It’s been a week filled with manufactured hysteria. After his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, President Trump was accused of denying American exceptionalism, implying moral equivalency, and insulting the U.S. intelligence community. Insofar as he did some of these things, doing so was predictable and prudent. But those things are also sacred cows for anyone who prescribes to a progressive foreign policy, so the talking heads in D.C. want people to go nuts. And they are willing to gaslight the country to make it happen.
Trump’s Sin Against American Exceptionalism
First, the president’s critics in Congress and in the press accuse him of denying American exceptionalism. More precisely, “He did not stand up and give a robust defense of American exceptionalism.” True. This is not to say he denied that America is an exceptionally good country. Trump clearly loves America above all other countries. Trump denied American exceptionalism in the sense that he denied that it means America has some special right and authority above all other countries to save the world.
American exceptionalism of this kind sounds good, but it isn’t. It is foreign policy speak for the idea that America plays by different rules than the rest of the world—a more palatable justification for American empire than the progressive’s old “white man’s burden.” Robert Worley describes American exceptionalism as the justification for America’s “crusading spirit” to spread democracy.
Worley attributes the idea to Tocqueville, who he says observed that “America believed that it was the exception to the rule [that nations must respect other’s sovereignty]. Its heart is pure and its intentions benign because it does not seek empire through territorial acquisition. Accordingly, American interventions abroad would be accepted, even welcomed.” In short, America is so exceptional that it has the right to meddle in everyone else’s affairs to establish what Bill Kristol has called “benevolent hegemony” over a democratic world.
So the critics are right; President Trump certainly did deny that understanding of American exceptionalism, but everyone should have expected that. Trump has been denying it the whole time and he is right to do so. He is not one to believe, as David Goldman has put it, that “the neoconservative delusion that democracy and free markets are the natural order of things.”
Trump takes people and regimes as they are, even North Korea. Individual sovereignty is a cornerstone of his foreign policy. In nearly every speech or interview on the subject of foreign policy, Trump is clear on this point. The National Security Strategy reinforces it. In the end, American exceptionalism as a justification for American empire is a direct contradiction to the sovereignty of other nations.
Trump’s Sin Against Moral Superiority
Second, Trump is accused of implying a moral equivalency between Russia and the United States. More precisely, he echoed his earlier tweet at the press conference, saying “I hold both countries responsible. I think that the United States has been foolish. I think we’ve all been foolish.”
The problem here is connected to the problem with American exceptionalism, because it is hard to dispute that in some ways America is morally equivalent to Russia, both good and bad. This is not to say the U.S. regime and the Russian regime are equal. Clearly, the the United States is superior. But it’s also true that the United States does many of the things Russia does. We may not violate British sovereignty by murdering people with exotic poison, but we do violate a lot of other countries’ sovereignty by killing people with drones. Likewise, we interfere in lots of other nations’ elections. The United States and Russia are also morally equivalent in a benign way insofar as both are sovereign countries. That Trump highlights this last part is what really irks the ruling class because it denies American exceptionalism as they understand it.
Jimmy Quinn at National Review puts it plainly:
The real story is not that the United States has intervened in foreign elections and influenced foreign political outcomes, but that it has done so to promote democracy and political liberty and human rights. The talking heads trafficking in examples of U.S. interference neglect to mention that the goal of American policy has always been to prop up anti-totalitarian, pro-market leaders, if operations to do so have oftentimes been messy. The Soviet Union during the Cold War, and Russia today, by contrast, sought and seek to install their allies to morally indifferent ends.
Again, everyone should already know that Trump doesn’t think the United States has special authority to do things we say others shouldn’t do. He has made that clear in multiple interviews. But ironically, Trump wasn’t saying any of this at the summit. This might be evidence that the outrage is pre-planned, much like the outrage over his supreme court pick.
When Trump spoke at the summit, he said: “I hold both countries responsible. I think that the United States has been foolish. I think we’ve all been foolish. We should have had this dialogue a long time ago, a long time frankly before I got to office. And I think we’re all to blame.” The equivalent responsibility and foolishness is that we have not been working toward diplomacy, not that we have been killing people or meddling in elections. Though it would not have been impossible to make a case that the United States has been guilty of such things (as I note above), this is not what Trump did. It didn’t happen. The media’s scripted gaslighting on this point is glaring when you actually watch the interview or read the transcript.
