If there’s one thing that defines Donald Trump’s presidency, it may be his never-ending thirst for validation, applause and credit - even where getting it strains credulity. When it comes to recognition, Trump is a dog after a bone. And political and world leaders have quickly learned the best way to win his favor and bend his ear is to lavish him with praise.
The result is the nascent movement to award Trump the Nobel Peace Prize for his handling of North Korea.
I’m old enough to remember when Republicans were wary of preemptive Nobel Prizes. Back when Barack Obama was awarded one in 2009, it was met with laughter and derision on the right. “The real question Americans are asking is, ‘What has President Obama actually accomplished?’” asked the Republican National Committee. Added Rush Limbaugh: “This fully exposes the illusion that is Barack Obama.” Even Democrats acknowledged that it seemed a little premature.
Trump has achieved more concrete progress on North Korea than Obama had more generally for his Nobel. (Even Obama acknowledged the award, which was given less than nine months into his presidency, was not a “recognition of my own accomplishments” but rather more about his aspirational rhetoric.) But we thus far have only handshakes, a hug and verbally expressed goals when it comes to peace between North and South Korea. North Korea’s pledged actions - including one to dismantle its nuclear test site in public view - are still just that, but there is considerable optimism, even among Trump’s critics. His administration’s efforts to win unprecedented sanctions against North Korea have pretty clearly played a role; whether his tough talk about “Little Rocket Man” and obliterating North Korea did is less certain, as is what might come of his meeting with the country’s leader Kim Jong Un.
But the Nobel talk is very much on. Trump’s supporters chanted “Nobel!” at his rally on Saturday night. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, R-S.C., said Friday: “We’re not there yet, but if this happens President Trump deserves the Nobel Peace Prize.” Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind., has said he plans to formally nominate Trump for the award.
And the effort got a nonpartisan shot in the arm Monday from South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who responded to talk of his own potential Nobel by saying it should go to Trump instead. “President Trump should win the Nobel Peace Prize. The only thing we need is peace.”
But the fact that the Nobel talk is coming from these sources is really no surprise. Moon, more than perhaps any other world leader, has gone out of his way to flatter Trump. Messer is running in a tight Indiana Senate primary that has become a fight over who is most like Trump. And Graham has outwardly admitted that his transition from a top Republican Trump critic to a cheerleader is as much about political expedience as conviction.
“I want to make sure that I can keep talking to the president,” Graham said in January when he repeatedly declined to confirm whether Trump had, in fact, labeled African nations “shithole countries.” Points for honesty.
And this is the benefit for Trump of his near-obsession with personal credit and praise. Given Trump holds the key to getting things done in Washington and plays an outsize role in world affairs, it becomes the easiest currency for everyone around him - a foolproof way to nudge him in your direction or at least make sure you have a seat at the table.
Of course, making decisions based on who has praised you the most probably isn’t the best way to go, and susceptibility to flattery isn’t exactly the best leadership quality. But it has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy for Trump, and now it’s got the figure at the center of the most significant international peace talks talking about giving him the world’s most prestigious foreign policy award.
Aaron Blake is a columnist with The Washington Post.