The Tragic Irony of Trump: He's His Own Worst Enemy | Opinion

President Donald Trump is many things to many people. Travel to New York, Los Angeles, or Democratic strongholds in the Northeast, and you'll hear Americans talk about the 45th president as part-buffoon, part-Russian asset. But head to the heartland, swaths of the Midwest, and the Deep South, and it's likely you will hear a lot of praise and celebration about Trump's theory of governing-by-chaos. Many of these people, after all, wanted a tornado-like figure who would barnstorm Washington, D.C., send an earthquake through the political system, and make the political elites run for shelter.

Yet Trump is also an figure of intense irony. On some issues, he says cogent things that make a lot of sense. He forces the foreign policy and political establishments to re-evaluate positions that have typically been taken for granted as a fact of life. Whether the topic is NATO's role in the 21st century or America's trading relationship with the European Union, Trump has shaken the conversation out of its dystopia.

Then, in usual Trump fashion, he does or says something imbecilic on the national stage that destroys whatever point he is trying to get across.

As difficult as it is for many people to admit, Trump has decent instincts on some issues. On Russia, for instance, Trump is fundamentally correct that U.S. national security interests would best be served if Washington and Moscow worked with one another when interests converge. The president's recent meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki was, at its core, a wise and pragmatic decision. Common sense tells us that it's simply an unsustainable state of affairs for two nations with roughly 13,000 nuclear weapons and two permanent U.N. Security Council vetoes between them to have a permanently adversarial relationship. This was exactly what Trump's summit with the wily KGB operative-turned-autocrat attempted to address; perhaps a presidential sit-down could turn the ships of state around before they collapse.

All of it, though, got drowned out as soon as Trump opened his mouth at a joint press conference with the Russian leader. When he gives more credence to Putin's denial of Russian interference in American democracy than the assessment of America's own intelligence professionals; when he talks about Putin as a potential friend with good intentions; and when he nods along like a corporate yes-man when Putin speaks, nobody cares in the end about what the president is actually trying to accomplish. Worthwhile policy decisions get pushed aside and bad headlines take center stage.

The same goes for NATO. There are legitimate questions about the organization's ability to survive in the current global environment. While NATO may be the most successful military alliance in history, there are many problems within the transatlantic collective that remain unaddressed. Burden sharing—one of Trump's favorite topics—is at the very top of the list. Wealthy European nations that either refuse to increase spending on their own national defense or do so in an exceedingly incremental pace has been a major gripe between Washington and European capitals for decades. And because such a situation is not fair for the American taxpayer or particularly good for NATO's military capability, Trump is right to bring it up repeatedly.

U.S. President Donald Trump walks up the driveway prior to delivering remarks at a showcase of American-made products at the White House in Washington, U.S., July 23, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

But the way he does does it is ultimately self-defeating. His take-no-prisoners approach taints those of us who have been highlighting the extreme spending disparity for years. Openly mocking German Chancellor Angela Merkel for her weak and unstable government, cutting British Prime Minister Theresa May off at the knees in a leading tabloid, calling Germany a captive of the Kremlin, and threatening to walk away from the alliance altogether may be the kind of hardball tactics Trump's base loves to see from their president, but it does him no favors with the foreign policy establishment that has the power and influence to block his agenda.

The president's forceful blister against Iran over the weekend, in which he tweeted in all capital letters that Tehran ought to cease and desist threatening the U.S.—or else—was just the latest example in a long line of Trumpisms obstructing a legitimate debate over Iran policy. Yet again, Trump has a point when he and his advisers denounce Iran for any number of regional interventions or human rights abuses. The problem is that the president appears to be far more focused on his rhetoric rather than his policy—if starving Iran of cash and coercing it into submission can be called a policy.

Trump also has a point on immigration, the third rail of American politics. Many Democrats would agree with the president's bottom-line point: America's immigration laws have been a joke for far too long, and security at the borders is an essential ingredient to a safe and secure country. Who can argue against border security?

But when Trump discusses immigrants from Central America as a tidal wave flooding American culture and presides over an administration that puts up an aloof defense when illegal immigrant children are being separated from their parents at the southern border, outrage over the White House's incompetence becomes the news. Working towards an actual immigration compromise is lost in the process.

Trump, in short, seems impervious to keeping his trap shut for his own good. In the most generous terms, he is engaging in a circuitous route of one step forward, two steps back. At worst, he is undermining his own agenda and making necessary reforms politically impossible.

Can Donald Trump see the error of his ways and retune his approach before it's too late? It's highly doubtful he can; you can't teach an old dog new tricks.

But perhaps if we play to his monumental ego—that, if he wants to win a Nobel Peace Prize, solve the immigration problem, and be remembered in the history books as a great and effective chief executive, he needs to adopt a more diligent and restrained modus vivendi—we can get through to him.

Daniel R. DePetris is a columnist for the American Conservative and a fellow at Defense Priorities.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​