained by international rules than his predecessors. But those predecessors broke the rules pretty routinely themselves, and they often did so with the support of the very elites who now wring their hands over the fate of the rules-based international order. This ongoing rule breakage has had disastrous consequences—including, quite possibly, the election of Donald Trump.
Consider America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. It was a clear violation of international law, since the UN Security Council wasn’t willing to authorize it, and under the UN charter such authorization is the only way to give legal validity to a war that’s not plainly a matter of self-defense. Yet the war got broad support in Congress and on op-ed pages.
It’s always hard to envision the road not taken, but let’s try: Suppose there had been no Iraq War. The war wound up amplifying a central talking point of jihadist recruiters—that America is at war with Islam. (A number of anti-American terrorists, including Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, have cited the Iraq War as motivation.) So absent the 2003 invasion, there might well have been less terrorism—especially less “homegrown” terrorism—and the electorate Trump faced might have been less freaked out, less susceptible to his fearmongering.
In fact, this alternative history lacks one distinct and large fear inducer: ISIS. Its precursor incubated amid Iraq’s post-invasion chaos before rebranding as the Islamic State and then metastasizing during the Syrian civil war. Imagine a candidate Trump who couldn’t point to ISIS—an actual territory-occupying army that commits (and videotapes!) vivid atrocities and targets Christians—as an evil that matured on the watch of President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (and that Trump alone can conquer). Does that candidate Trump get elected?
As long as we’re imagining roads not taken: Consider Obama’s decision in 2011 to turn a bombing campaign in Libya aimed at protecting endangered civilians (which was explicitly authorized by the Security Council) into a regime-change operation (which wasn’t). After the regime collapsed, Libya became home to various terrorist groups, and weapons from its stockpiles flooded the region—flowing to jihadists in Africa and also, in large quantities, to jihadist rebels in Syria, as well as to more secular Syrian rebels. The rebels still lost the civil war, but not before they had used Libyan weapons to intensify it, creating more dead bodies and more refugees.
In a world with fewer Syrian refugees clamoring for passage to the US and Europe, does Trump’s proposed “Muslim ban” carry so much power? (And does the Trumpian right in Germany, France, and Italy have so much energy? Does Brexit pass?)
Again, alternative histories are speculative. But the general principle makes sense: If your policies bring instability that in turn breeds fear and hatred, then candidates who thrive on those things are more likely to get elected. So if there’s a chunk of international law designed to prevent instability—such as the UN charter’s constraints on transborder aggression—maybe you should pay some attention to it, especially if you’re going to go around singing the praises of the rules-based international order. Yet many American politicians who sing those praises also championed the Iraq and Libya adventures.
That those people include Hillary Clinton—the only alternative to Trump in the 2016 election—tells you how far the American political system is from taking global governance seriously. On the one hand, we had a candidate who ostensibly supported the UN charter but casually disregarded it. On the other, we had Trump, who denounced various US military adventures but disdains the international law that stands in opposition to military adventurism.
It seems safe to say that Trump doesn’t spend his spare time pondering this irony. The same can be said of most voters who warmed to his anti-interventionism, certainly including the ones who worry about the New World Order just off the horizon. They might be surprised to hear that the late Kofi Annan, who as secretary general of the UN was compared to the Antichrist in apocalyptic warnings about that order, flatly declared the invasion of Iraq illegal. Maybe if American politicians paid more attention to people like Annan—taking international law more seriously, and realizing its potential as a check on military adventurism—this would send the same message to Trump supporters that a reimagined WTO could send: The rules-based international order, the evolving infrastructure of global governance, can be their friend.
Selling the idea of populist-friendly global governance is a project that will take decades.