Trump’s Sin Against the Intelligence Community
Which leads to the third sin: Trump’s supposed insult to the U.S. intelligence community. Like the moral equivalency farce, the outrage here is based on fake news.
The “Trump throws the U.S. intelligence community under the bus” meme took off among the political class. Left, right, and center, nearly everyone immediately bought into the false narrative. The only person of note who didn’t seem to buy in was Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.), as he stood for an interview with CNN and called out the Trump Derangement Syndrome while they pushed the meme on the news banner below him.
The meme appears to be the product of President Trump’s answer to what Angelo Codevilla rightly calls a shameful question from an AP reporter in an excellent piece on the issue. Everyone should watch the actual answer for himself before taking the fake news media at its word. Not only did President Trump not throw anyone “under the bus,” he praised the U.S. intelligence agencies. Nor did he “side with Putin,” as has been commonly reported. He specifically avoids taking either side.
That Trump was comfortable doing this was predictable, since obviously he distrusts the U.S. intelligence community. It might surprise some people in the capital, but millions of Americans distrust the intelligence community too. Even so, Trump didn’t really say as much in Helsinki. The meme that Trump insulted the intelligence community only works if disagreement with the intelligence community is the same as throwing them “under the bus.” This only makes sense if you believe the progressive line that government bureaucrats in the intelligence community are above reproach. But the myth of apolitical experts is a progressive ideological lie and more and more people know it every day.
Moreover, Trump was right to avoid taking a side. In that situation, avoidance was the only good option. Had he actually sided with Putin, the United States would have looked weak. Had he sided with the intelligence community, he would have had to condemn Putin. Doing that would have undermined the whole point of the summit, which was to build a better relationship going forward.
Look and Think for Yourself
If one takes a step back and tries to consider how the press conference between Trump and Putin should have gone, given that the decision was already made to meet and the goal was to build relationships, then Trump performed well. What else was Trump supposed to do? Perhaps he might have answered in a more polished way, but substantively, what should have been different? I cannot divine, nor have I seen anyone else offer, another option that doesn’t seem manifestly worse.
Yes, Trump could have “stood up to” Putin and “called him out” in unmistakably condemnatory terms. But this seems so obviously wrong. If the goal is enhancing diplomacy and building a working relationship, then moral posturing is also not an option. Calling someone out about the past doesn’t seem helpful when the idea is to build a future relationship.
The arguments criticizing Trump’s performance at the press conference seem to reduce down to nothing more than “America good! Russia bad!” combined with “Call him out!” and a shriek of “How dare he?!” This is the embodiment of progressive thinking: all piety and no prudence. As Chris Burkett explains in an excellent essay:
[The progressive] approach to foreign policy, driven as it was by ideology, also eschewed the Founders’ emphasis on the need for prudence in the application of just principles. In the realm of foreign affairs, the Founders believed they should choose the best course in light of particular circumstances. Prudence was also necessary to weigh the possible consequences—long- and short-term, harmful and beneficial—of our actions rather than acting impulsively in pursuit of even a just end. Wilson’s replacement of prudence with ideology in American foreign policy meant that the tempered pursuit of what is best given the circumstances would give way to the uncompromising pursuit of what is simply right.
Trump’s view of things, in contrast, is closer to that of America’s Founders. And everything he said in the summit is consistent with things he has said before. The outrage over his words could have been prewritten the moment Trump announced his plan to meet with Putin. Some of it probably was.
In the end, the critics of the Trump-Putin summit were going to hate whatever Trump said in Helsinki because they are in fundamental disagreement with the president about the nature of foreign policy for America. They knew they would hate it and they had their weapons at the ready. Trump and his foreign policy are the real threat to them, not the words spoken in Helsinki. This is the natural response of a ruling class that cannot fathom a foreign policy approach apart from the progressive cornerstones of American exceptionalism and the goodness of government bureaucracy. Thankfully Trump has a different approach.
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