One of the most mind-boggling things about the Trump presidency is the effect it has had on US foreign policy hawks. This is a group that, while not 100% Republican, certainly skews heavily that way. It is also a group that has traditionally been Russophobic in the extreme. Yet even as they watch this president eagerly serve as an obsequious bootlicker for Vladimir Putin, a great many self-described hawks remain firmly in Trump’s camp, in defiance of almost every conceivable explanation save one, which I will get to shortly.
But first, let’s conduct a little recce of this bizarre situation.
DR. FAUST, WHITE COURTESY PHONE
Though I don’t condone it, I can at least understand why certain other single issue voters made the Faustian decision to throw in with the Very Stable Genius. A great many evangelical Christians, for example, have said they held their noses and voted for a man who in both person and policy defies just about everything Jesus Christ is supposed to stand for, because they felt he would at least defend their interests. Their rationale does not make a lot of sense, hinging as it does on a pathological hatred for Hillary Clinton that is unsupported by facts, but at least it is a rationale, however flawed. (And, of course, not all evangelicals needed to hold their nose. Many of them were and are in full-throated support of the entire Trump agenda, a phenomenon previously discussed at length in these pages.)
Another such group would be mainstream Republicans desperate to put an archconservative in Merrick Garland’s seat on the Supreme Court at any cost. (And yes, I do mean Merrick Garland’s seat, not Antonin Scalia’s. It damn sure isn’t rightfully Neil Gorsuch’s.)
The plutocracy’s willingness to support Trump is equally understandable, if despicable. A great many members of the 1% are well aware of the trainwreck that is the Cretin from Queens, but clearly are willing to put up with all of it — the payoffs to porn stars, the governance-by-Twitter, the general destruction of presidential norms — for the sake of their pocketbooks. The GOP tax scam that was rammed down American throats in the dead of night last December may have justified their calculus. It’s absolutely amoral, avaricious, and venal, not to mention of questionable logic (requiring one to overlook the long term damage it is likely to do to the American economy, the additional $1.4 trillion in debt, and the deleterious effects of further turbocharging inequality in these United States), but at least I understand the motivation.
However, the same Faustian bargain cannot be said to apply to foreign policy hawks. In each of the aforementioned cases there is an obvious tradeoff: get behind this troglodyte, with all his manifest shortcomings (if that stuff bothers you), in exchange for support for your pet issue. I get it.
But what do foreign policy hawks get out of supporting Trump? Everything the man does in that realm is an absolute disaster for America’s security, global credibility, and influence in the world.
He has shaken the foundations of NATO and alienated our staunchest allies with idiotic “America First” rhetoric while lavishing praise on autocrats from Erodgan to Xi Jingping to Duterte; moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock as close to midnight as they have ever been with his juvenile, genocidally reckless goading of North Korea; served as ISIS’s best possible recruiting sergeant with his volcanic Islamophobia; boasted of non-existent carrier groups, calling into question the Pentagon’s ability to read a map and diluting future threats of force; embarrassingly botched the aftermath of the Niger ambush; pointlessly given away the bargaining chip of a US embassy in Jerusalem in exchange for nothing; jeopardized our best hope for containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions by treating Teheran the same way he historically treated Atlantic City contractors; and repeatedly undermined his own staff, from McMaster to Tillerson to Sessions, creating a climate of chaos that makes the world question whether anything said by a representative of the US government won’t later be undercut by its head of state. To name just a few.
Over the course of the year, I have often heard top foreign officials express their alarm in hair-raising terms rarely used in international diplomacy — let alone about the president of the United States. Seasoned diplomats who have seen Trump up close throw around words like “catastrophic,” “terrifying,” “incompetent” and “dangerous.” In Berlin this spring, I listened to a group of sober policy wonks debate whether Trump was merely a “laughingstock” or something more dangerous. Virtually all of those from whom I’ve heard this kind of ranting are leaders from close allies and partners of the United States.