Obviously, most of these supporters won’t embrace this message anytime soon. Selling the idea of—and the reality of—populist-friendly global governance is a project that will take decades. And success may hinge on such contingencies as whether some charismatic politician with populist street cred gets behind it. But there’s no good alternative to trying, because if this vision doesn’t get a critical mass of political support, we’re all in trouble. If we lack the means to play the growing number of international nonzero-sum games to positive-sum outcomes, things will take a turn for the grim—and maybe very grim, as lethal technologies and tribal animosities get locked into a vicious circle and environmental problems of biblical proportions fester.
This reckoning was in the cards. Technological evolution, ever since the Stone Age, has placed humans in nonzero-sum situations of growing scope and complexity. The only way to stop the trend toward bigger and more elaborate games is to play them so badly that chaos ensues. And even then, among the ruins, we’ll be playing nonzero-sum games, if less far-flung ones. Assuming we’re around at all.
There’s a good chance—maybe 50 percent, maybe higher—that we will, in some fairly thoroughgoing sense, fail. The pull of tribal psychology is strong, and few countries lately have shown the wisdom it takes to build visionary policies at the international level, or even at the national level (where creativity is also deeply needed if all the roots of today’s discontent are to be addressed).
Still, things could be worse. It could be that the conventional wisdom is right—that Trumpism is in no small part a reaction against global governance per se, and so stands in immovable opposition to it. But the story turns out to be more complicated than that. The reaction is largely against global governance done badly—against some rules that were designed with disregard for people in flyover country, and against the fallout from America’s disregard of other rules. And global governance can in principle be done well. Reconciling populist nationalists to the international tools the world needs will be hard, but at least it’s not logically impossible.
We can take some heart in the history of our species. The fact that we’ve gotten this far—to the threshold of a functioning global community—is a tribute to the human capacity for playing nonzero-sum games wisely. Our ancestors didn’t know game theory, but like us they had cooperative instincts as well as belligerent ones, and they deployed them often enough to play their games with intermittent success. They built passably effective governments of growing scope and intricacy, and sometimes placed those governments in firmly peaceful relationship with one another, even cementing these bonds with institutions that transcend borders. The rudiments of global governance, however flawed, are an impressive legacy, testament to a long and arduous ascent punctuated by chaos and bloodshed from which hard lessons were learned.
It would be nice to have a president who could carry the torch forward, someone who sees the big picture and has both an accordingly big vision and the rare skills that would inspire commitment to it. But look at it this way: At least we have Trump! In his own way, he vividly and powerfully alerts us to our predicament.
Trump channels the discontent generated by the basic drift of history—the drift toward global social organization—and by contingent facts of history, in particular by the failure of his predecessors to fully grapple with that drift. He voices grievances about economics and foreign policy that are the residue of that failure. Further testament to failure lies in the ease with which he activates and exploits the most volatile human capacities: fear, resentment, hatred, bigotry, xenophobia.
In addition, Trump offers clear guidance, even if it’s mainly a kind of reverse guidance. His basically zero-sum perspective shows us how not to conceive of a world that is rife with nonzero-sum games. His belligerence and narcissism, even solipsism, show us how not to act if we want to play them well. And yes, here and there he champions a truly important policy idea—an idea that fits both the present and future, if in ways he doesn’t wholly understand.
Maybe someday we’ll be thankful that Donald Trump came along and, however unknowingly, however perversely, pointed us in a new direction. After all, it’s not as if things were going all that great until he showed up. That, in fact, is why he’s here.
The day before the midterm elections, Facebook took down a virulently anti-immigrant ad paid for by President Donald Trump, which mischaracterizes refugees walking through Mexico toward the US as violent criminals. “America’s future depends on you,” the voiceover says, ending with a plea to “vote Republican.” NBC also took the ad off air on Monday after criticism from stars of NBC shows. And even Fox News stopped airing it on Monday, too.
CNN rejected it from the start, on the grounds that it was racist.
Facebook says the ad violated its policy against “sensational content,” which prohibits ads that contain “shocking, sensational, disrespectful or excessively violent content.” Facebook did not specify what aspects of Trump’s ad it found to be sensational.
