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From the moment he was elected, President Trump’s opponents made a concerted effort to discredit him by portraying him as illegitimate. If he’s illegitimate, he would have to go. And if he goes, what he and his voters want could be dismissed as a just momentary lapse in reason—an aberration, nothing more.
It also means his subordinates are free to defy him; after all, if he’s not legitimate, his apparent authority is meaningless. He’s an imposter and, now, more strongly, they say he’s a traitor.
In late 2016, the media in concert with Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign went through weekly focus-group-tested claims that Trump was racist, sexist, uncouth, mentally unstable, and otherwise unorthodox. That didn’t work. Having failed to prevent his election, the narrative changed. Trump won, his enemies said, because his campaign colluded with Russia.
It’s a peculiar line of attack. Americans were not exactly clamoring for a more aggressive foreign policy against Russia in 2016. Indeed, since the end of the Cold War, for most Americans, Russia and the threat it poses has retreated into the background. Since devolving from the Soviet Union, Russia has had internal fights and some localized conflicts with neighbors—Chechnya, Georgia, and Ukraine—but these don’t register for ordinary Americans, who are notoriously indifferent to foreign affairs.
Russia, Russia, Russia!
Americans are practical. They remember 9/11 most of all, as well as the wars it gave birth to. People in manufacturing are concerned about China. Mexico’s influence on our country looms large, if for no other reason, than so many Mexicans have immigrated here. But, Russian collusion it is.
The allegation has some obvious appeal, even if it’s not exactly resonating with anyone but the most rabid Democratic Party partisans. It serves as an alibi for Hillary’s loss. It also distracts from her own collusion with Russia, both during the campaign and before, which went completely unpunished by the Obama Administration and the vaunted intelligence community. Finally, it provides an ex post facto justification for the unprecedented spying on the Trump campaign by the FBI.
Russia is an area of focus for the intelligence community. Perhaps this focus is why the same intelligence community seems so distracted and ineffectual. It could not thwart the 9/11 attacks, incorrectly told us that Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction was a “slam dunk,” did little to stop the mass theft of sophisticated technology by China, and shrugged its shoulders at Hillary Clinton’s security breaches. Like a Boomer Deadhead, it is nostalgic for the music of its youth.
The antipathy to Russia unites both the far Left (which loathes Russia’s authoritarianism and Christian nationalism) and the neoconservative right (which is looking for meaning through foreign conflict, and is also deeply attached to the United States using its power to control the international order for vaguely liberal goals). Trump is in neither of those camps.
A Proper Russian Reset?
Trump was a change candidate. He made it pretty clear during the campaign that he thought the foreign policy legacy of Bush and Obama—a legacy of failed interventions, a failure to prioritize, a failure to consider the security impacts of our hollowed out industrial center, and a failure to get results—was something he would not continue. He talked a lot about ISIS and China and Mexico and trade, but quite a bit less about Russia or the United Nations or Europe.
Voters had a choice. Conservatives like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) proclaimed their willingness to get in Russia’s face. The “moderate” Governor John Kasich (R-Ohio) said it’s time we “punched Russia in the nose.” Hillary Clinton said Trump would be Russia’s “puppet.” Trump was still elected. His position, with which I and likely most Americans agree, was fairly straightforward, “If we could get Russia to help us get rid of ISIS—if we could actually be friendly with Russia—wouldn’t that be a good thing?”
So why the absolutely histrionic criticism during his summit this week with Vladimir Putin? Well, some of it just seems to be a habit. After all, no matter what Trump does, whom he appoints, or how he acts, his critics reject his legitimacy. He threatens their power at home; foreign policy is just a pretext. Critics seem more and more shrill and frustrated that none of their lines of attacks seems to move the dial. He remains about as popular with his core supporters as ever, not least because of the booming economy, tough line on immigration, and follow-through on judges and other “culture war” issues. At the same time, this criticism seems to have a more practical, secondary purpose: it influences Trump to refute his critics by doing exactly what they want.
The Gift of Fear
In spite of the puppet talk, Trump has been comparatively tougher on Russia than his predecessor. He was praised this week by the Putin-hating former president of Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili. Saakashvili notes that Trump has kicked out Russian diplomats, sent weapons to Ukraine, and imposed even harsher sanctions on Russia for its actions in Crimea than Obama did. After a week of bashing his summit conduct—by “friends” and enemies alike—Trump now says he’ll be Putin’s “worst enemy.”
This change, of course, does not clearly benefit the United States, nor does it further Trump’s stated goal for rapprochement with Putin in order to free up resources to address more pressing threats such as al-Qaeda, ISIS, North Korea, and China. But for those who cannot conceive of a non-hostile relationship between the United States and Russia, this is exactly what they want.
One of my favorite books is Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear. It is not a foreign policy book. Rather, it’s a book about personal safety and human psychology. Yet it has wide application. De Becker notes that manipulative people often engage in what he calls “typecasting.” This is when someone will make a critical comment hoping that his victim will feel pressure to prove that it is not true. Like the predator who gains entry into a reluctant woman’s house saying, “you’re not prejudiced are you?” Trump’s critics have been able to obtain the next best thing to removing him from power: they have cajoled, shamed, and pressured him into doing what they want. Trump is doing so as a matter of restoring his credibility within the government, as well as his personal pride in being seen as a tough and independent steward of the government devoted to restoring America’s Greatness.
This is the downside of Trump’s “instinctive” style of politics: gut feeling can be manipulated, and it lacks the solid foundation of beliefs rooted in facts that form a comprehensive worldview.
Just as Trump would benefit by appointing more people that actually voted for him, Trump should think carefully about the motives of his critics. Do they share his vision? Do they want what is best for the country? Or, in proving them wrong, is he merely delivering through the back door what they cannot obtain directly.
Whether Trump stays or goes, if the unelected deep state with its failed ideology prevails against Trump through shaming when it cannot through impeachment or some other quasi-coup, it will still render our elections and the will of the people irrelevant by keeping the government on the same course that voters decisively rejected in 2016.
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Photo credit: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images