interesting times

Why Trump Has Such a Soft Spot for Russia

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

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.

As Israel Moves Right, Where Does That Leave the Left?

Speaking of strongmen, Hungarian president Viktor Orbán visited his good friend Benjamin Netanyahu this week in Israel. Yes, Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian leader whose authoritarian campaigns have long been buttressed by the kind of rank anti-Semitism that we have come to expect from Eastern Europe in recent years. Orbán even recently praised Hungary’s Nazi-supporting wartime leader, Miklós Horthy, as one of the “exceptional statesmen” who saved Hungary after the collapse of its empire. In his recent reelection campaign, he portrayed George Soros as an insidious Jewish puppet master and an enemy of the people, one of those figures who “do not believe in work, but speculate with money; they have no homeland, but feel that the whole world is theirs.”

You might imagine this would give an Israeli leader some qualms, but nah. Netanyahu heaped praise on Orbán as a “true friend of Israel,” and the two appear to get along famously. The geopolitics behind this are obvious. For Netanyahu, it’s securing support from the more authoritarian members of the E.U. to counter trends, especially among left parties in Western Europe, to treat Israel increasingly as an international pariah. For Orbán, it’s cover for his Jew-baiting. I see no problem with Israel finding whatever allies it can, but it’s still a little unnerving to see the country so close to an authoritarian bigot, especially considering the slide away from liberal democracy in Israel itself.

The Orbán visit comes the same week, after all, as Israel finally passed new basic laws that more deeply enshrine the Jewish nature of the state. The good news is that, after significant protest at home and abroad, the new law didn’t formally sanction the right of Jewish communities to rid themselves of Arab residents. No actual Jim Crow in Israel proper yet! The bad news is that, in the view of many critics, it further entrenched the second-class status of Arabs in Israel itself, downgraded the status of Arabic as a language going forward, and emphasized the Jewishness of the country over its democracy.

Here’s how a spokesperson for an Arab-Israeli lobby described it: “This law guarantees the ethnic-religious character of Israel as exclusively Jewish and entrenches the privileges enjoyed by Jewish citizens, while simultaneously anchoring discrimination against Palestinian citizens and legitimizing exclusion, racism and systemic inequality.” When you consider this move alongside the continuing settlement of the West Bank, where Palestinians have no rights to speak of, and are increasingly being sequestered into isolated Bantustans, it’s not a good look.

It is no surprise, it seems to me, that as the occupation of the West Bank intensifies, this kind of ultranationalism and disdain of the Arab minority in Israel itself would continue to grow. And Trump’s and Kushner’s complete capitulation to the settler right has only made this worse. Trump’s suspicion of international institutions, his raw ethno-nationalism, his visceral horror at Islam, his obsession with walls and security, and his reliance on religious fundamentalists as a voting bloc all add heft and legitimacy to the worst trends in the Jewish state. His foreign policy, moreover, aimed squarely at conflict with Iran, and with near-blanket backing for the Saudis, makes him the Israeli right’s most dutiful ally since 1967.

The question for the rest of us, it seems to me, is whether Israel under this hard-right government should be viewed in the future as an ally for democratic forces, like Britain or France — or as something a little more complicated, like Hungary or Poland? The signs continue to look ominous to me, and I fail to see how progressive parties in the West will be able to support the country in the future in any comparable way to even the recent past. Or why, if the liberal democracies sever their ties, others won’t be all too eager to fill the gap.

Always?

It’s been one of those summers out here on the outer Cape that defy any words. Day after day of sublime sun; temperatures in the mid-70s; the usual Provincetown waves of baby dykes, twinks, circuit queens, bears, sporty lesbians, as gay sub-sub-subcultures come and go. It changes all the time, of course, over the years. Property values have soared; straights have moved in; businesses come and go. But one reason I keep coming here is what doesn’t change: the simple, spare wildernesses of sand and water and dune grass, forever undulating with various shades of piercing color, the sense of an eternal coming and going of the tides. I wrote a blog post about it one year and simply called it “Always.” It feels eternal at times.

But this year, something is very different. In the tidal pools I have swum and sat in for decades now, the horizon is suddenly ruptured. One massive nor’easter this past January, and four brutal ones in March, combined with increasingly high tides, flooded the town this winter, destroyed some beach homes, swallowed basements, and simply removed hundreds of yards of the dunes that separate the tidal pools from the Atlantic Ocean. A view I have loved for decades — the place where my ashes, God willing, will be spread — is unrecognizable. The long horizon of dunes that cradle the tidal marshes, give them a boundary, and create a self-contained cathedral of light and water, have disappeared. It feels like a giant open wound, or a beloved painting whose frame has been ripped off, along with part of the canvas. You can see right through to the ocean now. It’s still beautiful, of course, and perhaps in time, I will not feel so bereft or disoriented or edged with a kind of grief. But this is what happens when the high tides keep inching higher, and the storms get rougher, and the winds get even stronger.

Sometimes I wonder when we look back on this age, and its awful politics, and disgusting discourse, if we are actually missing the real story. The vandalism we are doing to our political way of life may at some point be repairable. Perhaps a future president will be able to reconstruct the discourse, or bind some of the wounds, or abate the tribalism. Perhaps the American people will rediscover resources of empathy and civility and reason that seem to have abandoned us for the moment.

But the dunes? They tell me that nature can, at some point, bring them back, that breaches this great can eventually be healed by time and new currents and tides. But the reemergence of a landscape inevitably takes far longer than its destruction. And the grief is as real as the wait is long.

See you next Friday.