This week, Garry Kasparov, former Russian chess champion and perennial critic of Vladimir Putin, tweeted about what autocrats do when caught: “1: Deny, lie, slander accusers. 2: Say it was a misunderstanding. 3. Boast & say ‘What are you going to do about it?’”
The day after that tweet, Donald Trump stood on a dais in Paris beside the French president and said of his son’s now-confirmed willingness to receive campaign help for his father from Russia: “I think it’s a meeting that most people in politics probably would have taken.”
That would be jaw dropping and bizarre coming from a mob boss at his pretrial hearing, let alone from the president of the United States. But that line is now standard issue among much of Trump’s political party, which has come around to the notion that collusion with a foreign power—even an adversarial one like Russia—is no big deal.
Trump, his family, and his defenders in the once Grand Old Party have mounted various defenses for his campaign’s collusion with Russians and their cutouts to win the 2016 presidential election. They have tried to ignore Russiagate. They have said collusion with Russia never happened. They have blamed Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Loretta Lynch (Trump now says the Russian government lawyer who met with Donald Jr. was only in the country because Lynch let her in. It will surprise no one to discover that’s not true.) And they have landed on the notion that even if collusion did happen, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. Check off all three of the Kasparov boxes.
With Trump’s ascension, the Russification of the Republican Party, which once supported apartheid-era South Africa and continues to back a Cuba embargo, both on the basis of keeping countries out of Russia’s sphere of influence, is complete. Trump, who in the 1980s complained that Ronald Reagan was too tough on the Soviets, and who has used Russians, including reputed mobsters, as everything from bailouts to buyers to brokers for the expansion of his hotel and pageant franchises, has officially brought kakistocracy to Washington. None but the most unmoored to any recognizable morality need apply. He has made fools of his own spokespeople. He has exposed the religious right’s leaders as very much men of this world, with all its hatred and avarice. He has unleashed the forces of white nationalism and even neo-Nazism in our country. And he has revealed an America that is far less than we thought we were eight years ago when the United States became the first former slave republic to make a member of its once entrapped minority population its national leader.
One wonders whether this democracy, as fragile as it has been revealed to be, and whether the presidency as an institution is entirely salvageable, now that Trump has exploded the norms we thought constrained the office at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Since becoming president, Trump has flouted the emoluments clause and openly profited from his office, taking payments from all comers, from the State Department to foreign governments at his golf courses, hotels and his private Florida club. He has encouraged his children to treat the White House as a marketing tool for the Trump businesses, and allowed them to commingle their business activities and ongoing involvement in his government. He has turned American foreign policy into a Santa’s workshop for Saudi and Russian interests and goals, from the needless fight with Qatar to pulling the U.S. out of the Paris climate accords to attempting to return the Kremlin’s spy facilities, which the Obama administration seized in retaliation for Russian interference in our election, to giving Russian oligarchs direct financial interest in the Keystone pipeline boondoggle to having his administration lean on House members to soften a Russia sanctions package. (He even briefly floated the outrageous and absurd notion of cybersecurity cooperation with the Kremlin.) He has invited the Russian foreign ministry into the Oval Office out of the eye and earshot of the American media, who now are reduced to audio-only press briefings where they take a back seat to Trump sycophant right-wing blogs, and he has now canoodled with Putin himself, taking the murderous Russian autocrat’s word for it that no election meddling occurred.
Trump has made political thuggery the new American political standard; throwing allies overboard and cuddling up to dictators and autocrats around the world. He has diminished American influence and credibility every day he has been in office.
Meanwhile, he has stripped the presidency of its basic dignity, tweeting his every thought at all hours of the day. He presents America in his world travels as a troglodyte nation, led by an ill-mannered, ill-tempered, praise-needy buffoon—a real life Joffrey Baratheon—who still thinks he’s a television performer, and whose attention to duty lasts only as long as his favorite Fox shows aren’t on.
Domestically, he has thrown the country into chaos, from his Muslim travel bans to his utter incoherence on health care, which he and his party are threatening to strip from up to 23 million people so they can fork over a trillion dollars to America’s own oligarchs. Putin must be positively gleeful at the damage his little ruse—tricking the arrogant ignoramuses of the Trump campaign into believing Russian hackers had the goods on Hillary, and then reeling them in—has wrought.
And so, a political party that long prided itself on a particular kind of patriotism now welcomes foreign interference, so long as it helps them win. A nation that dragged itself, painfully, from slavery to the Voting Rights Act now faces a federal government that is the single biggest threat to the right of all people to vote. A country that stuck out its chest in promoting a particular kind of greatness now wallows in defunding public education, gutting scientific research, and promoting basic ignorance about the planet in the service of bygone industries belching pollution into the air and water, as if American innovation that could create new industries and new jobs for those displaced workers is no longer possible.
Meanwhile, our children are learning that bullies do indeed prosper; that cruelty and narcissism can be a pathway to power, that one of our two major parties believes the poor and struggling do not deserve health care, and that according to the president of the United States, women essentially have no value beyond their looks and dress sizes.
One wonders whether the presidency can recover, or whether we’re doomed to live in an endless cycle of lowbrow celebrity autocracy—America remade in the image of Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi.
Already, other entertainers are bellying up to the bar, eager to follow Trump’s grubby example and take their turn at political powerball. We could soon have a national leadership that includes The Rock, Kid Rock, and who knows, maybe Ted Nugent, now that white nationalism and public vulgarity have gone mainstream.
What hope is there for a country that has reduced itself to this? What future? For now, it’s hard to see a particularly bright one. If this is what making America great looks like, God help us when greatness ensues.