The question that remains, of course, is the motive.
Why on Earth would any campaign for president be in constant, secret touch with the intelligence agents of a hostile foreign power?
I cannot know. Maybe Flynn is a rogue loner. It’s also possible, I guess, that the Trump campaign just wanted to keep in touch with the intelligence services of one of this country’s nemeses, if only to wish them Merry Christmas — five times in one day. It’s also conceivable that Trump’s former campaign chair Paul Manafort’s deep ties to the Putin regime were utterly irrelevant to the sudden amendment, this past summer, to the GOP party platform that removed a call to send arms to Ukraine. It’s also possible, I suppose, that deep down I’m straight.
But there’s one explanation that chills me even more than a foreign power’s potential blackmail over an American president. And it is that Trump and Putin are natural allies in their fight against the postwar, U.S.-led international order that has kept the peace for 70 years. Putin and Trump, after all, share a Bannonite foreign policy: a robust defense of nationalism; a view that NATO is obsolete; support for far-right parties throughout Europe; and the goal of smashing the European Union so that Russia can once again extend its tentacles into Eastern Europe, and the U.S. can play one European power off another. I have no idea if Putin has kompromat on the president, but Trump’s actions need no such motivation. Trump and Putin want to form a pincer movement to destroy what we have known for a long time as the West.
Their domestic politics also have disturbing parallels. Trump would love nothing more, it seems to me, than to be an American Putin, treating the country as he long treated his own corporate fiefdom. He once explained he admired the autocrat because Putin has “great control over his country.” Like Putin, Trump would love to control the media. Like Putin, he has developed a leadership cult, devoted to the masses. Like Putin, he believes in a government that has “killers.” Like Putin, he threatens his geographic neighbors. Like Putin, he has cultivated an alliance of convenience with reactionary religious conservatives, to shore up his power. Like Putin, he believes there’s no moral difference between American democracy and Russia’s. Like Putin, he is enriching himself by public office. And, like Putin, he has targeted a minority as a scapegoat — Putin targeted the gays to gin up support while Trump targets the Muslims and Mexicans. And as Putin has RT as his conduit, so Trump has the Murdoch empire.
I feel like I know Stephen Miller, the youthful Montgomery Burns who lectured the lügenpresse last Sunday morning in his charm-free Stakhanovite baritone. I feel like I know him because I used to be a little like him. He’s a classic type: a rather dour right-of-center kid whose conservatism was radicalized by lefties in the educational system. No, I’m not blaming liberals for Miller’s grim fanaticism. I am noting merely that right-of-center students are often mocked, isolated, and anathematized on campus, and their response is often, sadly, a doubling down on whatever it is that progressives hate. Before too long, they start adopting brattish and obnoxious positions — just to tick off their SJW peers and teachers. After a while, you’re not so much arguing for conservatism as against leftism, and eventually the issues fade and only the hate remains.
Think of it in some way as reactionary camp. Think Ingraham and Coulter and Yiannopoulos. They are reactionaries in the classic sense: Their performance-art politics are almost entirely a reaction to the suffocating leftism that they had to endure as they rose through the American education system. As a young, lonely conservative in college, I now wince at recalling, I threw a Champagne party to welcome Reagan’s cruise missiles to Britain. Of course I knew better — and could have made a decent argument for deterrence instead of behaving like a brattish dick. But I didn’t. I wanted to annoy and disrupt the smugness around me. If you never mature, this pose can soon become your actual personality — especially when you realize that it can also be extremely lucrative in the conservative-media industrial complex. I think of Ann Coulter, whom I met recently, backstage at Bill Maher’s show. What struck me was her sincerity, searing intelligence, and grasp of the facts. In another universe, she could have become a reasoned defender of a sane conservatism. Instead she ended up writing In Trump We Trust. In exactly the same way, Miller really is a product of Santa Monica and Duke — their living, breathing, raving antibody.
