The dominant mood of Donald Trump’s presidency, for those of us who care about the key causes of freedom and small government, is one of overhanging existential dread. Every so often, just when we begin the think Trump is tolerable, that we’ll get some good things out of this—deregulation at the EPA, or a more reliable conservative majority on the Supreme Court—Trump goes out and does something that is simply inexcusable for an American president. Last summer, it was calling Nazis “very fine people.” This summer, it’s holding a press conference with Vladimir Putin where Trump flipped his foreign policy from America First to Blame America First.
It started, naturally enough, with that national blight, Twitter. On the morning of his summit with Putin, Trump tweeted, “Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!” This retweet from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs says it all.
We agree https://t.co/7l087Qwmj3
— MFA Russia 🇷🇺 (@mfa_russia) July 16, 2018
This is recognizable as a resurrection, from the right, of the left’s old Cold War pastime of “blame America first,” in which anything that went wrong in the world, any tension between a free country and a brutal and aggressive dictatorship, was always America’s fault.
This wasn’t just Trump shooting his mouth off one time. It’s a point he repeated at the disastrous press conference following the meeting. Trump reiterated that the root of our problems with Russia is that “the United States has been foolish.” He even went so far as to throw his own Director of National Intelligence under the bus. Asked about Russia’s role in hacking Democratic Party e-mails in order to interfere in the 2016 election, Trump replied, “My people came to me, Dan Coats came to me and some others, they said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
Remember that Dan Coats is not some shadowy “deep state” operative. He is Trump’s own appointee, charged with sifting through and coordinating our latest and best intelligence about what is going on in the world. One presumes that as Trump’s choice, he would have the president’s confidence, but when it comes to criticizing Russia, it appears that no one has the president’s confidence.
As with last summer’s statement about the Charlottesville Nazis, this is a situation where Trump is specifically called upon to dispel suspicions he is sympathetic to an enemy of American freedom and tolerance. The fact that he could not make the slightest effort to do so gives us no choice but to conclude that he is sympathetic and that he really does have a man-crush on Vladimir Putin.
Is the mainstream media and the political left making that case in a hysterical and hyperbolic way? Of course they are. That’s like asking if the sky is still blue. But that’s no reason to dismiss the issue or to concoct some preposterous rationalization about how this is all really brilliant diplomacy and only looks like a total surrender.
Part of the problem is that it is now the left who see Russians hiding under their beds, indulging themselves in all the paranoia they used to accuse us of back in the Cold War. But they’re so busy freaking out that they do a poor job of explaining exactly why Russia is bad and why Putin is so dangerous.
Allow me to fill that gap with an overview of the Russian threat, because Mitt Romney was right all along: Russia is our number one geopolitical foe.
This is not to say that Russia is as direct a threat today as when they were the center of the Soviet empire during the Cold War. Russia has smaller and less well-equipped armed forces than it did back in the day, and while it still has plenty of nuclear weapons, we don’t face the kind of imminent threat of nuclear war that we did during the harrowing Cold War standoffs.
What remains, though, is the essence of the Cold War contest, just in a slightly new form. The fundamental contest in global politics is a choice between political models. Every country seeks to promote its own version of the ideal political system, in the hope that if other countries adopt the same institutions and values, their interests will naturally align. The Communists sought to make every other country Communist, whether through propaganda or subversion or outright invasion. Free nations—the ones with representative government, free markets, and the rule of law—seek common cause with other nations organized on those principles and try to spread our form of government wherever we can. This has been a central goal of America’s post-Cold War foreign policy, and not just under George W. Bush.
Today, Russia has flipped from Communism to nationalism, from a totalitarian dictatorship to one that is more authoritarian—though with the same old KGB guys in charge, funnily enough. They are also following the same basic foreign policy imperative: dictatorships always seek to remake the world in their own image.
So let us look at the basic elements of the Russian system and how they are working to spread it globally. The Russian system is rule by a strongman and his cronies, whose loyalty is rewarded with plenty of opportunities for special favors and state-sanctioned theft. His rule is supported by the prosecution of political rivals on trumped-up charges and the murder of dissidents and reporters. Most of all, Putin masterminded the manipulation of information by a state controlled media that hides the truth in a maelstrom of propaganda and lies and prevents political opponents from breaking through to a mass audience.
All of this is bad enough if it’s just happening in Russia, but Putin has been projecting all of these political pathologies beyond Russia’s borders and in every direction.
