Trump, the Bear, and the Tiger
So, that went well.
Donald Trump has once again achieved the impossible with his bold leadership in Helsinki. This President has united our divided country: Everyone agrees Trump dimmed our stature, made subservience great, and crowned the lawless Putin regime with underserved respect.
Well, almost everyone. Rand Paul lauded Trump for trying to “open up our lines of communications.” And former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke called Trump’s press conference “historic” and “courageous.” That’s two out of 326 million Americans. If Sean Hannity could subsist independently of Trump, perhaps we could count three.
It was a sad day for the rest of us who remember Ronald Reagan challenging the Soviets to “tear down this wall” and tossing communism into the “ash heap of history.” What Putin could not do for Russia in 18 years, Donald Trump served up for him in a press conference: Trump pulled the decaying corpse of the Soviet Union from its resting place in antiquity, polished it with compliments, and renewed its shiny status among the superpowers of the world.
Trump sees a bit of himself in Vladimir Putin, and his adulatory crush makes him look limp in the gangster’s presence. Some view the President’s servility as evidence Putin has compromising information on Trump. Joe Scarborough, for example, states as fact that Vladimir is blackmailing him. Oh, really? After Stormy Daniels, the grabbing of women by their Republican parts, and Trump being accused of sexual harassment 22 times, what is left to embarrass this President? Bizarre conspiracy theories are not needed. Trump is not subtle about his appetites or motives.
As we have all learned, Donald Trump’s gargantuan ego will not allow the suggestion that Russia influenced his election, which he won fair and square, carrying all 60 states, earning thousands of electoral votes, leaving him more popular today than Abraham Lincoln. In this President’s world, no one won the election for Trump but Trump. He chooses to believe Putin and not the politically compromised John Brennan, even if he has to dismiss cold, hard evidence presented by our nation’s intelligence agencies.
But ego alone does not help us understand Trump’s rejection of America’s role in the world since the end of the Cold War. Trump’s history does. He has never believed it is America’s responsibility to defend democracy and ensure the survival and success of freedom. Instead, he sees the world as a competition for economic power and there, it is the Eurozone, not Russia he finds threatening. His views on that have not changed since he began, 30 years ago, to put his name on our political real estate.
In 1987, Trump ran full-page ads in the New York Times, Washington Post and the Boston Globe, saying, “let America’s economy grow unencumbered by the cost of defending those who can easily afford to pay us for the defense of their freedom.” Trump sees our European allies as a gang of economic competitors who are riding for free on our defense budget while they take advantage of our open markets.
Neither Trump nor anyone else can fail to see that Putin inherited from the Soviet Union world-class nuclear, missile, and submarine programs, as well a tremendously capable intelligence service. And he has demonstrated the willingness to use those resources and arms sales, both to annex neighboring territory and displace the U.S. as the leading power in the Middle East. Even with that, as the Soviets learned from Ronald Reagan in the 80’s, Russia cannot compete with the free world in an arms race. Its feeble economy won't support it.
The Russian Bear doesn’t scare Donald Trump. He has done business there. He knows Putin’s economy is one-tenth the size of our economy. Forty-one percent of Russians report they struggle to buy food and clothes. Male life expectancy is lower in Russia than in North Korea. The World Health Organization chalks up thirty percent of the deaths in this depressed country to alcohol. The Russian population is shrinking, and its economy is only half the size of California’s. Russia subverts the West with poison gas and cyber-attacks not just because they are insidious but because they are cheap. This Administration, like many analysts, does not see Russia as an economic super-power that can sustain its current level of military spending.
The Asian Tiger is a different story. By many measures, China is now the world’s number one economy. It is China that has “passed the U.S. and is pulling away.” It is China, not Russia, that is competing with the U.S. to militarize space and dominate the world’s sea lanes. As FBI Director Christopher Wray notes, “I think China, from a counterintelligence perspective, in many ways, represents the broadest, most challenging, most significant threat we face as a country.”
Trump is right to reshuffle our resources and relationships to push back against a still muscular Russia and, also, meet China’s rising economic and military prowess. It is in our interests to avoid two-front power struggles in which Russia allies with China against American interests, as Putin is craftily doing now in North Korea. Trump is not wrong to borrow Hillary Clinton’s “reset” button and work, in a more realistic way, to find common ground with Russia, when it is in our national interest.
It is unfair, at this point, to claim Trump aims to diminish NATO’s commitment to containing Russia. On the contrary, despite his bromance with Putin, it is Trump who has launched 59 Tomahawk missiles at Putin’s puppet state of Syria, ordered military strikes that killed scores of Russian mercenaries, and authorized “the development and deployment of so-called ‘low-yield’ nuclear weapons” on NATO’s front lines “to deter Russia.”
Now, he’s pressuring Europe to put an even larger share into NATO’s till. The Eurozone is the world’s second largest economy, not the U.S., which is number three. Shouldn’t Europe pay more to protect the free world while Trump puts “America First?”
Still, there is no way to defend Trump’s disgraceful performance in Helsinki: He breathed life and respect into a murderous kleptocracy. I have never seen an American President so embarrass himself or his country. Trump looked like a trained seal, performing for Putin at a circus. He did everything but balance the soccer ball Putin gave him on his nose. Trump looked timid and made America look weak instead of making it great again. But when Trump is right, as he is in asking Europe to pay more for the defense of democracy and in re-balancing the US-Russia-China relationship, we should support him. It is time to reorder our national security priorities to face the young and hungry tiger, not just the aging bear.
Helsinki was a big event, a searing moment that will leave its mark on our politics, though not necessarily on Donald Trump. We’ve seen this show before: This is unlikely to be Trump’s low-water mark. He has demonstrated an unmatched capacity to surpass himself. Though the President’s performance may knock his poll ratings down for a few days, its effect will then wear away, displaced by the next outlandish thing he says or does.
He remains clad in Teflon. Trump can shoot Reagan’s legacy on Fifth Avenue “and not lose voters.” This President is still the only choice for Americans disgusted with an unchanged, establishment Republican Party and a Democratic Party led farther left by its single-minded Trump-hatred.
Republicans running for Congress this November are not as lucky. They were already suffering from an enthusiasm gap, and Donald Trump just made it worse. Trump has again embarrassed Republican voters and dispirited them. Now, with a little more than 100 days until the November election, it is increasingly likely that Democrats will take the House, and a more radicalized Democratic Party will impeach the President. It will not be for collusion with Putin since, it is becoming more evident, there was none. Whatever legal transgression Robert Mueller finds in Trump’s complicated financial history will be enough for a frenzied mob of newly minted Democrats.
That is the price of weakness: Weakness invites the wolves. Even when it is far away, in Helsinki, the wolves smell it. They are coming for Republicans in November.