With his party reeling from a wave of electoral defeats on Tuesday, Donald Trump stood before the South Korean National Assembly on Wednesday to tout his alleged victories as president. After a desultory Wikipedia-style description of the achievements of the South Korean miracle, the nation’s remarkable economic recovery after the devastation of civil war, Trump said, “The United States is going through something of a miracle itself. Our stock market is at an all-time high. Unemployment is at a 17-year low. We are defeating ISIS. We are strengthening our judiciary, including a brilliant Supreme Court justice, and on and on and on.”
It’s unclear why South Koreans would care about the appointment of Neil Gorsuch, if they’re even aware of it, but Trump then took his diplomatic tactlessness a step further by plugging for one of his properties: “The women’s U.S. Open was held this year at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, and it just happened to be won by a great Korean golfer, Sung Hyun Park, and eight of the top ten players were from Korea.”
Liberals were quick to criticize Trump’s vulgar salesmanship. “What a waste,” former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told MSNBC. “Maybe he should have stuck with the business he was in before.” Albright’s derision was widely echoed on the left and even among some on the right:
This response is understandable: Trump certainly presents a fat and easy target. But such attacks are also short-sighted.
Trump’s main focus in the speech was North Korea, about which he spoke with a newsworthy shift in tone and language. Avoiding the insulting and incendiary language of prior months—such as referring to dictator Kim Jong-un as “Little Rocket Man,” and threatening to rain down “fire and fury” on North Korea—he lambasted the regime’s horrific human rights record in vivid, compassionate terms:
Far from valuing its people as equal citizens, this cruel dictatorship measures them, scores them, and ranks them based on the most arbitrary indications of their allegiance to the state. Those who score the highest in loyalty may live in the capital city. Those who score the lowest starve. A small infraction by one citizen, such as accidentally staining a picture of the tyrant printed in a discarded newspaper, can wreck the social credit rank of his entire family for many decades. An estimated 100,000 North Koreans suffer in gulags, toiling in forced labor, and enduring torture, starvation, rape, and murder on a constant basis. In one known instance, a nine-year-old boy was imprisoned for ten years because his grandfather was accused of treason. In another, a student was beaten in school for forgetting a single detail about the life of Kim Jong-un....
And so, on this peninsula, we have watched the results of a tragic experiment in a laboratory of history. It is a tale of one people, but two Koreas. One Korea in which the people took control of their lives and their country and chose a future of freedom and justice, of civilization and incredible achievement, and another Korea in which leaders imprison their people under the banner of tyranny, fascism, and oppression.
But these powerful words, and other important moves Trump has made on his Asian trip, have received relatively little attention in America this week. Instead, we’ve been inundated with mocking tweets and snarky headlines about Trump’s golf tangent, his manner of feeding koi fish, and his knowledge of the Japanese auto industry. This quickness to pile on the president, at the expense of policy analysis, illustrates a growing problem on the left. Liberals and their media allies are becoming knee-jerk anti-Trumpists, always on the lookout for the president’s next embarrassing, meme-able gaffe—and sometimes pouncing without getting their facts straight.
The most important act of Trump’s Asia trip thus far, judging merely by the sheer volume of media attention, was his visit to a koi pond with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The photograph atop this article went viral, as Trump was variously accused of disrespecting local customs, perpetrating a fatal overfeeding, and generally being graceless.
Admitted liberals weren’t the only ones chiding Trump. “Trump feeds fish, winds up pouring entire box of food into koi pond,” CNN reported. “No diet for these carp as Trump goes all-in on fish food,” quipped the Associated Press. Never mind that Trump was merely imitating what Abe had just done, as this video proves:
Also while in Japan, Trump was mocked for saying the following at a meeting with business leaders on Monday: “Try building your cars in the United States instead of shipping them over. Is that possible to ask? That’s not rude. Is that rude? I don’t think so.” Japan, of course, already builds millions of cars in the United States every year. I’ll admit that I joined the pile-on, though I did so based on inaccurate information from a highly respected White House reporter:
But as The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake pointed out, Trump’s quote was taken out of context. The full remarks, though rambling and incoherent, make clear that Trump knows that Japan already manufactures cars in the U.S.—he just wants more of them.
