President Trump is no ordinary president. That much is clear. His first year in office has been anything but normal. However, one could say that on the world stage Trump has been quite effective. He continued Obama’s strategy in Syria, effectively pushing the Islamic State out of Iraq, routing their capital at Raqqa, and pushing ISIS underground. He has demanded an increase in defense spending from the Europeans and he’s gotten that, along with promises for further increases. He’s started a trade war with China that was a long time coming and looks like he could actually win some concessions from the Chinese, whose protectionist policies have given it distinct advantages. He brought Kim Jong-un to the negotiating table after very effectively enforcing a new round of sanctions that had the North Koreans suffocating. All in all, he’s accomplished a lot on the world stage during his first year in office. He still may accomplish more.
The recent trip to Brussels, the UK, and Helsinki for the now infamous Putin summit has Trump appearing in a different light. This trip revealed the weaknesses of Trump’s “tough love” strategy with allies and effusive praise that borders on deference to autocrats. The Europeans have been reluctant if not recalcitrant about defense spending. This is unacceptable. But Trump’s public berating crosses the line and he could have been more effective if he made sure to affirm NATO before dressing it down. But the treatment of British Prime Minister Theresa May was probably worse. May is stuck between a rock and a hard place on the Brexit negotiations, and Trump only added fuel to the fire with his criticisms of May and further weakened the current government in its hour of need.
Then there was Helsinki. So why did Trump do it? Why did Trump publicly throw his own intelligence chief, Dan Coats, a man of great integrity, under the bus along with the American intelligence community? Trump, publicly recognized that his own intelligence told him that Russia had, without a doubt, interfered in American elections and then acted as though Vladimir Putin’s denial counted as equivalent counter-evidence. On one hand is American intelligence with a mountain of evidence indicating without a doubt that Russia interfered in the last presidential election, and on the other hand is the word of our chief geopolitical rival. It was a striking scene that will not be easily forgotten, especially in Europe where the whole episode went down.
I came away from the press conference wondering why Trump said what he said. One theory prominent among a good many left-wing media outlets and politicians is that Trump is a Manchurian candidate. Though there is virtually no tangible evidence, Trump’s strange love for autocrats, and especially Vladimir Putin, seems to be evidence enough. To cap off the weirdness of the Manchurian-hypothesis is the claim that there is a “pee pee tape.” If these people could only look at themselves in the mirror when they float these theories, they might be a bit soberer.
There may be a simpler explanation. First, Trump is iconoclastic to the core. If you say something can’t or shouldn’t be done, he reflexively takes the opposite position. If the received wisdom amongst senior Republican politicians is that Putin is our enemy, then Trump will be inclined to take the opposite position. It’s this sort of audacity that allows him to pull out of the Paris Accords, ditch the Iran Deal (JCPOA), and recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel—something that has been promised by each president since Clinton but went unfulfilled. Would any president other than Trump have the sheer audacity to do these things? Probably not.
Second, Trump is an extremely vain person. He can’t stop talking about people who are his “friends” and often talks in personal terms about other leaders. If a leader has nice things to say about Trump, he is usually favorably disposed to them. The Europeans are critical of Trump so he berates them. Putin often complements Trump, and so he’s favorably disposed toward Putin now. It is also this vanity that makes Trump believe that he alone can strike deals with countries like Russia and North Korea where others have failed. It is a high risk and high reward strategy, but Trump believes he can do it.
Yet the criticisms of Trump are so predictable and offered in such a condescending and hyperbolic manner that it’s little wonder when Republicans rally to support the president. If it’s not the near constant comparison of Trump to Hitler or the cry of fascism or the endless stream of vitriol that pours forth from Democrats and the media, then it’s some other extreme claim like Trump is the mastermind of a vast plot to undermine democracy. Conspiratorial thinking abounds.
Furthermore, until we know the details of the discussions that occurred, it’s hard to pass any sort of judgment on the summit. Yes, the press conference was awful, but nothing substantively changed in American policy towards Russia.
John Brennan took to Twitter and accused Trump of committing “high crimes and misdemeanors” during his press conference with Putin. Yes, press conference itself was depressing and shameful on many levels, but the former head of the CIA taking to Twitter to hysterically claim the president is guilty of treason is equally shameful. Really? High crimes and misdemeanors? What do these critics of Trump hope to accomplish by leveling patently absurd claims? Fudging in a press conference on the findings of the American intelligence community is not a high crime and misdemeanor. It’s disappointing, shameful, and bizarre, but Trump has broken no laws except the very common sense one that you ought not to side with a brutal and ruthless dictator who is actively seeking to undermine America and the West.
Another former CIA chief, Michael Hayden, took to Twitter during the not-so-long-ago “crisis” on the southern border with the family separation policy. He compared Trump and the Nazis. Compelled by “conscience,” these distinguished public servants seem unaware of how these hyperbolic criticisms play in the rest of the country. It has had the effect of galvanizing support for the president amongst Republicans, many of whom did not vote for Trump or have grave misgivings about him. Blinded by their own self-righteousness and unveiled contempt for the president and his supporters, they do the very opposite of what they set out to do.
We are treated to near constant predictions of the imminent collapse of the Trump administration or that he has finally crossed the line that will cause the bottom to fall out of his support. And yet, things somehow continue.
The most disturbing part of the whole Helsinki fiasco was not some secret plot or a supposed pee pee tape, but the seeming moral equivalence that Trump tacitly makes between America and Russia. In the past Trump has said that both Russia and the US have done bad things. In response to Bill O’Reilly’s assertion that Putin was a bad guy who killed journalists, Trump responded, “You think our country is so innocent?” To some Americans this claim rings true. There are significant contingents in both political parties that make this moral equivocation between America’s sins and Russia’s. We’re no different.
A good deal of the left and not a few Democrats believe America is mostly a force of oppression and imperialism around the world. Ta-Nahesi Coates believes that America is a white supremacist ethno-state whose basic DNA is racist writ large. Noam Chomsky, darling of the radical left, has made a career of this sort of moral equivalence. If you think America is land of the free and home of the brave, you are just naïve and unaware of America’s past sins.
But there is also a significant contingent on the right, headed politically by libertarian senator Rand Paul, who has an equally dark view of America in the world. It is no surprise that Paul was one of the few Republican voices defending the president’s comments.
Has America done evil things in the past and present? Yes, of course. We should not lie to ourselves about our own failures, past and present. But there is no moral equivalence between Russia and the US. Russia is run by an oligarchy that violently kills and suppresses those who disagree with it. Basic rights are violated daily. The state has supreme control over the lives of its subjects. The reason we don’t hear more about these violations is that the press is controlled by the Kremlin. When Trump gets up and acts as though America is just the same as Russia, he does incalculable damage to this basic truth and blurs lines that should be drawn clearly and brightly between free societies that are governed by the rule of law and those that are not.
Daniel Strand, a Providence contributing editor, is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Political Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University. His scholarly interests are in history of political thought, religion and politics, and the thought of St. Augustine of Hippo.
Photo Credit: President Donald J. Trump and President Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation on July 16, 2018. Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead.