Trump: I'm soft on Kim Jong Un's human rights record because I don't want to see a nuclear weapon destroy your family

This is excellent salesmanship of his weird whitewashing of Kim a few days ago on Fox News, inviting the viewer to step into his shoes and see things from the perspective of situational ethics. What would you do? You have a lunatic cult leader armed to the teeth with the world’s most destructive weapon. Trump’s not exaggerating when he says war could lead to 30 million people dying. When you criticize him for softballing Kim, is it really the softballing you object to or is that the price of the softballing is too low for now? Because listen: If he really could swing a deal in which Kim disarms in return for the world turning a blind eye to how he treats his people, gulags and all, a lot of Americans would take that deal. They’d ease their moral pangs by telling themselves that disarmament and liberalization will lead the regime in time to treat the population better, and they might be right. But that’s a secondary consideration. At the end of the day, you do what you need to do and say what you need to say to avoid a nuclear holocaust. The situation dictates one’s moral response, not any sense of absolute morality.

If you go that route, though, you’ll end up in Appeasement Valley with no way out. If we’re willing to tolerate the current system of gross human-rights abuses in the name of averting nuclear war, logically we’d also have to tolerate whatever new abuses the regime comes up with. Pick any Nazi horror you like — mass extermination, medical experiments, you name it. (Medical experiments on captives wouldn’t be new to North Korea, actually.) What atrocity could conceivably be so terrible that, per Trump’s thinking, it’d be worth breaking off relations over it and risking nuclear war? Kim could scale up his crimes against humanity infinitely and we’d have to shrug it off so long as he’s “only” committing them against his own people. It’s the logical endpoint of Trump’s approach to everything. Look out for number one. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the same reasoning should have led the U.S. to tolerate Hitler so long as he solemnly vowed to stay away from WMD and stuck to gassing only the Jews within his own borders.

And even that would turn slippery eventually. If, in the end, we’re all about looking out for number one — America first, and last — would we break off relations and involve ourselves in a nuclear war if Kim dropped the bomb on Seoul or Tokyo? Why? It’s okay for him to murder people within his own borders on the other side of the world but an impardonable affront for him to murder people just across the border? It’s not a coincidence that Trump wants American troops off the peninsula.

Anyway, it’d be nice to believe that he’s telling the truth here about viewing this problem through the cold lens of realpolitik. Certainly it’s partly true. But he’s made too much noise over the years about admiring the “strength” of authoritarian dirtbags like Putin to believe that some portion of his whitewashing of Kim isn’t heartfelt. If a ruler goes a little overboard in taming the locals, well, sometimes that’s what strength requires.