Trump steals page from the WWE play­book

The Expositor (Brantford) - - BUSINESS - JOE CHIDLEY

“The past does not have to de­fine the fu­ture,” Don­ald Trump said at a news con­fer­ence in Sin­ga­pore fol­low­ing his his­toric meet­ing with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. “Yes­ter­day’s con­flict does not have to be to­mor­row’s war. And as his­tory has proven over and over again, ad­ver­saries can be­come friends.”

Such ba­nal state­ments — ob­vi­ous to any­one who’s been in a school­yard — no doubt serve a rhetor­i­cal pur­pose, and the first- ever meet­ing be­tween a U. S. pres­i­dent and a mem­ber of the Kim dic­ta­to­rial clan no doubt mer­ited some high rhetoric. But if Trump re­ally be­lieves it, then he ap­par­ently also be­lieves the corol­lary: to­day’s ac­cord doesn’t have to be to­mor­row’s peace, and old friends can be­come en­e­mies, too.

Not quite such a cheery thought, eh? But it seems to de­fine the new U. S. for­eign re­la­tions pos­ture. To other world lead­ers — as well as in­vestors try­ing to gauge geopo­lit­i­cal risk in the Age of Trump — what must be es­pe­cially un­set­tling is the speed and ap­par­ent caprice with which he makes friends out of old en­e­mies and en­e­mies out of old friends.

Let’s do a quick re­cap. Kim, who has had mem­bers of his own fam­ily as­sas­si­nated and en­slaves his own peo­ple ( a point Trump him­self made only a few months ago), is sud­denly “very tal­ented” and bar­gain­ing “in good faith.” Mean­while, the Pres­i­dent baf­fles G- 7 lead­ers by urg­ing them to read­mit Rus­sia, de­spite its med­dling in the U. S. elec­tion and its on­go­ing il­le­gal oc­cu­pa­tion of Crimea, which got it kicked out of the club in the first place.

On the other hand, Justin Trudeau be­comes the tar­get for an in­tem­per­ate and in­sult­ing Twit­ter at­tack, while Canada — a mil­i­tary and eco­nomic ally, and a neigh­bour — is de­serv­ing of tar­iffs on alu­minum and steel and maybe au­to­mo­biles on the grounds of “na­tional se­cu­rity.” And Trump gives Kim a ma­jor con­ces­sion — halt­ing mil­i­tary ex­er­cises on the Korean penin­sula — with­out even con­sult­ing South Korea or his own Pen­tagon.

En­emy is friend; friend is en­emy.

The di­chotomy hasn’t been lost on Cana­di­ans, nor on other U. S. al­lies. The ques­tion is why. For more than 70 years, the U. S. has led ef­forts to build and main­tain a model for western- power re­la­tions, one that’s not per­fect but that works. So why tear it up now? Why im­pose un­jus­ti­fied trade bar­ri­ers, bad- mouth his coun­try’s friends and em­brace bad ac­tors like Kim and Vladimir Putin? What’s the new model? Is there one? There is: pro­fes­sional wrestling. OK, OK. But don’t laugh. Just en­ter­tain the pos­si­bil­ity that Trump learned a lot dur­ing his long re­la­tion­ship with wrestling maven Vince McMa­hon and the WWE, one that goes back 30 years.

As far as I know, Trump is the only U. S. pres­i­dent who’s been hon­oured with a spot in the WWE Hall of Fame. Back in the 2000s, he par­tic­i­pated in a cou­ple of phony ri­val­ries with McMa­hon, who’s ac­tu­ally a close friend — so close that Trump ap­pointed his wife, Linda, to head up his Small Busi­ness Ad­min­is­tra­tion. ( If you want the de­tails on Trump’s WWE his­tory, Aaron Oster’s piece in Rolling Stone is re­quired read­ing.)

So what’s the sim­i­lar­ity? Well, in pro wrestling, the con­tenders fall into two groups: baby­faces and heels. Baby­faces are the good guys, who stick to the rules and hon­our al­liances. Heels are the vil­lains, who cheat and lie and turn on their “friends.” In the old days, faces got the cheers and heels got the boos, but in to­day’s “sport” it’s not that sim­ple. The faces rou­tinely turn “bad,” or are por­trayed as naïve suck­ers, while heels are of­ten beloved by wrestling fans. Good is bad. Bad is good.

The point is, give the peo­ple what they want — and they want con­fronta­tion, con­flict and chaos. The “rules,” such as they are, only ap­ply in­so­far as they pro­vide en­ter­tain­ment value.

Maybe we’re now see­ing the ethos of wrestling ap­plied on the global stage — Trump play­ing heel and baby­face in turns, and in dif­fer­ent ar­eas, so as to keep the au­di­ence ( his base) en­ter­tained. The trou­ble is that in wrestling ev­ery­one is in on the game; when Trump plays heel to An­gela Merkel’s baby­face, she has no idea what the hell is go­ing on.

This is not to say diplo­matic chaos can’t yield ben­e­fits. If Trump can ac­tu­ally get North Korea to dis­arm, then great. But get­ting any­thing done might not ac­tu­ally be the point. I would be shocked if the Trump- Kim dé­tente lasts more than a few weeks; I would also ex­pect the Trump- Trudeau feud ( one- sided as it is) to dis­si­pate. There will a new ri­valry, or a new love af­fair, to take their places soon enough.

Yet there will be more dam­age, and not just to the western al­liance. Other play­ers are strength­en­ing. Rus­sia must love Europe’s grow­ing alien­ation with the U. S., but China might be the big­ger win­ner. The can­cel­la­tion of U. S. mil­i­tary ex­er­cises on the Korean penin­sula — along with Trump call­ing them “provoca­tive,” which is Py­ongyang’s pre­ferred word for them — is al­ready a big win; if it fore­shad­ows U. S. with­drawal from South Korea, which Trump said was his long- term goal, it will in­crease China’s in­flu­ence in the re­gion ex­po­nen­tially. In the con­text of the broader land­scape — as Xi Jin­ping ma­noeu­vres to fill the vac­uum left by the ab­di­ca­tion of U. S. lead­er­ship on eco­nomic co­op­er­a­tion and trade lib­er­al­ism — this week’s love- in with Kim has to be seen as a vic­tory for China.

So Trump is play­ing Mon­day Night Raw. And Xi is play­ing chess. Who do you think will win?

CAR­LOS OSORIO/ AP PHOTO FILES

WWE Chair­man Vince McMa­hon, cen­tre, held by “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, pre­pares to have his hair cut off by Don­ald Trump, left, and Bobby Lash­ley, right, af­ter Lash­ley de­feated Umaga at Wrestle­ma­nia 23 at Ford Field in Detroit in 2007. Is Trump’s ex­pe­ri­ence as a WWE vil­lain in­flu­enc­ing his for­eign pol­icy?

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