Simply put, Trump’s criminal negligence of US national security ought to horrify hawkish Republicans more than anyone else. In the assessment of Richard North Patterson, “No foreign enemy could have degraded America’s global standing so completely in so short a time.”
Of course, there are some hawks who would disagree that these were errors, and who enthusiastically back Trump’s national security agenda (to the extent that the ad hoc day-by-day whims of a raging adolescent can accurately be described as any kind of coherent “agenda”). But at the risk of being patronizing, these people cannot be taken seriously. Sure, there are mouthbreathing jingoists who think we ought to “carpet bomb ISIS and take their oil” (let me know how that is possible), or that we can magically stop Iran from pursuing its nuclear ambitions merely by bullying them, or that we ought to give our longtime NATO partners the middle finger and go it alone. But none of these are cogent foreign policy positions held by credible thinkers in the field or merit dignifying with serious debate. Even those respectable hawks who support some of Trump’s foreign policy stances — a hardline on Iran, for instance — admit to grave misgivings about his geopolitics at large. No serious military thinker I know believes that taunting Kim Jong Un to the brink of nuclear war will bring about a positive solution to that problem, or that a Lindbergh-rides-again approach to NATO is helpful, for example.
But even if, for the sake of argument, we were to stipulate that this laundry list of national security disasters are in fact all good ideas, there remains one area where Trump’s foreign policy runs absolutely contrary to decades of deeply entrenched conservative orthodoxy. And that’s the place with the furry hats.
HOW REPUBLICANS LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE KREMLIN
For at least seventy years, from 1945 to 2016, no single issue united and inspired American conservatives more than unrelenting enmity toward Russia. (Longer in fact, if you start the clock from the Russian Revolution, suspended only temporarily — and grudgingly — in order to join forces against the Nazis.) Even during that brief period of uncertainty from the fall of the USSR in 1991 to Putin’s assumption of power in 2000, the hawks repeatedly warned that Russia was not to be trusted. Hatred and suspicion towards Moscow are the north star of right wing American politics.
Somehow, however, that same right wing is now totally cool with Donald J. Trump subordinating the interests and security of the United States of America to the interests of Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation.
It is impossible to plausibly deny that he is doing so. Aside from a few minor digressions that had no appreciable impact, like the feckless and largely symbolic missile strike on Syria last April, at every turn Trump has taken Russia’s side. From sowing discord within NATO, to changing the Republican platform to support a pro-Russian position on Crimea, to returning two Russian spy houses that the Obama administration took away, to declining (without comment) to renew sanctions against Russia that passed Congress with a resounding 517 to 5 vote, to — the capper of them all, in my humble opinion — personally handing over top secret codeword intel to Sergei Kislyak and Sergey Lavrov, face to face, right there in the Oval Office, Trump has been a strong candidate for Kremlin Employee of the Year. (In that last example, Kislyak and Lavrov themselves looked shocked, as if thinking, “It can’t be this easy.”)
At the center of all this, and most glaring of course, has been Trump’s refusal to acknowledge — let alone take action to punish and prevent — Russian meddling in the American electoral process.
Trump has shown no interest in investigating this matter. None, nada, zero, zilch, bupkes. On the contrary, in fact: he has flagrantly done everything presidentially possible to thwart a proper inquiry into Russian actions, to the point of shameless, almost mind-blowingly overt obstruction of justice. From Flynn to Yates to Comey to Sessions to Mueller, that obstructionism needs no recitation here. (We can just want for the indictment.)
Just last week he ignored the anguished pleas of his Department of Justice and FBI (and he does view them as “his own”) and declassified the outrageous Nunes memo as part of an ongoing smear campaign to undermine Special Counsel Robert Mueller, while blocking the release of the Democratic rebuttal, hypocritically pleading (of all things) “national security concerns.” The man truly has no shame. Most recently, he took umbrage at Mueller’s damningly detailed indictment of 13 Russian nationals involved in ratfucking the election, and took to his favorite platform, Twitter, to attack his own National Security Adviser, active duty Lieutenant General HR McMaster, for failing to — falsely — stress to our European allies — that Russia played no role in Trump’s victory.
