July 1, 2022

Why Trump has such a soft spot for Russia

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By Andrew Sullivan From New York Mag

It is possible, is it not, that Donald Trump simply believes what he says.

I realize, of course, that this is technically impossible from moment to moment. But bear with me. The slackened jaws, widened eyes, and general shock that greeted his chuffed endorsement of the Kremlin over Washington this past week were understandable but misplaced. Everything Trump did in Europe — every horrifying, sick-making, embarrassing expostulation — is, in some way, consistent, and predictable, when you consider how he sees the world. It’s not a plan or a strategy as such. Trump is bereft of the attention span to sustain any of those. It is rather the reflection of a set of core beliefs and instincts that have governed him for much of his life. The lies come and go. But his deeper convictions really are in plain sight.

And they are, at root, the same as those of the strongmen he associates with and most admires. The post-1945 attempt to organize the world around collective security, free trade, open societies, non-zero-sum diplomacy, and multicultural democracies is therefore close to unintelligible to him. Why on earth, in his mind, would a victorious power after a world war be … generous to its defeated foes? When you win, you don’t hold out a hand in enlightened self-interest. You gloat and stomp. In Trump’s zero-sum brain — “we should have kept the oil!” — it makes no sense. It has to be a con. And so today’s international order strikes Trump, and always has, as a massive, historic error on the part of the United States.

There’s nothing in it for him to like. It has empowered global elites over national leaders; it has eroded national sovereignty in favor commerce and peace; it has empowered our rivals; it has spread liberal values contrary to the gut instincts of many ordinary people (including himself); it has led the U.S. to spend trillions on collective security, when we could have used that wealth for our own population or to impose our will by force on others; it has created a legion of free riders; it has enriched the global poor at the expense, as he sees it, of the American middle class; and it has unleashed unprecedented migration of peoples and the creation of the first truly multicultural, heterogeneous national cultures.

He wants to end all that. He always hated it, and he never understood it. That kind of complex, interdependent world requires virtues he doesn’t have and skills he doesn’t possess. He wants a world he intuitively understands: of individual nations, in which the most powerful are free to bully the others. He wants an end to transnational migration, especially from south to north. It unnerves him. He believes that warfare should be engaged not to defend the collective peace as a last resort but to plunder and occupy and threaten. He sees no moral difference between free and authoritarian societies, just a difference of “strength,” in which free societies, in his mind, are the weaker ones. He sees nations as ethno-states, exercising hard power, rather than liberal societies, governed by international codes of conduct. He believes in diplomacy as the meeting of strongmen in secret, doing deals, in alpha displays of strength — not endless bullshit sessions at multilateral summits. He’s the kind of person who thinks that the mafia boss at the back table is the coolest guy in the room.

This is why he has such a soft spot for Russia. Its kleptocratic elites see the world in just the same way. And if you wanted to undo the international system created by the U.S., an alliance with Russia is the first step you’d take. Aligning with Moscow against London, Berlin, and Paris is critical to breaking up multilateral institutions like the E.U. and NATO. Trump is not reticent about this. His trip to NATO included the first-ever threat by a U.S. president to walk away from it entirely, and to condition Article 5 on prompt payment of dues. His visit to the U.K. began with an attempt to undermine the government of Theresa May for her attempt to prevent the hardest of Brexits. He backs the new populist anti-immigrant government in Rome, because it too threatens a common European migration policy. And he is indifferent to Russian meddling in Western elections and media because it is designed to aid exactly those forces that Trump supports, from Brexit to Le Pen, and the Trump wing of the GOP (which is now, of course, simply the GOP).

Why are we then searching for some Rosetta stone to explain his foreign policy? Some evidence of his being a Russian asset? Some bribe? Some document or email proving his fealty to Moscow? Yes, it’s perfectly possible that he knowingly accepted Russian help in defeating his opponent in the last election, and is even now encouraging Russia to help him again. But that’s simply the kind of unethical thing Trump has done for years, without batting an eyelid. He sees no more conflict here than he did in seeking Russian funding and German loans for his businesses.

It seems to me he is maddened by the Mueller investigation not just because it may cast some doubt on the legitimacy of his election, but because it has impeded his attempt, alongside Putin, to reconstruct a new world order on nationalist, rather than internationalist lines. And that was one of his core goals as president. As for the danger to him by the Russia scandal, I doubt Trump is that nervous. His base has already been taught to ignore whatever the “angry Democrats” convened by Mueller find. And he knows he is immune to impeachment, because his cult followers control a third of the Senate for the foreseeable future. What he wants from Putin is simply what he has always said he wanted: an alliance to advance his and Putin’s amoral and cynical vision of world politics.

Putin fascinates too, of course, because of his “very strong control” of his country. It’s how Trump instinctively feels a country should be run. The forms of democracy exist, but one party controls everything, and one boss controls the party. The press is either compliant or openly propagandistic. Massive spending on hard military power is the core source of pride. Fossil fuels provide the entire economic base. Putin acts with impunity on the world stage, invading Crimea, all but annexing parts of Ukraine, poisoning enemies in England, devastating civilians in Syria, discrediting his democratic rivals — all of it amounting to Trump’s wet dream of what being a strongman is. Putin mirrors Trump’s domestic politics as well: the cultivation of the religiously orthodox and the socially conservative in defense of a kleptocratic cult.

This is America First, in which Trump and America are indistinguishable, and in which Russia is the most natural ally. We will find out in due course what the Moscow-Washington alliance intends for Syria, Europe, China, and the broader Middle East. We don’t know right now, and neither, apparently does Dan Coats, Trump’s intelligence chief. The last thing strongmen believe in is transparency, after all, and they love surprises. But if I were an Estonian or a Montenegrin I’d be nervous, wouldn’t you? If I were a German, I’d be unnerved. If I were still British, I’d be very leery of door handles. There’s no Uncle Sam to look to for help anymore. The Americans are on the other side.

And we know now that the whole Kabuki drama in which we keep asking when the GOP will resist this, or stop it, or come to its senses, is simply a category error. This is what the GOP now is. It’s an authoritarian, nationalist leadership cult, hostile to the global order. Republican voters increasingly like Putin, and 71 percent of Republicans back Trump’s handling of Russia in the Reuters/Ipsos poll. A whole third of Republicans do not believe the Kremlin attacked our democracy in 2016, despite every single intelligence agency and the Republicans in the House saying so. Seventy-nine percent of Republicans in a SurveyMonkey poll actually approved of Trump’s performance in the Helsinki press conference.

This is not treason as such. It is not an attack on America, but on a version of America, the liberal democratic one, supported by one of the great parties in America. It is an attack on those institutions that Trump believes hurt America — like NATO and NAFTA and the E.U. It is a championing of an illiberal America, and a partnering with autocrats in a replay of old-school Great Power zero-sum politics, in which the strong pummel and exploit the weak. Trump is simultaneously vandalizing the West, while slowly building a strongman alliance that rejects every single Western value. And Russia — authoritarian, ethnically homogeneous, internally brutal, internationally rogue — is at its center. That’s the real story of the last week, and at this point, it isn’t even faintly news.

IMAGE:Trump speaks, grudgingly, at this month’s NATO summit. Photo: Markus Schreiber/AP/REX/Shutterstock/Markus Schreiber/AP/REX/Shutterstock

For more on this story go to; http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2018/07/andrew-sullivan-why-trump-has-such-a-soft-spot-for-russia.html?utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Daily%20Intelligencer%20-%20July%2021%2C%202018&utm_term=Subscription%20List%20-%20Daily%20Intelligencer%20%281%20Year%29

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