Trump is now in China, and again we see the same impulse to paint with too broad a brush or to distort stories. Some liberals and mainstream media analysts have accused the president of being too deferential to Chinese President Xi Jinping. For instance, Trump reportedly agreed not to take any questions at a press conference.
The facts are more complex. During his first trip to China in 2009, President Barack Obama also didn’t take any questions during a press conference with then-President Hu Jintao. He did take questions with Xi in a subsequent visit in 2014.
Trump’s handling of the China file requires a nuanced critique. He should be commended for abandoning the inflammatory language he used as a candidate, when he accused China of being a “currency manipulator” and “raping” the American economy, and generally for trying to work with China on regional issues rather than treating it as a hostile, rising rival. But Trump’s effusive praise of Xi does verge on the parodic, and risks sidelining genuine concerns about Chinese authoritarianism. “My feeling toward you is incredibly warm. We have great chemistry,” Trump told Xi in Beijing, sounding like an overeager suitor. “I think we’ll do tremendous things, China and the U.S.” Such wooing may be cringeworthy, but worth the embarrassment if it cements U.S.–China cooperation, especially when it comes to regional stability.
Which brings us back to North Korea. Outside of his speech to the South Korean National Assembly, Trump indicated an openness to negotiating with the North. “I really believe that it makes sense for North Korea to come to the table and to make a deal that’s good for the people of North Korea and the people of the world,” he remarked in Seoul. “I do see certain movement, yes.” Behind closed doors, Trump administration official Joseph Yun laid down a marker to begin negotiations: North Korea has to refrain from nuclear testing for 60 days. This is an important, promising step toward calming tensions with North Korea.
As with China, there’s still much to criticize about Trump’s approach to North Korea. His version of nuclear negotiations, with its call for an immediate halt to testing and complete denuclearization, is still too strident and much less likely to succeed than the patient deescalation strategy that President Barack Obama used to seal the Iran deal. Still, Trump’s Korean policy has turned in the right direction, mere weeks after the president and Kim exchanged childish and frightening threats of war.
Liberals should welcome such news rather than hunting for pseudo-gaffes. As Sean O’Neal of the A.V. Club argued earlier this week, the koi pond non-story “is exactly the sort of petty bullshit that fuels the ‘fake news’ narrative that Trump and his supporters so depend on to foster blanket mistrust of the media.” He’s right:
And if you need real gaffes, Trump obliges. “There will be plenty of petty non-stories the media can seize on to portray Trump as the kaiju manifestation of every ugly American stereotype, providing us with the hollow laughs that will briefly quell our omnipresent dread that he’s just going to start riffing at some state dinner and kick off nuclear war,” O’Neal wrote. “We don’t need to invent new ones, especially when doing so only dilutes any actual, major catastrophes you’re attempting to warn us about.” (O’Neal has a list of actual gaffes from Trump’s trip.)
Complaints about “gotcha journalism” are probably as old as journalism itself, but before the internet, there was at least time for fact-checkers to review the entire video or read the full quote. Today, in the social-media age, users race to be first with humor or outrage—the truth be damned.
That sets off a second mad dash: among the media, which knows liberal clickbait when it sees it. And once again, the truth suffers.
This unfortunate tendency is driven by the understandable hope that Trump will discredit himself so thoroughly as to drag down not just his presidency, but his complicit party. But Trump commits enough deplorable acts every day, ones worthy of derision and outrage, that we need not invent new ones. That’s especially true in the deadly serious realm of foreign policy, where the goal should be not to punish Trump for minor slip-ups, but to reinforce his positive behavior—as one might do with a troublesome child—by approving of any acts that will help America avert needless catastrophes.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the Chinese president with whom President Barack Obama held a press conference in 2009. It was Hu Jintao.