The old Soviet Union was an engine of global conflict, spurring numerous civil wars and insurgencies across the globe—in Asia, Africa, Latin America—in the hope of installing People’s Republics that were not republics and didn’t answer to the people but to the Kremlin. Putin’s Russia has done the same thing on a somewhat smaller scale and closer to home, stoking a series of small wars and unresolved “frozen conflicts” along Russia’s borders. The idea is to create a zone of chaos around Russia, ensuring that its citizens will never encounter a nearby model of a free country.
Putin has specifically targeted Ukraine, which poses a uniquely powerful threat to his regime. As a nation with a large population of Russian speakers and a culture closely connected to Russia—it has long been considered by Russians to be a natural part of their own domains—Ukraine has become a mecca for Russian dissidents and critics of the Putin regime. That’s why Putin wants to keep Ukraine permanently destabilized by sponsoring a rebellion by Russian speakers in the country’s Eastern provinces. It’s a “spontaneous” uprising that just happens to be carried out by mysteriously appearing Russian soldiers with lots of Russian military equipment—the so-called Little Green Men.
Russia has also attempted to pursue its interests by carrying its campaign of political murder across international borders. In Ukraine, this led to a recent real-life version of a spy novel, in which a Russian journalist and Putin critic living in Kiev faked his own death in cooperation with Ukrainian security services in order to expose a Russian assassination plot. Then, of course, there is the poisoning of a former KGB defector in Britain with a Russian-developed nerve agent, which has since led to the poisoning of two more Britons who live in the area—collateral damage in Putin’s global war of assassination against his rivals and critics.
Most of all, what Russia is projecting out into the world is Putin’s permanent war of propaganda and disinformation. Russia’s FSB, the successor to Putin’s old KGB, runs “troll farms” where paid propagandists create anonymous social media accounts and try to inject the Kremlin’s agenda into other countries’ political discussions. Russia pioneered this approach in Finland and the Baltic states (where the trolls were opposed by a volunteer brigade of “elves”). Aside from being places Putin still cherishes ambitions of Russian dominion, these countries have relatively small populations that can be overwhelmed by office buildings full of Russian propagandists sitting at computers. America is a much larger country, so Russian troll farms have had a more marginal impact, and those who think Russian trolls tipped the election are surely exaggerating. But it wasn’t from lack of trying.
Yet Putin doesn’t have to tip elections to achieve his goal. He achieves it merely by sowing chaos and discord, which serves his goal of discrediting free countries as a superior model of government. Those who have followed my work for a while know my fascination with the concept of “normal life,” the revolutionary notion that living in a vibrant free society is, or should be, a kind of metaphysical norm. The more conflict Putin sows in the West, the more he is able to point to the world’s vaunted democracies and sneer that this kind of “normal life” is all an arrogant delusion.
From that perspective, Donald Trump’s presidency is a triumph of Putin’s information war. Trump’s comments at yesterday’s press conference were in response to exactly the kind of domestic discord the troll armies set out to amplify. Trump is now far more determined to fight his internal enemies and their “Rigged Witch Hunt” than he is to stand up to America’s geopolitical foes. The FSB ought to hang up a “Mission Accomplished” banner.
Remember that the big contest is between different models of government, which is why in addition to his troll army’s information war, Putin has been backing nationalist agitators in Europe and Eastern European politicians who want to follow his lead. Putin’s model is one of personal rule, strongman authoritarianism, and endless internal disinformation, all of it based on appeals to a narrow and intolerant version of “traditional values,” outright xenophobia, a touchy, defensive nationalism, and calls for national “greatness” that are cover for fear of national decline. Trump is a Russian triumph in that regard, too, because he has bought into all of this hook, line, and sinker—and so have his reflexive, hard-core defenders.
That has always been the danger of Donald Trump—not some kind of overt “collusion” with the Russians, but the prospect that he defines national greatness the same way Putin does and wants to achieve it through the same means. This would be a disaster for actual American interests in the same way it has been a disaster for Russia’s actual interests. But the biggest disaster is that it undermines our model of government in its contest with Russia’s model of the nationalist strongman.
This is why Russia is, once again, America’s main geopolitical antipode. It didn’t have to be this way, and Donald Trump’s predecessors certainly could have done a lot more about it, rather than dismissing the threat. But Trump has done far worse, giving the Putin model of government the kind of ideological victory it craves. If the president of the United States is supposed to be “leader of the free world,” then the free world finds itself with a leader who is under the influence of the enemy.