And this dereliction of duty is not only Trump’s. Unlike the fake president, Ryan, McConnell, and other GOP mandarins have been savvy enough to pay lip service to condemning Russian meddling — quelle horreur! — but tellingly have done none more about it than he has, which is nothing. It is within their power to act, of course. They don’t need the POTUS to tell them to set up an independent commission to look into it, a la the 9/11 Commission; they could very easily do so on their own. We’re still waiting.
INSULT TO INJURY
All this should outrage the hawks, particularly the wanton denigration of the US intelligence community and law enforcement, which the right normally fetishizes. (Denigration is putting it mildly — it’s more like an outright attack that would have made Nixon blanch.) Yet it doesn’t. What happened to the Torquemada-like tenacity that gave us the endless taxpayer-funded Benghazi hearings?
Pardon the tedious repetition, and at the risk of stating the obvious, imagine if Hillary had fired the head of the FBI looking into her collusion with a foreign power, tried to fire the special counsel doing the same, got caught repeatedly lying about contacts with the Russians, attacked the Attorney General and the DOJ for not “protecting” her in such deceit, pressured the heads of the CIA and NSA to publicly exonerate her, and on and on, all the while engaging in policy actions and pronouncements that benefited Moscow. (Not to mention refusing to release her tax returns even as evidence mounted of her shadowy financial entanglements with Russian oligarchs, mobsters, and their associated government contacts.) If Clinton or Obama had engaged in even a fraction of this behavior Fox Nation would be out in the streets with pitchforks and torches — bought from Lowe’s — with the hawks leading the charge.
Of course, not every hawk has been so blind. Max Boot, Eliot Cohen, George Will, and many others have been passionate and outspoken opponents of Trump. So have many retired military officers, and, in their own way, even some active duty brass. (A special shout-out to MG [Ret.] Paul Eaton, for demolishing Trump’s demand for a Red Square style parade in his own honor.) But they are the exception and not the rule.
Consider also this tidbit from Washington Post writers Greg Miller, Greg Jaffe, and Philip Rucker, in their sweeping survey of Trump’s failure to safeguard the US electoral process, about the ways in which the Intelligence Community has had to alter the Presidential Daily Brief to suit the current chief executive: “US officials declined to discuss whether the stream of recent intelligence on Russia has been shared with Trump. Current and former officials said that his daily intelligence update — known as the president’s daily brief, or PDB — is often structured to avoid upsetting him.”
So the most important, high level, top secret briefings in the world have to be bowdlerized to assuage the ego of the monstrous manchild we inexplicably made our leader?
Dear Republicans: Don’t ever preach to me about patriotism and national security again.
WHAT IF THEY GAVE A WAR AND THE POTUS DIDN’T COME?
Our intelligence chiefs have called Russian interference in the 2016 election an act of war a par with Pearl Harbor or 9/11. And the President of the United States does not care. He certainly isn’t doing anything to investigate it or prevent it from happening again. As Thomas Friedman writes in the New York Times: “It’s as if George W. Bush had said after 9/11: ‘No big deal. I am going golfing over the weekend in Florida and blogging about how it’s all the Democrats’ fault — no need to hold a National Security Council meeting.’”
Put very simply, Trump is wantonly refusing to execute the most basic duty of his office: safeguarding the security of these United States. Needless to say, that is an absolutely indefensible, appalling abdication of presidential authority, violation of the oath of office, and arguably an impeachable offense. (Yawn. What isn’t these days?) If that isn’t grounds for his removal, I don’t know what is.
In their WaPo piece, Miller, Jaffe, and Rucker further report that Trump’s aides continue to assert with a straight face that the sum total of their boss’s opposition to the Russiagate inquiry is that “the idea that he’s been put into office by Vladimir Putin is pretty insulting.” You get the sense that somebody in the White House has decided that the best defense against charges of collusion is for people to believe that the self-proclaimed Very Stable Genius is a merely a narcissistic simpleton who can’t deal with the fact that he didn’t win the popular vote, a juvenile egomaniac who lacks the capacity or imagination to have done anything as sophisticated as conspire with a hostile foreign power.
