Observing the juvenile antics of Donald Trump and North Korean Stalinist leader Kim Jong- un, Beatrice Fihn, the executive director of International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, the organisation that won the 2017 Nobel Peace prize, memorably remarked that a nuclear war was just one “impulsive tantrum away.”
Of course we had known for many years that the North Korean regime, whether under the founding Kim, his son or the present Kim, mobilised its people by being on a permanent war footing, akin to the totalitarian state of Oceania in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
The Stalinist state uses every means including imprisonment, torture and physical elimination of those suspected of not just towing the line, but not doing so vigorously and publicly.
A whole population is reduced to clapping and cheering robots, living every day of their lives in fear that the secret police might come knocking on their doors at night on suspicion that they were not clapping or cheering enthusiastically enough.
Kim Jong-un, just like his grandfather and father, is omnipresent — peeping from every wall in government offices and private homes, his statues in every square, his chubby face daily on television. North Korea is Nineteen Eighty-Four come to life.
We knew all that about North Korea. What we did not know was that a president of the US, the richest and most powerful country in the world, and a country that prides itself as the “leader of the free world” would engage in an infantile Twitter war with a North Korean despot.
When Kim Jong-un opined that Trump was fat and senile, a piqued Trump retaliated in kind. During the campaign, Hillary Clinton had warned that Trump was a man who could cause a war because of a personal slight.
The world now knows that — excuse the pun — Trump’s hair piece is easily ruffled. Over the last couple of months, we have seen the president pick quarrels that were totally unnecessary.
He picked fights with parents of slain US soldiers. He accuses the media of peddling fake news. He picked a fight with National Football League players for “taking a knee” during playing of the American national anthem. He even picks fights with congressional members of his own party.
This almost compulsive propensity to pick quarrels is undermining diplomacy. Trump has chided Angela Merkel for her immigration policy. He even refused to shake the Chancellor’s hand at a White House news conference.
He snubbed a leader of an East European country. He criticised the Mayor of London’s handling of a terrorist attack. In short, Donald Trump offends and is offended by everyone.
But nothing has unsettled the world as much as Donald Trump’s response to Kim Jong-un’s declaration that he has a nuclear button on his desk.
The American president took to Twitter, which now seems to be his preferred method of conducting diplomacy, and boasted that he has a bigger nuclear button on his desk.
Beatrice Fihn’s memorable assessment, that might have seemed a hyperbole to some, has now been proved by Michael Wolff in his book Fire and Fury, in which he claims that Trump has a childlike temperament.
Ronald Reagan had once alarmed the world when he mused that a limited nuclear exchange was winnable. But Reagan, despite his unsophisticated Right Wing-influenced view of the world, relied on advisers, and believed in the post-war security arrangement fronted by NATO. And whereas many agreed that Reagan was a rightwing ideologue, no one questioned his mental health.
Like Reagan before him, Donald Trump’s view of the world is influenced by the extreme Christian right, and his inarticulate pronouncements indicate a dangerous narrow-mindedness that is unfit to lead America in today’s complex world. But unlike Reagan’s case, everyone is now wondering whether Donald Trump has mental health issues.
Restrained by nothing, not by traditional security arrangements, not by principles of diplomacy, not by considerations that today’s world is complex and interdependent, not by science and research showing, for example, that climate change is an existential threat, Donald Trump is a loose cannon waiting to go off.
Only the US Congress can stop Donald Trump. But it is hopelessly divided on party lines. The Republicans would rather risk the security of the world by protecting the Trump presidency rather than cede political points to the Democrats.
It would have seemed strange a few years ago to think that world peace would be threatened by an ideological divide within the US itself.
Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political and social commentator.