Steve Bannon, on the other hand, is quite something. I’ve read and reread his 2014 speech at the Vatican to see if I can find any coherence in it, and I confess I failed. It’s a hodgepodge of melodrama, hysteria, and a defense of some kind of “enlightened capitalism” along Judeo-Christian lines, in the face of an imminent Islamist takeover of the planet. It’s the 1950s versus jihad, an attempt to convey the gist of the entire Drudge Report every day and turn it into a thesis. He argues that we are just “at the very beginning stages of a global conflict” that could eradicate 2,000 years of Western civilization. It reads like the apocalyptic, paranoid fantasies of someone who writes letters to the editor, single-spaced, in all caps.
Now go check out this Vice journalist’s impression of Bannon in 2014. It does not reassure: “He’s buzzing with intensity, with two pens clipped to his shirt collar. Over the next 90 minutes, he barely touched his food and never took off his coat.” He just prattles endlessly and manically on. Among the gems that emerge from the conversation: Ebola requires a massive immigration crackdown or we’re all going to die; ISIS is plotting to assassinate the Pope; and then this calm overview: “The world is in a meltdown right now. I mean, the world is on fire. And all of a sudden it’s going to dawn on people, this is not a problem for guys in the Middle East. This is a problem for you in Kansas City.” You begin to realize that he called himself a “Leninist” for a reason.
It took me a while to get into HBO’s The Young Pope. I kept waiting for it to have a relationship with some believable version of reality — and then a kangaroo kept bouncing around the Vatican. At first I couldn’t understand what was metaphor and what was plot, what was dream and what was supposed to be real, what was a miracle and what wasn’t. In the first few episodes, the Trump analogy — of an unhinged novice accidentally finding himself in a position of supreme power — did the unforgivable thing of failing to distract me from the anxiety besieging Washington.
But if you let the series just lull you into acceptance, its themes are powerful. The filmmakers understand how attractive the most rigid orthodoxy can be for the young. Abandoned by hippie parents as a boy, Jude Law’s youthful Pius XIII insists that the Church needs to turn inward and embrace mystery and fear and obedience again. He’s Benedict XVI with charisma. His vestments twinkle and shimmer; the slippers remain ruby-red; and the full papal regalia is only slightly mitigated by the Holy Father’s inspired chain-smoking. He starts out as a vindictive, sadistic, and arrogant narcissist acting out his deeply buried childhood traumas (can we ever get away from Trump?). But he is also, the series slowly reveals, some kind of a saint. His prayer is like a controlled seizure of concentration. He performs quite astounding miracles. And in time, people of the modern secular world, at first repelled, find themselves drawn to him, smiles on their faces, relieved at last to be in the presence of divine authority, any authority that can make sense of their world.
I’ve often wondered if saints are actually like that: not holy in a conventional sense, and certainly not “nice” — but often unpleasant, antisocial misfits who are only subsequently seen for what they truly were.
Do you remember the days when president Obama predicted that at some point in his presidency, the “Republican fever would break”? It never did of course. If anything, it kept getting worse — from birtherism to jeopardizing the U.S.’s credit rating to Benghazi and then those fricking emails. But it occurs to me that the fever could only really break if the Republicans were no longer in opposition and were actually confronted with the difficult project of running the country. Yes, I know we’ve been hoping for this for years, chasing phantasms as the crazy gets crazier, but could the fever be finally breaking right now? The Republican base’s talk-radio politics, their Breitbart alternative facts, their railing constantly about Obama’s various alleged iniquities — none of that is enough to actually govern. But that is all they have known for so long. At some point, the Republicans are going to have to raise the debt limit; they are going to have to pay for the wall; they’ll have to replace the ACA with, well, er, something quite fabulous. They have no excuses anymore, after all.
And yet, lo and behold, they seem paralyzed. Legislatively, they are at a standstill, and the ACA endures and becomes more popular. There is no magic cure for bringing back blue-collar jobs. They will surely divide over tariffs. Even tax reform could be a liability if it isn’t directed at those low-earning core Republican voters, rather than Trump’s fellow plutocrats (and good luck with that). All the rabid rhetoric against Obama’s essentially moderate policies, in other words, is beginning to dissipate into thin air. Yes, they can deregulate. Yes, they could borrow even more to goose the economy. But it’s going to be fumes before too long. Maybe this is how the fever eventually ends — when, instead of constantly ducking responsibility, they actually have to take some.