President Donald Trump’s delivered a remarkable performance in Helsinki on Monday. His capitulation to Russian President Vladimir Putin, on such a massive public stage, was complete – and jarring.
Offered the chance to publicly rebuke Putin over 2016 election meddling, Trump said the US and Russia actually shared responsibility for it, while simultaneously touting the former KGB officer’s “extremely strong and powerful” denials.
In tone and substance, Trump’s remarks were shocking. But unexpected? Hardly. We’ve heard this all before. Trump has over the least few years repeatedly turned attacks on Putin back against Democrats, the press and the special counsel probe. He routinely undermines the US intelligence apparatus when its findings run counter to his interests.
This time, he just happened to do it all with Putin by his side.
One challenge here is in what to make of it. A popular suggestion is that Trump’s showing offers further proof that he was, indeed, in cahoots with the Russians during the campaign. Or that, as former CIA director John Brennan put it in a tweet, that Trump’s showing was “treasonous.”
Which brings us to another fundamental question, which remains unanswered: Why behave like this?
Maybe it’s that Trump is Putin’s “asset,” as some have suggested, sometimes in very literal terms. Casting this all as the latest bend in a spy thriller, with a satisfying resolution around the corner, is comforting in a way. Or maybe it’s murkier, but drives to the same conclusion: that Putin in some way, for some reason, has the goods on Trump.
Of course, that all supposes that Trump is not doing precisely what he wants.
There’s little doubt the President has an affinity for Putin. Is there something more to their relationship? Possibly. But it’s a high bar to clear and we simply haven’t gotten there yet. In the meantime, it’s worth considering a less sexy explanation.
It goes something like this: Trump and Putin share some of the same politics. They are, ideologically, allies. Their views on what makes for a good leader and citizen are fundamentally the same. Neither sees a loyal political opposition or free press as in any way valuable; rather, they view them as enemies. Both openly agitate against them. Putin routinely goes further.
The chaos, or feeling of it, that Trump creates in his speeches and in press conferences like the one in Helsinki can obscure this. For all the twists and turns in his rhetoric, sometimes within the space of a few sentences, his actions almost always end up pointing in the same direction.
Toward authoritarians and authoritarianism.
And away from the post-war liberal order.
As he made clear over the last week or so, NATO for Trump is essentially a protection racket. The European Union is a leading geopolitical foe.
When he makes statements to this effect, the outrage that follows – typically from Democrats and sometimes from hawkish Republicans – rarely touches on why it’s good or bad. Instead, it comes in the form of protests over Trump’s torching of tradition. His manners. His breaches of so many years of protocol. So on.
But that framing, as we should have learned during the 2016 campaign, only bolsters Trump with his supporters and flattens the pulses of those who might stand up to oppose him. It’s easy, for elected officials, to denounce a comment (or series of them). It’s much more difficult to reject an entire brand of politics.
Powerful Republicans on Capitol Hill and beyond have effectively ceded that thornier question, and the ground that comes with it, to Trump. Whether enthusiastically or passively, many agree with his politics.
So go ahead, be angry about what happened Monday. Disturbed. Weirded out. Make the point, and it’s an easy one, that this isn’t remotely normal behavior. But don’t get wound up in knots trying to make sense of it — the answer might be perched right on our noses.