We don’t know what will come out of this “summit” between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, but let’s be clear here. The mere fact that this meeting is happening is a day of national humiliation for the United States.
Oh, come on, say the MAGAs. It’s a head of state meeting with a head of state. Can’t hurt to talk. Maybe Trump will even confront Putin on a couple things.
Borscht. It can hurt to talk.
First, we have the symbolically galling fact of a president of the United States, the person we used to call the leader of the free world, giving respect and credibility to a man who rigs elections, kills his political opponents, kills journalists, imprisons rock bands, and runs his country… well, much the way Trump no doubt wishes he could run his.
Yeah, sometimes we have to meet with unsavory people. But you dictate where and when.
Barack Obama usually met Putin at the sidelines of larger meetings (he did visit Putin’s home once, in 2009, but Putin wasn’t president at the time). Obama didn’t go to Finland, practically Putin’s home court, and he sure didn’t attach any pomp and circumstance to the meetings. He made a point while shaking Putin’s hand to have a look on his face like he was swallowing turpentine.
Second, there is an even worse symbolism at work here.
Time was, during the Cold War, when the entire world recognized at such meetings that the president of the United States was the one who was representing freedom and democracy while the Soviet premier was fronting for repression and dictatorship. We did our share of bad things around the world, there’s no denying that, and we were nearly 20 years into the Cold War before we ended apartheid in our South. But in terms of what we broadly stood for in the world, it was pretty clear cut. We were the white hats.
Now? Trump is aligning the United States with Putin and against democracy. Think about that. We’re the bad guys now. Since communism’s collapse in the 1990s, the world has seen a relative burst of freedom as ex-dictatorships became democracies. Today the trend is in the other direction, and here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write, and never would have under any other American president, no matter how strongly I disagreed with his ideological views: The United States of America is part of that anti-democratic trend. Trump’s America has joined Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China to lead the global anti-democracy movement.
Third, there’s the terrifying thought of what Trump will say yes to at this meeting. Meddle away, Vlad, old buddy! As long as it’s only affecting Democrats, who cares? And do something about that May dame, will ya? Big-league loser. Maybe putting a kook like Corbyn in charge would be fun for a while, then we could really mess with him, hack the computers of HSBC and Barclays! And hey, give Bashar my best, will ya? Tough hombre. I like that.
Who knows what Trump will say? And of course we’ll never know because he’ll lie, as he did about his meeting with Kim Jong Un, about which I don’t think he’s spoken one true syllable. Yes, his aides are the gossipy-est White House aides in history, but if they’re not in the room, how will we ever know what Trump gave away?
I remember the summits of my youth. They were somber and serious affairs, and they actually pretty consistently managed to nudge the world dial in the direction of peace. Nixon and Brezhnev negotiated the anti-ballistic missile treaty. Carter and Brezhnev did SALT II. Reagan and Gorbachev negotiated vast reductions in nuclear arsenals. Those summits were dignified affairs.
This? This is more like a meeting between Joe Colombo and Vito Genovese. It wouldn’t surprise me if they have a cake shaped like Germany that they start cutting into.
It's a dark day, friends. If we can get rid of this guy in 2020 and a Democrat can win, we should be able to salvage a reversal of this. But if Trump wins, or “wins,” four years from now, the global damage this tag team can do is terrifying to imagine, and the United States will not be the country we knew.
But: We are not helpless, and we are not defenseless. There are people out there, Democrats and Republicans, but small-d democrats all, who are devoting their lives to battling Trumputinism. Many research centers are at work fighting cyber-warfare: the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund, the Belfer Center’s Defending Digital Democracy initiative, the Center for Democracy and Technology, Data for Democracy, the Digital Forensic Lab at the Atlantic Council, and many more. They’re all doing important work.
In addition, nearly every agency of government has a task force devoted to some piece of this work. But—surprise, surprise—their work isn’t being coordinated well, because that would have to be done at the White House. “There is a great community of experts working from different angles and collaborating to network communities that never had reason to engage one another before (like national security experts and election administration experts) to develop and advance these strategies,” said Laura Rosenberger of the Alliance for Securing Democracy. “What’s missing to date is the political will in government to do what’s necessary at the top. That has to change before it’s too late.”
Amen to that. In the meantime, let’s not grant this thing the dignity of calling it a summit. It’s a capitulation and a humiliation and a day that should make Americans ashamed.