The Trump era has been defined in large part by its everyday surreality. As we approach January 20, we’re looking back on some strange but perhaps lesser-remembered moments from the last few weird years.
In June 2019, at the end of the G20 summit in Japan, New York Times reporter Peter Baker asked President Trump what he made of recent comments by Russian president Vladimir Putin that western-style liberalism was obsolete. Trump’s answer managed to combine all his trademark menace, stupidity, and comic narcissism.
By “western liberalism,” Putin meant that democracy as it is practiced in Western Europe and the United States (with a free press, rule of law, and so on) is decadent and weak. Trump understood “western” to mean the west coast of the United States” and “liberalism” to mean the progressive aims of the Democratic party.
Proceeding from his inability to understand the terms of this debate, which encompasses the fundamental international ideological struggle of the post–Cold War era, he found himself caught between two characteristic desires. Trump did not want to insult Putin, but he also did not want to accept blame. He resolved the dilemma by agreeing that yes, liberals had made the West Coast terrible, but no, it was not the president’s fault:
“Well, he may feel that way. He says what’s going on. I guess you look at what’s happening in Los Angeles, where it’s so sad to look, and what’s happening in San Francisco, and a couple other cities which are run by an extraordinary group of liberal people, I don’t know what they’re thinking but he does see things that are happening in the United States that would probably preclude him from saying how wonderful it is. At the same time, he congratulated me as every other leader of every other country did for what we’ve done economically.”
As Trump remarks go, this one was unusually rich in its interpretive possibilities. On the surface, he was agreeing with his ally’s denunciation of liberal democracy. However, going a little deeper, he did not really endorse Putin’s attack on democracy so much as he failed to understand it. But, going a little deeper still, Trump does understand Putin’s worldview at some level, and his submissiveness to the Russian strongman revealed an instinctive, sub-ideological authoritarianism that he cannot put into words.
He was siding with a foreign dictator against his own country. He was shirking blame. He was acting very, very stupid while thinking he was smart. Of all the moments of the Trump presidency, this may have been the Trumpiest of all.