That sentence, which appears in Bob Woodward’s new book, Fear, about the Trump Administration, has shocked a lot of people. Not me. Because I just wrote a novel in which precisely that same thing happens. And let me tell you: It’s not far-fetched.
Of course, we knew that Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, and his predecessor, Reince Priebus, both have tried to get the president’s tweeting under control. Woodward just adds some wonderful color, explaining that Priebus took to calling Trump’s bedroom, where many of the tweets originated, “the devil’s workshop” and called the president’s favorite time for tweeting “the witching hour.” (The prediction that Twitter could get us into a war was reportedly made by an unnamed national security official.)
The novel, as the title suggests, purports to be the report of a government commission, like the 9/11 Commission, charged with asking how the United States and North Korea blundered into a nuclear war that killed several million people. And the answer is, at least in two crucial moments, Twitter.
Tweets are, after all, presidential statements. No matter how odd it might seem, foreign governments have little choice but to read and consider what President Trump says, no matter where he says it. North Korea is no exception.
On any given day, this is hardly the end of the world. Trump’s tweets might be appalling—but they are not dangerous, not usually. After all, Trump openly mused about assassinating Kim Jong Un at a campaign stop. In The 2020 Commission, Trump unleashes a series of spectacularly misogynistic and ugly tweets about Kim Jong Un’s sister. Those tweets don’t start a war, although they are part of the prelude, a few more drunken steps off the path that was supposed to lead to the denuclearization of North Korea.
The problem is what happens in crisis. In the novel, North Korea shoots down a South Korean airliner by mistake and South Korea responds with a very small, almost symbolic, missile strike. It is at this point that Trump, with one spectacularly ill-timed tweet, sets into motion a chain of events that neither he nor any of his staff can control. And it is all done innocently enough.
Trump hasn’t even been fully briefed about the crisis. He is about to descend the narrow set of stairs that lead into the basement at Mar-a-Lago and to the secure conference room. Trump is famously afraid of stairs—one of those things that an author can’t make up—and reaches for his phone as a kind of comfort. His tweet is a throwaway comment, a repetition of a bit of banter he had tried out a few minutes earlier in a phone call with his John Kelly-like chief of staff.
LITTLE ROCKET MAN WON’T BE BOTHERING US MUCH LONGER.
Oh, but how different that tweet looks to Kim Jong Un! In Florida, where Trump sends the tweet, it’s a sunny spring morning. But it’s the middle of the night in North Korea and still winter. Kim is sitting on an uncomfortable chair, smoking in a dark and cold basement, trying to understand how serious this crisis is.
His cell phone is working only intermittently because the North Korean cell phone network is overwhelmed with calls, just like the US network on 9/11. Kim can’t quite tell how big the South Korean strike is and doesn’t think Moon Jae-in would do it by himself. He starts to suspect that the strike is the beginning of an American invasion. And when he sees Trump’s tweet, he knows.
Hard to believe? Hardly. I teach a class on decision-making at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. And here is the truth: Leaders think the darndest things. Saddam Hussein, for example, did not believe the US would march all the way to Baghdad in 2003. His life depended on making the right call—and he blew it.
And it’s not just Saddam. The Soviet leadership in 1983 was unexpectedly gripped by a wave of paranoia that Ronald Reagan was planning a surprise attack—President Reagan had denounced the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” prompting the Soviet leader Yuri Andropov to call Reagan insane and a liar. The so-called War Scare of 1983—which also featured a civilian airliner being shot down—was one of the most perilous moments of the Cold War. And American leaders weren’t even aware of how worried the Soviets were until much later.
The point is that leaders make mistakes. If you look closely at past crises, like the War Scare or the Cuban Missile Crisis, presidents and other world leaders don’t look nearly as perceptive or sensible as they are later made out to be. They seem—surprise, surprise—pretty human: flawed, confused, and scared. And these people were generally pretty good at the job.
