Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un met in Singapore and the moment was as short as it was surreal. In less than a minute, the pair approached one another and immediately shook hands. Trump was characteristically violent in his handshake he pulled Un close and gripping his elbow. The embrace which lasted all of twenty seconds and then the two men walked to a seperate room to begin negotiations. A feat that was arranged by dumb luck and could have only occurred under a Trump administration.
Those twenty seconds have been picked apart as pundits and commentators seized on every small movement and every ounce of body language to try and predict how the pair’s future negotiations might end. It was a historic moment, the first meeting between a North Korean leader and an American president. And to top it all off it occured months after Trump’s Little Rocket Man comments appeared to bring the world precariously close to nuclear war. As dangerous and unconventional as Trump’s approach was, it worked.
All of this culminated in a historic meeting with the pomp and circumstance appropriate for such a monumental occasion, but also with an air of unthinkability that was hard to shake. Largely because this sort of meeting would have been incredibly difficult to swing under Obama. Just imagine the conservative response to an Obama-Un summit.
Portions of the right already believe Barack Obama was a communist dictator to be, somehow also aligned with Islamic extremists. Depictions of Obama as Mao, or dawning a hammer and sickle, are not at all uncommon in conservative social media spheres. And allusions to Obama’s “far left” or “communist” views are incredibly common, even from more traditional conservative media outlets. Which almost certainly would have been used against him had he tried to strike any diplomatic relationship with North Korea.
Another trope common in conservative social media spheres is claiming Obama is a muslim and likening him to jihadists. Ridiculous claims like Obama put “muslim prayer curtains” in the White House circulated the internet. Fabricating links between Obama and the Muslim Brotherhood is another all too common meme in conservative circles. As are ridiculous claims that are easily disproved, such as Obama used a Koran for his oath of office and not a bible (he used Lincoln’s bible, something a quick google search would upend).
And this perception of Obama as a muslim or somehow sympathetic to Islamic extremism was used to undermine the administration in numerous situations. From the Obama administration’s response to Benghazi, to their handling of ISIS, to the Iran Deal which Trump recently repealed, all are prime examples of the Obama administration’s political opponents weaponizing their base’s belief that Obama was somehow at best sympathetic to and at worst in league with extreme Islamists.
At its best this view materialized as Obama being criticized for a perception that he was overly committed to not using the term Islamic Extremism, lest he alienate sympathetic muslims. At its worst Obama was painted as anti-American, propping up regimes in countries like Iran and Egypt, strictly because of his commitments to Islam. In particular the Muslim Brotherhood and any and all potential associations therein became a particularly powerful boogeyman.
And a lot of the rhetoric focused on Obama’s supposed leftism or radical Islamic views, is the same rhetoric that has so effectively divided the American people and laid the groundwork for Donald Trump.
It’s easy to see a similar play being used to undermine the legitimacy of any discussion Obama might have tried to have with North Korea. Conservative media figures and politicians would have been quick to play up the communist or socialist perception they had already stoked for years. And honestly, they wouldn’t even need to lean on the communist angle too hard, as the atrocities of the Kim regime easily delegitimize any negotiations that aren’t laser focused on human rights or punitive measures in response to any number of international laws North Korea has violated.
From more reasonable conservative commentators Obama would be painted as weak, caving in to North Korean provocation. More extreme commentators like Rush Limbaugh or 2009 Glenn Beck would allude to the far left beliefs their audience has reflexively ascribe to Obama. Every move would be scrutinized not as an attempt to bring an isolated pariah state into the fold of international relations, but instead an effort to prop up an ideologically compatible regime. And these commentators would take no time to remind people that the North Koreans are a regime Obama find’s ideologically compatible, that runs prison camps that hold hundreds of thousands of people and have killed It’s obviously an outlandish and extreme line of attack, but conservative media has been nothing in the last decade if not outlandish and extreme.
Outlandish and extreme is the current political reality, and nothing is more outlandish and extreme than Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un negotiating the terms of proposed denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Donald Trump tapped into those forces to fuel his rise to power and taming those voices is what allows him the political cover to negotiate with North Korea. These negotiations are especially outlandish and extreme after a year of provocations that seemed to teeter dangerously close to nuclear conflict. Yet here we are. And again, only Donald Trump so untethered from consequence and the realities of foreign policy, could push the right buttons to bring a summit about in the first place.
Only time will tell how the negotiations pan out, but recent political history makes it abundantly clear, the same forces that undermined Obama’s Iran Deal and would have very well have been weaponized against any proposed Obama era North Korea deal, are the same forces that ensure only Donald Trump could bring North Korea to the table.