While he is certainly a narcissist, a simpleton, and a juvenile egomaniac, none of that lets him off the hook. It also fails to account for all the sucking up he did toward Putin during in the campaign and his continued inability to say a bad word about him ever since. It’s not as if Trump is usually at a loss for a well-timed insult.
Obviously, one reason Trump and the GOP are loath to stop, or even acknowledge, Russian interference is that it benefits them at a time when they are fighting a losing battle against demographic trends. If you’re going to gerrymander, suppress the vote, spread lies about voter fraud, and disenfranchise huge swaths of the electorate, why not take the Kremlin’s help too? Or did you think that was a red line for a party as principled as the GOP? David Frum writes in the Atlantic:
Trump continues to insist that he and his campaign team did not collude with Russia in the 2016 election. We know that they were ready and eager to collude — that’s on the public record. (“If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”) The public does not yet know whether the collusion actually occurred, and if so, in what form and to what extent. But in front of our very eyes we can observe that they are leaving the door open to Russian intervention on their behalf in the next election. You might call it collusion in advance — a dereliction of duty as grave as any since President Buchanan looked the other way as Southern state governments pillaged federal arsenals on the eve of the Civil War.
Per above, for some Republicans and other right wingers, this deal with the devil might make Machiavellian sense. (We’ll leave right and wrong out of it.) But for foreign policy hawks animated primarily by Russophobia, colluding with Russia to gain political power does not make a lot of sense when your chief goal is defeating Russia.
A PUPPETEER (IN TODAY’S WINTRY CLIMATE)
It says a lot that the most innocent explanation for Trump’s constant water-carrying for Vladimir Putin is his admiration for the kind of strongman he personally yearns to be.
Let that sink in a moment.
That we the people have put such a person in the Oval Office is jawdropping but as the kids say, I can’t even.
The same may be true of some hawks, even the Russophobes, in the same way that fundamentalist Christians suspiciously share many qualities (anti-modernism, militarism, misogyny, theocracy, and the like) with their own sworn enemy, radical Islamists. Yes, some on the right recognize much that they admire and indeed aspire to in Putin’s Russia: authoritarianism, the illusion of strength, a slavishly complaint state-run media, institutionalized kleptocracy for the benefit of a few, and perhaps above all, a fascist-style racist appeal to the white volk (or more appropriate for Russia, narod). That is especially true of white nationalists, and not coincidentally, of our Insane Clown President himself. He has made that abundantly clear.
But of course, the $64,000 question is whether there is something far more sinister at the heart of Trump’s inexplicable fealty to Russia — which is to say, blackmail. That blackmail might be as salacious (and yet simultaneously as prosaic) as the vaunted pee-pee tape, or as complex as the Trump Organization’s byzantine financial entanglement with the octopus of Russian business interests, organized crime, and Putin’s gangster kleptocracy, which are all pretty much one in the same. The latter is all but undeniable and has already been well-documented; even more damning information is likely to emerge. The former may or may not exist, but in light of the other, does it really even matter? Donald Trump quite plainly is in thrall to the Kremlin for one reason or another. His infantile refusal to acknowledge Russian meddling and take countermeasures only reinforces the very impression he is desperate to avoid — that he is Moscow’s pawn — which leads any thinking person to believe that that is undeniably true. So what’s worse: a President so vain that he won’t admit reality, or one who truly is in the Kremlin’s pocket? It could be that we are saddled with a POTUS who is both.
Indeed, Trump’s kowtowing to Moscow is so shameless, so blatant, and so without even the pretense of camouflage that it beggars fiction. No double agent in a respectable spy novel would ever behave in such an obviously guilty way. And before you Trump defenders howl, “Exactly!,” let’s remember that from condemning Al Franken for sex crimes to attacking Barack Obama for golfing too much, Donald J. Trump has time and time again proven himself to be impervious to both irony and common sense.
