“I’m actually pretty scared,” said Mary, a woman in her late 30s whom I met at her home just outside Macomb County, Mich., in late August. I had asked Mary (who requested that her last name be withheld) for her thoughts on how President Trump was handling the North Korea crisis.
Mary voted for Trump and still supports the president. But she is nervous that his bellicosity toward the rogue regime will provoke an attack.
Mary’s response is an exception among the more than a dozen people I interviewed about Trump and North Korea. All of my interviewees reside in counties included in The Race To 2020, which follows nine counties that were crucial to Trump winning the 2016 election and that will determine whether his presidency succeeds or fails.
On North Korea, my respondents mostly came down along partisan lines. Trump voters welcomed his tough rhetoric. “He is dealing with a lunatic the only way you can: with a firm response and not backing down on actions and responses,” said Rachel Gooder of Howard County, Iowa.
“He’s doing the best he can with a dictator,” said Nahren Anweya, an Iraqi immigrant living in Macomb County.
Gayle Mazurkiewicz, also from Macomb, thinks diplomacy will be of limited use against an irrational regime. “It is important to remember that it is North Korea that is on the offensive, not Trump, and Trump is trying to put us in the best position possible to respond to an attack,” she wrote. “I do not feel any other presidential candidate would have had any clearer way to deal with North Korea than Trump does.”
Some respondents thought Trump’s toughness was a welcome departure from what they saw as former President Barack Obama’s feeble responses to foreign crises. Chris Chilson of Howard County said that after years of strategic patience, Trump is correct to project strength. “President Trump is handling the situation appropriately,” he said.
“At some point, the U.S. has to quit saying it’s drawing a line in the sand and enforcing the line in the sand,” Bo Biggs of Robeson County, N.C., said.
North Korea launched its sixth and most powerful nuclear test over the Labor Day weekend. It also claims to have a hydrogen bomb capable of being mounted on an intercontinental ballistic missile. On August 28, North Korea fired a ballistic missile directly over Japan, a test North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un called a “meaningful prelude” to an attack on Guam, a U.S. territory where 163,000 American citizens reside.
In early August, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to impose sanctions on North Korea for testing two intercontinental ballistic missiles in July.
Justin Gallagher of Erie, Pa., said the U.N. vote was a “huge win for the Trump administration.” But he would like to see Trump tweet less about matters of war and peace. “I don’t see Twitter as an effective means of communication to a foreign adversary.”
Meanwhile Trump opponents said they were frightened that Trump’s brashness could provoke a war.
“This is a scary thing for me,” said Andrew Dennehy, managing editor of the Trempealeau Times newspaper in Trempealeau County, Wis. “Sometimes it seems like he’s daring them to bomb us, almost as if he thinks we’re all bulletproof. The fact that he represents our country in matters of life or death is terrifying.”
Chris Danou, a Democrat who used to represent Trempealeau County in the Wisconsin state Assembly, feels similarly. He wrote me to say: “I feel about as far from safe with Trump handling things as you can get. My only real hope is that the defense secretary does the heavy lifting. I noticed how he essentially repudiated the president in remarks to the troops the other day.”
Danou was referring to the mixed messages coming from the administration on North Korea. In late August, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pledged to “continue our peaceful pressure campaign” on Pyongyang to bring it to the negotiating table. A couple days later, Trump tweeted that “Talking [with North Korea] is not the answer!” Over the weekend, Trump again tweeted that appeasing North Korea won’t work and that “they only understand one thing!”
Joe Heim, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, also mentioned the “conflicting messages” coming from the administration. He mused that Trump and Tillerson might be engaged in a “good cop, bad cop” routine or perhaps there’s “just confusion” within the administration about the appropriate response. “I am hoping for the former,” he wrote
Heim is comforted by one fact: “With three generals around President Trump, he is not likely to do anything rash.”
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