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OPINION | NIALL FERGUSON

Trump is losing at home but winning abroad

Lesley Becker/Globe Staff/AP

By Niall Ferguson  

Some teams — generally the ones I support—tend to win at home and lose away. The same is true of some American presidents. Lyndon Johnson’s most enduring victories were legislative (civil rights and the Great Society), yet his presidency was destroyed abroad, in Vietnam.

Woodrow Wilson was just the opposite. He won abroad — ending the First World War and establishing the League of Nations — but lost at home, failing to get the League ratified by the Senate and suffering a debilitating stroke in the process.

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As things stand, a year and a half since his historic election victory, Donald Trump seems destined for domestic disaster.

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Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation rolls inexorably onwards, its scope expanding with every passing week like a vast bone-chilling cold front. Former FBI director James Comey is on his book tour, dripping sanctimonious drops on the president’s character in every interview he does. Trump’s aptly-named old flame Stormy Daniels is not done with the president either. Worst of all is the human cloud that is Trump’s erstwhile consigliere Michael Cohen, who these days drifts around Manhattan, heavy with the moist vapor of potentially incriminating evidence.

That the president is oppressed by his local difficulties is clear. Last week he dialed in to his favorite TV show, “Fox and Friends,” to give vent to his frustrations. It was a tirade that left even the show’s Trumpophile presenters looking groggy. And yet all of this could be mitigated, if not negated, by a few big away wins.

Like the mutant Pikachu he (from a distance) resembles, Trump has one Pokémon superpower. Though in a state of permanent distraction, he retains an unerring instinct for the weakness of any counterparty. Jeb Bush believed he was entitled to the Republican nomination; Trump zeroed in on his “low energy.” Hillary Clinton believed she was entitled to the presidency; Trump accused her of high crookery.

The same has applied in the realm of foreign policy. European leaders — especially German Chancellor Angela Merkel — believed they were entitled to the American security umbrella, gratis. Then Trump hinted that the US commitment to NATO might not, after all, be unconditional. Immediately, those defense budgets increased.

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The North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, believed he was entitled to test nuclear warheads and intercontinental ballistic missiles to his heart’s content. Trump threatened him with “fire and fury,” while at the same time leaning on China to impose and enforce economic sanctions on Pyongyang. Lo and behold, “Little Rocket Man” crossed the demilitarized zone on Friday, taking the first steps toward peace on the Korean peninsula.

Yes, I know, Kim wouldn’t be the first North Korean leader to make a deal and then cheat on it. Still, even habitual critics of the president have been forced to acknowledge that he has made more progress on the Korean question in a single year than his predecessor made in eight. It turns out that the madman theory of diplomacy really works if the world seriously thinks you’re mad.

Next up is the big one: China. The world seemed to be going Xi Jinping’s way last year. He was the toast of Davos, “the most powerful man in the world” on the cover of the Economist. Even Trump’s superpower seemed to fail him at Mar-a-Lago, where he stuck to the globalist script drawn up by the Goldman Sachs alumni.

But then, on his way back from his Asia trip last year, the president came to his senses. The most powerful man in the world was not Xi. It was He, Himself, The Donald. And the best way to prove that was to threaten China with a trade war. The Chinese reaction — public pledges of retaliation, private offers of concessions — tells you all you need to know. They don’t like steel tariffs imposed upon them.

The foreign policy professionals will tell you that Trump’s chronic lack of preparation will doom his Asian foreign policy to failure. Maybe so. But the domestic politics professionals said just the same about his 2016 campaign.

Richard Nixon did not have much of domestic record to campaign on in 1972. As the Democrats controlled Congress, his legislative record was modest. He had imposed wage and price controls in a misguided attempt to repress inflation, and his approval rating was just north of 50 percent. But the Democrats nominated a left-leaning candidate, Senator George “amnesty, abortion, and acid” McGovern.

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Nixon smashed McGovern with one foreign policy win after another. He visited China and met with Chairman Mao in February 1972, then went to Moscow and signed two agreements to limit nuclear weapons in May. On October 26, Henry Kissinger declared that peace was “at hand” in Vietnam. McGovern won just one state. Indeed, he won just 130 counties.

Trump may find himself in a similar predicament in 2020, with the difference that his impeachment may already have started before he is up for reelection. Inflation will be up by then. But the Democrats will nominate a progressive candidate. Trump will have no choice to campaign on foreign policy.

He will have lost at home. But — with a little bit of dragon energy and Pokémon superpower — he could still win on away goals.

Niall Ferguson is senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University