Now Donald Trump is inviting Vladimir Putin to Washington.
Of course he is.
From the earliest days of his campaign, Trump could not have said more clearly, or more often, that he finds more to admire in Putin’s neo-Czarism than in the American tradition of limited, constitutional governance. Nor could he have more limpidly expressed and displayed his admiration for Putin and his deference to him. Yet “the president’s extraordinary news conference with Mr. Putin in Helsinki,” reports The New York Times, “stunned Republicans across the ideological spectrum.”
What is newsworthy in this is that politicians who have until now known the truth—but have nonetheless been Trump’s enthusiasts and enablers—are at long last speaking the truth. Something has caused them to admit, at last, that Trump’s relationship with Putin is endangering the global order built by the United States after the Second World War—upon which the world’s peace and prosperity rests.
In the wake of the immediately infamous Trump-Putin press conference in Helsinki, Paul Ryan, Ed Royce, Mitt Romney, and even Newt Gingrich deployed such words as “disgraceful and detrimental to our democratic principles.” It was too much, even, for Fox News: Neil Cavuto described the scene as “disgusting.”
A host of more hesitant GOP Senators reached for the words “dismayed, and “troubling.” Their inability to put things plainly called to mind nothing so much as Vladimir Nabokov’s infamous scene in Lolita: “Look here, Lo,” says his pedophile protagonist, Humbert Humbert:
Let’s settle this once for all. For all practical purposes I am your father. I have a feeling of great tenderness for you. In your mother’s absence I am responsible for your welfare. We are not rich, and while we travel, we shall be obliged – we shall be thrown a good deal together. Two people sharing one room, inevitably enter into a kind — how shall I say — a kind —”
“The word is incest,” said Lo.
The word, Senators, is treason.
They are not saying this now because prior to the Helsinki summit they had no idea something was deeply wrong with the President. Anyone with even a tangential connection to the D.C. gossip circuit knows full well that they have been saying precisely this in private. But their public candor marks the end of the pretense that they, like the ordinary Americans they claim to be, are genuinely baffled by these events.
Those Who Will Not See
Most Americans have the luxury of thinking little about the rest of the world. We are a continental power with Canada to the north, Mexico to the south, and nothing to the west and east but fish. The rest of the world is a faraway abstraction, filled with wondrous (or shithole) countries that exist only in our imaginations: places where history, complexity, geography, and details do not matter.
There is a cohort of Americans, however, who see things differently. A narrow class—an elite, if you must—follow events overseas closely, even minutely. Some do so because their lives depend upon it, some because their careers demand it, some just find the rest of the world interesting. Members of this elite include the Joint Chiefs of Staff, servicemen who have grasped that they will die unless they quickly and accurately assess the local political landscape, intelligence analysts, diplomats, historians, scholars of international relations, our few remaining foreign correspondents, and expatriates who have learned the hard way that getting the details right matters—a lot.
Two other groups, too, understand Russia’s behavior all too well: every member of Congress and every member of Trump’s administration, save, perhaps, his blood relatives. Even the most junior and feeble-minded member of the legislative branch has been briefed--repeatedly, in open and closed sessions--on Putin’s behavior. For all they insist they are just down-to-earth folks, like the people who vote for them, they are not. They know—and they have known for a long time. Every member of our Congress knows. Every member of Trump’s Cabinet is engaged—perennially—in efforts to mitigate the damage. Every one of them is reminded of the danger, daily, by reports from our intelligence agencies, whom they all know full well are not making this up.
Here is what they know: Putin seeks to do to the West what Reagan did to the Soviet Union. Reagan did not view the Soviet Union as a traditional geopolitical rival; he had no use for détente. He loathed the Soviet Union for its cruelty and its totalitarianism; he hated communism to the depths of his soul. He sought to push the Soviet economy to the breaking point, for he aimed to see the Soviet Empire collapse, permanently discrediting its ideologues and exposing communism as a sham. He succeeded.
A Chuckleheaded Gorbachev
Mikhail Gorbachev is lionized in the West and reviled in Russia. To Putin, Gorbachev is the milksop who cost Russia its empire. He sees in Trump a chuckleheaded version of Gorbachev. And there are parallels: Gorbachev presided over a system that was not working as communist ideologues predicted. Trump too presides over a system at risk, as political scientists would put it, of “democratic deconsolidation.” This is how researchers Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk put it:
Across a wide sample of countries in North America and Western Europe, citizens of mature democracies have become markedly less satisfied with their form of government and surprisingly open to nondemocratic alternatives. A serious democratic disconnect has emerged.
Gorbachev, while unwilling to renounce communism outright, began to suspect the ideology itself might need adjustment. Clearly, Trump too has come to doubt the entire project of liberal democracy--if ever he understood or believed in it. He has no use for free markets, the enumerated rights, or open societies. Unlike Gorbachev, however, he does not even keep up the pretense.