Trump, by contrast, is spectacularly bad at being president. Woodward reports that Trump’s response to Syria’s appalling use of chemical weapons was homicidal bloodlust. “Let’s fucking kill him! Let’s go in,” Trump reportedly told secretary of defense James Mattis, “Let’s kill the fucking lot of them.” It’s nearly as insane as reports that Trump pondered invading Venezuela. It’s not hard to imagine that Kim Jong Un might conclude that Trump wants to kill him.
Past leaders—Kennedy and Khruschev, Reagan and Andropov—had one more advantage: time. Those crises played out over days or weeks. Leaders had time to process information, to discuss it with advisers, to think about what it means. They made mistakes, but those mistakes were not immediately broadcast around the word. It simply wasn’t possible for the president to learn of a crisis on cable television or to send it spinning out of control with a careless social media post on his way to being briefed. To put it mildly: Times have changed.
On Saturday, in response to Freedom of Information Act lawsuits filed by several news outlets and conservative group Judicial Watch, the Justice Department took the unprecedented step of releasing the (heavily redacted) application to wiretap former Trump campaign advisor Carter Page. In a series of eight tweets fired off over the next two days, Trump reveled in the document, declaring it evidence of “an illegal scam,” and further proof of the “witch hunt” against him.
It is none of those things. It never has been. But the secretive nature of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and the court that authorizes warrants under it, has for months provided Trump and boosters like House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes an opportunity to confuse and outright mislead the public.
On Wednesday, President Donald Trump appeared to downplay Russia’s efforts to interfere with US democracy for a third time this week.
The first had come during a joint press conference with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, a 45-minute exercise in kowtowing to a hostile foreign leader. The second, remarkably, came during the “clarification” of those remarks; on the heels of reading a prepared comment acknowledging Russia’s actions in 2016, Trump improvised, stating that it “could be other people also. There’s a lot of people out there.”
Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced on Twitter Saturday that she and her family had been asked to leave the Red Hen, a small restaurant in Lexington, Virginia. The Red Hen’s co-owner, Stephanie Wilkinson, reportedly asked Sanders to leave because of her involvement in Trump administration policies like separating migrant children from their parents. Word of the incident quickly spread across the internet and on Monday, President Donald Trump lobbed an insult at the Red Hen, alleging that the restaurant’s exterior is “dirty.”
But the majority of the backlash against the Red Hen came on a different platform: Yelp. Many of the press secretary’s supporters spent the weekend vandalizing the restaurant’s page by leaving thousands of fraudulent one-star reviews. Others who agreed with Wilkinson’s decision responded by writing retaliatory five-star reviews, turning Yelp into an unwilling platform for political speech. In essence, Yelp became a battleground—and not for the first time. For years, crowd-sourced review sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor have been manipulated by trolls, paid reviewers, and politically enraged citizens. But we rarely consider how sites like Yelp fight back—and what their tactics mean for businesses and users.
This is far from the first time that Yelp has experienced a surge in vandalism in response to the news cycle. In 2012, for example, trolls famously defaced a pizza parlor’s page after the restaurant’s owner posted a picture of himself hugging former President Barack Obama. The issue comes up enough that Vince Sollitto, Yelp’s senior vice president for corporate communications, penned a blog post in 2016 explaining the company’s strategy for when similar incidents happen.
As Sollitto explains, Yelp doesn’t display every review left for a business in chronological order; the company uses an algorithm to sort reviews according to a number of signals, including whether they may be biased or fraudulent. Reviews that get sorted out also don’t contribute toward a business’s overall rating.
In situations like the Red Hen’s, Yelp deploys what it calls an Active Cleanup Alert, a pop-up that encourages users to discuss a business on Yelp’s discussion forums rather than leaving a review; it also warns them that fake ones will be removed. While the alert is active, Yelp employees work to identify and remove what they believe are fraudulent reviews. Again, Yelp blogged about this policy in 2016 and Active Cleanup Alerts were created the year before.
