Trifling With the Nuclear Button

Why Trump’s approval is so low despite his first-year successes.

 By The Editorial Board

There’s little benefit in lunging at Donald Trump’s regular Twitter bait, as his opponents prove nearly every day. But you don’t have to be CNN to think that the President should stop popping off about nuclear weapons, whether he’s joking or not.

“North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the ‘Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times,’” Mr. Trump tweeted Tuesday. “Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”

Trifling With the Nuclear Button

Perhaps Mr. Trump figured this was a clever line about comparative manhood, but it’s an example of why even many of Mr. Trump’s voters wonder if he has any sense of self-restraint. He was trolling a dictator, and boasting about himself in the process, which makes the President look small. He also distracted from the Iran protests that are vindicating his support for the Iranian people and discrediting his predecessor’s appeasement strategy.

But more troubling is that Mr. Trump looked to be trifling with the world’s most serious security threat—a nuclear-armed rogue nation. Mr. Trump has been trying to convince the world that North’s Korea’s nuclear warhead and missile arsenal is so serious a threat that it might require pre-emptive military action. His main advisers, and hundreds of American officials, are working day and night to diminish the threat short of war. If Mr. Trump ever does have to strike the North, he needs the world to believe he is acting as a last resort, not because he thinks he has a bigger Button. 

Comments like these explain the paradox of Mr. Trump’s first year. He has genuine accomplishments to boast of—including tax reform, judicial nominees who are reshaping the federal courts, and a stop to new regulation. Yet even with the economy growing faster, and a tight labor market beginning to bid up wages, Mr. Trump’s job approval remains below 40% in the Real Clear Politics average.

The paradox results from Mr. Trump’s governing behavior. His attacks on all and sundry have polarized the electorate even more than it was on Election Day in 2016. He retains the support of his most fervent base but he has lost support among many who voted against Hillary Clinton more than they did for him. Those Americans tend to think that a nuclear missile exchange isn’t a laughing matter.

And please don’t compare this tweet to Ronald Reagan’s 1984 quip about Russia that “we begin bombing in five minutes.” The Gipper said that during a sound check as a joke to radio technicians. Mr. Trump sent his tweet around the world as a personal boast.

Voters now tell pollsters they want a Democratic Congress by more than 12 percentage points. If this holds, Democrats will retake the House and Mr. Trump may be impeached. Mr. Trump needs to win over more voters if he wants to avoid that fate, and that means acting more like a President. If he won’t do it for the sake of his office, or for the Americans who took a gamble on him in 2016, he should at least consider his own self-preservation.

Appeared in the January 4, 2018, print edition.

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