So unsure was Gorbachev that the USSR was genuinely superior to its rivals that when the captive nations sought to escape, he permitted the Soviet Empire to collapse. Save for a half-hearted massacre in Vilnius, he barely put up a fight. Putin has never forgiven him for this.
So unsure is Trump that the liberal democracies of the Western world are superior to the alternatives that he is willing to see NATO—history’s most successful alliance, and unlike the miserable Warsaw Pact, one comprised of free nations—collapse.
At this rate, it will. It could happen within weeks. Should this come to pass, liberal democracy itself will suffer the fate of communism: it will for generations be viewed as a failed experiment and a sham. “A czar must conduct himself like a czar,” Gorbachev later allowed, ruminating over his failures. “And that I don’t know how to do.”
Likewise, the leader of the Free World must conduct himself like the leader of the Free World, and that Trump does not know how to do.
Contrary to legend, Putin is not a strategic genius; indeed, in the long run, the chain of events he has set in motion will destroy him, too. But he is not devoid of tactical insight. As French national security analyst François Heisbourg recently told The Daily Beast, “Trump’s tactics are dreadful, whereas Putin’s tend to be exquisite.” Among other things, he knows more about Americans than we know about him. He grasps that American voters have ceased to see the need for the world we built.
The consequences of this disjunct in knowledge can only be catastrophic. We have encouraged Putin’s belief that destroying the West will be almost trivially easy to do, for we have genuinely lost our will to defend ourselves or our allies.
Everyone around Trump knows this. How do I know? Because I’m a card-carrying member of the elite. I know these people. I hear the gossip. They all know well Trump is unfit to serve.
Politico reported that “many in Washington” believe “the 2016 election meddling was just a precursor for what the Kremlin has planned this November.”
Enough with this “many in Washington” business. We all know who they are. It is time for them all to go on the record and say this in their own names.
Then they must resign. They will not save their honor. Nor will history be kind to them. But they may, if they make a coordinated and dramatic gesture, save the West.
Toadies and Flunkies
If they believe, at this point, that they are serving patriotically, that they are the grown-ups who can contain Trump’s worst impulses, they are indulging their own grotesque narcissism. If they believe their resignation will only make things worse, for Trump will replace them with irresponsible toadies and flunkies, they have failed to grasp the key point: They are the irresponsible toadies and flunkies. They cannot contain Trump: If they could have, they would have, and they have obviously, abjectly failed.
General Kelly, General Mattis, Vice-President Pence, Attorney General Sessions, CIA Director Haspel, Secretaries Mnuchin, Coats, Ross, O’Rourke, and Pompeo: Resign. Members of the GOP: impeach him now—or resign. It is the only good you can now do for your country. All of you, together. In a single news conference. Tell the American people the truth you all admit to each other in private. He doesn't listen to a word you say. You are not containing him.
You are enabling him. You are legitimizing him. You have failed. Go.
In 1653, Oliver Cromwell addressed the Rump Parliament:
“It is high time,” he said, “for me to put an end to your sitting in this place, which you have dishonored by your contempt of all virtue, and defiled by your practice of every vice. Ye are a factious crew, and enemies to all good government. Ye are a pack of mercenary wretches, and would like Esau sell your country for a mess of pottage, and like Judas betray your God for a few pieces of money. Is there a single virtue now remaining amongst you? Is there one vice you do not possess? Ye have no more religion than my horse. Gold is your God. Which of you have not bartered your conscience for bribes? Is there a man amongst you that has the least care for the good of the Commonwealth? Ye sordid prostitutes have you not defiled this sacred place, and turned the Lord's temple into a den of thieves, by your immoral principles and wicked practices. Ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation. You were deputed here by the people to get grievances redressed, are yourselves become the greatest grievance. … I command ye therefore, upon the peril of your lives, to depart immediately out of this place. Go, get you out! Make haste! Ye venal slaves be gone! … In the name of God, go!"
On May 7, 1940, the British Conservative MP Leo Amery, hurled the same words at Neville Chamberlain after the British-French expedition in Norway ended in disaster. Amery repeated Oliver Cromwell’s words:
“We are fighting today for our life, for our liberty, for our all; we cannot go on being led as we are. I have quoted certain words of Oliver Cromwell. I will quote certain other words. I do it with great reluctance, because I am speaking of those who are old friends and associates of mine, but they are words which, I think, are applicable to the present situation. This is what Cromwell said to the Long Parliament when he thought it was no longer fit to conduct the affairs of the nation: You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.”
I, too, speak to old friends and associates of mine, but no longer with reluctance. To friends and associates now expressing feigned dismay that Trump has behaved exactly as I warned you he would: Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!