So in theory, when a local business becomes part of a national controversy, Yelp has an established strategy to deal with the fallout. In reality, the Red Hen’s Yelp page remains a mess. It had more than 15,000 reviews at the time of writing and the restaurant’s overall rating is down to 1.5 stars, from nearly five stars several days ago. People have attacked unaffiliated restaurants with similar names, and some have baselessly accused Red Hen of being run or owned by pedophiles.
Part of the problem, as Motherboard points out, is that Yelp doesn’t require reviewers to verify that they’ve actually visited a business, making it easy to turn the platform into a place for protest.
To be fair, Yelp has to manage more than 155 million reviews, according to the company, and not all of its resources can realistically be dedicated to defending one restaurant. Yelp’s moderators are also up against people like conservative activist Charlie Kirk, who encouraged his more than 600,000 Twitter followers Sunday to leave 100,000 additional reviews on the Red Hen’s page. TripAdvisor, for its part, temporarily stopped allowing reviews to be posted at all.
The Red Hen’s Yelp page looks especially troublesome compared to the restaurant’s Google reviews. At the time of writing, the Red Hen had a modest 45 reviews, all of which appeared legitimate; there’s no sign that the restaurant is at the heart of a national controversy. It’s possible that trolls simply didn’t target the Red Hen’s Google page in the same way. But it’s also possible that the tech giant is more adept at moderating.
A Google representative says that the company has a dedicated team and systems in place to identify incidents like what happened to the Red Hen. “Once identified, we use both automated and manual techniques to ensure that reviews adhere to our policies and that any new edits to business information are accurate,” the spokesperson said in a statement. (That doesn’t mean Google has always been free from manipulation; the Verge found last year that for-profit substance abuse rehabs had exploited its systems.)
Online reviews have also served as legitimate venues for social and political commentary; it’s not always clear what we lose when “fraudulent” ones are deleted en masse. In 2012, then-candidate Mitt Romney made a comment about “binders full of women” during a presidential debate. In response, a number of users left satirical Amazon reviews on listings for products like three-ring binders, a phenomenon chronicled in a 2015 study in the journal Feminist Theory.
“For any of you who might be considering, like me, purchasing this binder based on the reviews, let me just point out one glaring omission: While this is a lovely, multi-purpose binder, IT DOES NOT COME WITH WOMEN,” one reviewer wrote.
More recently, a vintage store in Brooklyn, New York was accused of racially profiling a black lawyer and her daughter last month after an employee believed the pair was shoplifting and called the police. The police didn’t find any stolen merchandise, and the incident ignited a small protest. In response, Yelp set up another Active Cleanup Alert and the store’s several dozen reviews no longer reflect the incident.
Some shoppers might want to know that a store was recently the site of a protest. Plenty of consumers may also want to choose one business over another on moral grounds. That’s a reality that Yelp even acknowledges in its 2016 blog post: “Many people understandably wouldn’t want to patronize a dentist who kills lions as a hobby, and others might legitimately be inclined to choose one pizza parlor over another based on their political views,” Sollitto wrote.
Yelp nonetheless chooses not to reflect that sort of feedback in its reviews, because it ultimately thinks “the better proposition is for Yelp reviews to be driven by firsthand customer experiences.” It has a point; most people come to Yelp simply to find genuine recommendations for places to eat and shop. And businesses can’t do anything to improve reviews that aren’t based on actual experience.
“When businesses make the news, their Yelp business page can be affected. Media-fueled reviews typically violate our Content Guidelines, one of which deals with relevance. Yelp reviews are required to describe a firsthand consumer experience, not what someone read in the news,” a Yelp spokesperson said in a statement.
But by encouraging on-topic reviews, Yelp also helps itself. The platform, like other social networks, has grown rich as a result of the free labor that people have contributed to it. Without a steady supply of helpful, pleasant-to-read reviews, Yelp doesn’t have a business.