Wednesday, May 16, 2018 | 2 a.m.
We’re all educated by our peers — and over the years, a good portion of Donald Trump’s peers have been thugs. Operating in the New York construction world meant dealing with S&A Concrete, co-owned by “Fat Tony” Salerno of the Genovese crime family, and John Cody, the notorious head of Teamsters Local 282, who was convicted on racketeering and tax evasion charges.
Building casinos in Atlantic City brought Trump into similarly genteel circles. Trump’s hero was Roy Cohn, who unfortunately was born too late to serve the emperor Caligula. To go to Trump parties in the 1980s was to be surrounded by C-list celebrities and shady business types voted Most Likely to be Arraigned in high school.
Trump’s fixer Michael Cohen emerged from the same galaxy of gray-market hustlers. Early in his career, Cohen worked for a lawyer who pleaded guilty to bribing insurance adjusters. His ex-business partner in the taxi industry was convicted of assault in New York, arrested on battery in Miami and pleaded guilty to criminal mischief in New Jersey.
About 15 years ago, Cohen set up businesses for two doctors, one of whom was later charged with insurance fraud and grand larceny, the other indicted on racketeering charges. As a personal injury lawyer, he frequently represented people accused of insurance fraud. An uncle provided medical services to the Lucchese crime family.
If not for the Trump and Cohen peer circle, white-collar prisons would be sitting empty. And this all happened before Trump and Cohen elevated their moral associations even higher by entangling with Russian oligarchs.
And yet I can’t help but wonder if that kind of background has provided a decent education for dealing with the sort of hopped-up mobsters running parts of the world today. There is growing reason to believe that Trump understands the thug mind a whole lot better than the people who attended our prestigious Foreign Service academies.
The first piece of evidence is North Korea. When Trump was trading crude, back-alley swipes with “Little Rocket Man,” Kim Jong Un, about whose nuclear button was bigger, it sounded as if we were heading for a nuclear holocaust led by a pair of overgrown prepubescents.
In fact, Trump’s bellicosity seems to have worked. It’s impossible to know how things will pan out, but the situation with North Korea today is a lot better than it was six months ago. Hostages are being released, talks are being held. There seems to be a chance for progress unfelt in years.
Maybe Trump intuited something about the sorts of people who run the North Korean regime that others missed.
The second piece of evidence is our trade talks with China. Over the past few decades, the Western diplomatic community made a big bet: If we all behaved decently toward Chinese leaders, then they’d naturally come to embrace liberal economic and cultural values and we could all eventually share a pinot at the University Club.
The bet went wrong. Today’s Chinese elites are polite and coolheaded, but their economic, political and military behavior remains pure thug. Beijing throws its economic weight around with abandon, punishing foreign firms like Mercedes-Benz that don’t toe its line, cutting off Philippine trade over dubious geographic disputes, closing off its own economy to foreign investment and stealing hundreds of billions of dollars in American intellectual property each year.
The president has pushed back harder on the Chinese and has netted some results. After some Trump swagger, Xi Jinping promised to “significantly lower” Chinese tariffs on imported vehicles.
Again, it’s hard to know how this will turn out, but as The Financial Times’ Jamil Anderlini and my colleague Thomas Friedman have argued, Trump is picking the right fight at the right time.
The third piece of evidence is Iran. I have doubts about the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the nuke agreement. But I do know the argument that many of the Obama people relied on as predicate for the deal is wrong. They argued that, deep down, the Iranian leaders are worldly sophisticates who, if we just gave them the welcome mat, would want to join our community of nations.
This is the vanity of the educated class going back for centuries. Since we’re obviously so superior, everybody else secretly wants to be like us. It’s wrong. Thugs gotta thug. Religious fanatics gotta fanaticize.
The Iranian regime has continued on its merry way, pouring troops into Syria, lobbing missiles at Israel, propping up extremist armies across the Middle East. Maybe Trump is right to intuit that the only right response to a monster is to enclose it. Maybe he’s right that when you sense economic weakness in a potential threat, you hit it again.
Please don’t take this as an endorsement of Trump foreign policy. I’d feel a lot better if Trump showed some awareness of the complexity of the systems he’s disrupting, and the possibly cataclysmic unintended consequences. But there is some lizard wisdom here. The world is a lot more like the Atlantic City real estate market than the GREs.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.