As Donald Trump tells it, he got “very tough” in a recent conversation with the head of General Motors about the layoff of some 14,000 people and the closure of four U.S. auto plants:
“You’re playing around with the wrong person ….,” Trump claims to have warned CEO Mary Barra. “And they better damn well open up a new plant (in Ohio) very quickly … It’s not going to be closed for long, I hope, Mary, because if it is, you’ve got a problem.”
Two years ago, talk like that might have had a temporary impact. Today, the world knows better. Here at home and also overseas, we’ve all seen enough to understand that Trump’s rhetoric is hollow, the bluster of a man who lacks the patience and skill to operate the levers of power and who instead tries to solve every problem by banging it with a hammer.
Things just don’t work that way.
On immigration, Trump threatened to strip El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras of foreign aid unless they blocked the flow of migrants northward; they did not. He then insisted that Mexico stop the caravans; it did not. He implemented harsh and probably illegal policies to frighten migrants into turning back; they did not. Other, less confrontational options might have produced a better outcome, but the only option that Trump understands is bluster and threats.
The outcome is no different on the trade front. When Trump threatened a trade war with China, he predicted a quick, easy victory that hasn’t come and that shows no sign of arriving soon. To the contrary, the nation’s trade deficit with China hit a record high of $37 billion for September, the highest one-month total in history, and the U.S. stock market is now underwater for 2018.
The courts also continue to frustrate Trump at every turn, with the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court taking the extraordinary step of firing back at the executive branch, hoping to send the message that the judiciary would not be intimidated into doing Trump’s bidding. The same is true of the Federal Reserve Board, which continues to ignore Trump’s demands by steadily raising interest rates, in part to offset the huge deficits that Trump and a Republican Congress have created.
Despite Trump’s threats, Mexico most emphatically won’t pay for a border wall, and apparently neither will Congress. In North Korea, Kim Jong-un has somehow gone from the reviled “Little Rocket Man” to Trump’s love interest while he continues to enrich uranium, assemble nuclear warheads and build out his network of intercontinental missiles sites. In Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has taken Trump’s measure and decided it ain’t much, and Saudi Arabia has proved to itself and the world that Trump is a man with a price, and again that price ain’t much.
Despite repeated threats from Trump, Robert Mueller’s investigation also continues, angering the president to no end and creating a palpable sense of desperation from the White House. And with Gallup reporting a 60 percent job-disapproval rating, nobody outside Trump’s fellow Republicans has any real fear of crossing him politically.
In short, the tough, angry man who took the oath of office promising that he and only he could halt what he called “American carnage” has been exposed as a man who would not brave French rain to honor America’s war dead, and who now sees storms coming his way that he can’t evade by hiding in his Paris hotel room. On every front — legal, diplomatic, political, economic and personal -- he has been exposed as weak, as all sound and fury signifying nothing.