Don: Can you at least PRETEND to be outraged? Make a show of it, if only to throw off suspicion! Did you miss that day at KGB Mole School? (Out sick with bone spurs, perhaps.)
Presumably we will someday get to the bottom of Trump’s man-crush on Putin and eagerness to turn the United States into a satellite state of the USSR 2.0, and the fallout from that promises to be epic. (If not, God help the republic.) In the mean time it is all but impossible to deny the gobsmacking destructiveness and criminality of what he is doing.
Yet continue to deny it the hawks do.
TRIBALISM ÜBER ALLES
As there seems to be no practical benefit to the willingness of hawks to stand by Trump, the phenomenon can really only be ascribed to one thing: blind, pathological tribalism run absolutely amok.
Trump is a Republican (now), and Republicans fancy themselves the hardnosed party of national defense, as opposed to those weak-kneed peaceniks over in Democrat country. (History begs to differ, but never mind.) Even by Republican standards Trump goes above and beyond in talking the talk of simpleminded macho “solutions” to complex foreign policy issues, a kind of jingoism that is appealing to hawks who fail to think critically about what is really being said. Allegiance to their tribe has (er) trumped even their hatred of Russia, resulting in intellectual gymnastics and mind-boggling ideological contortions that would do a yogi proud. But their tortured rationalizations don’t hold a milliliter of water. (Apologies for using the metric system, America Firsters!) They simply identify with a certain brand of tough guy posturing that Trump represents, and cannot accept, or perhaps even see, its hollowness, factual inaccuracy (sometimes called “lies”), and con artistry.
The last possible explanation that can be offered is one that takes this tribalism into account: that in sticking with Trump, warts and all, they maximize the influence of their faction for the future, simply by hurting the ideological opposition. That, for starters, is an incredibly immoral kind of Alice in Wonderland calculation, along the lines of “We had to destroy the village in order to save it” (a fitting analogy in this case). But its real flaw is that it is apt to be completely wrong, considering the amount of damage Trump is doing and that the United States is expected to sustain for the sake of some future partisan advantage. It’s more likely that the hawks’ “brand” will be so permanently discredited by association with this soulless third rate con man that they will have no influence whatsoever going forward.
The hawkish right seems to be in a kind of mass denial about what Trump is doing to America’s security. Whatever the reason for that mysterious malady, these people have forfeited whatever claim they once had as hardnosed pragmatists and critical thinkers. And if Trump proves to be actively complicit in a covert Russian coup d’etat in the United States, they will be guilty of something far worse.
If the Republic survives this monstrously counter-qualified excuse for a commander-in-chief who has almost singlehandedly devalued the global stature of the United States, if we don’t all die in a global nuclear holocaust, or devolve into a tinhorn banana republic-style autocracy (which we already are beginning to resemble in ways that would have been unthinkable even eighteen months ago), what will a post-Trump United States look like? Will we have sacrificed so much credibility and influence that we become a geopolitical afterthought in the shadow of China and others? Will our NATO partners ever trust us again? Will aspiring nuclear powers like Iran ever again engage in non-proliferation negotiations without fear that the US will do an inexplicable about-face? Will potential allies look elsewhere for security partners they deem credible, competent, and honorable?
Some of that damage is already done. Simply in electing Trump (Russian interference notwithstanding), America’s reliability as a geopolitical leader — not to mention our general sanity — is in question in deeply disturbing ways. Of course, we are far from the only country ever to succumb to demagoguery, authoritarianism, and neo-fascism. But this current outbreak does not help our reputation. The only question is how much damage has already been done, how much more will be done before Trump finally goes, and to what extent it can be repaired.
In the wake of this deeply ironic Presidents Day, let us stop and marvel at what a tragic distance we have come from leaders who deserve the name to this reprehensible cretin who serves only his own monstrous ego, and goddam the rest of us.
For more essays, go to The King’s Necktie