Donald Trump met with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in Helsinki today. Unsurprisingly, it did not go well. The news media were aghast at the press conference held after the presidents' two-hour closed-door meeting. And perhaps rightfully so. Among so many of Trump's bizarre assertions, he once again affirmed that he doesn't believe Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election. An especially disjointed statement given that his own justice department indicted thirteen Russian intelligence officers for doing just that only two days before the Helsinki summit.
But there was plenty more to chew on, all of it suffused with a general air of nose-holding because Trump did not behave as he should. A number of commentators have gone so far as to suggest that he “betrayed” the United States (how is not exactly clear) or even committed treason (again the details are fuzzy). Much of the commentary seems overblown and irrelevant, at least at this point in the Trump presidency.
Similar to Trump's meeting with Kim Jong-un, it's worth noting at the outset that Vladimir Putin is a bad guy. Trump, as I've said before, is also a bad guy. But like Kim Jong-un, we can all probably agree we're talking about different orders of magnitude here. The political situation in Russia is no secret: the human rights abuses, the authoritarian rule, the klepotcratic economy, the vicious murder of journalists and political opposition. The list goes on.
But why the foaming at the mouth? Why the pounding on the table? Why the eyes bulging out of the head? I listened to a full hour of Connecticut's beloved radio host Colin McEnroe struggle to find the words to convey his sense of bewilderment. It was not thrilling radio.
Much of the shock among media and pundits alike seems to center on the idea that Trump did something he shouldn't have done, indeed, that no president has ever done before. Why, though, is this so shocking? Almost two years into his presidency, does Trump ever doing anything he's supposed to do? In fact, his modus operandi appears to be working as hard as he can to upset any expectations a reasonable person might have about how a U.S. president is supposed to behave.
Another recent example illustrates the point. Last August, Trump was apparently contemplating a U.S. invasion of Venezuela, a proposal his staff repeatedly shot down (thankfully). Nevertheless, he persisted. In a private dinner with several Latin American heads of state, Trump broached the issue again. Here's how the Associated Press reported the unfortunate encounter:
The U.S. official said Trump was specifically briefed not to raise the issue and told it wouldn’t play well, but the first thing the president said at the dinner was, 'My staff told me not to say this.' Trump then went around asking each leader if they were sure they didn’t want a military solution, according to the official, who added that each leader told Trump in clear terms they were sure.
The absolute short-circuiting of reasonable thought and behavior could not be more clear. So why expect Trump to do anything different at his meeting with Putin? If you read the transcript or watch the video, it was classic Trump. He brought up his electoral college numbers, Hillary Clinton's emails, he railed against the Mueller investigation, and on and on.
The reason, I guess, is that this kind of feigned outrage does good numbers. The news media in general, and the supposedly serious commentators it employs in particular, have surely spilled an ocean of ink on Trump's many appearances and varied performance since the campaign. Substantive analysis, though, has been in short supply. Maybe appearances and performance are important. Scholars of the presidency and U.S. foreign policy have made a convincing case for the idea, as far as I can tell.
But it seems worth asking: What's behind all the show? It would undoubtedly be better for everyone if the U.S. president wasn't so consistently clownish. How dramatically, though, has U.S. policy toward Russia changed, even with all of Trump's obsequious behavior? Furthermore, how much does Trump actually represent “America”–its people, its institutions, or its values (the ones he's supposedly so terribly betrayed)? If anything, he represents some of the worst characteristics of American culture, though I don't think that's what commentators have been crowing about.
Why bother with the presidency anyway? Since the election, a good rule of thumb has been to simply accept that there is no president. Frankly, we'd be better off without one. Why not start now?
Aside from the hand-wringing over Trump's grotesque yet entirely expected behavior, there's another story here worth considering. The problems on the table–foreign intervention in elections, the brutal conduct of political leaders, the unsavory behavior of economic elites–runs right through both the United States and Russia.
For one thing, the United States is no stranger to intervening in elections. Covert intervention in the domestic affairs of foreign countries has been one of the central planks of U.S. foreign policy, especially since 1945. And the covert nature of that policy, in many respects, only marked a shift in style from more explicit forms of foreign domination and exploitation in the period before 1945. I still think we haven't yet fully reckoned with what the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as an institution has wrought in the world since World War II.
But isn't this just whataboutism? (A term I hate, by the way). Well, no. Intervening in foreign elections is bad whether the United States or Russia does it. Of course, the Soviet Union also had its own nefarious history of intervening in foreign elections throughout the Cold War period. U.S. empire is bad; so is its anti-capitalist mirror. But it pays to keep things in perspective. I don't think there's an easy equivalence between the United States and Russia. But there are plenty of relevant similarities.
Along with foreign intervention, the shady dealings of plutocratic elites also connects the United States and Russia. Much of the financial influence Russia spreads around the world (like providing funds to support the National Front in the last French presidential election or the Leave campaign with the Brexit vote) is not so different from the underhanded influence doled out here in the United States through so-called “dark money.” Again, I'm not trying to draw an easy equivalence. But we should condemn the influence of hidden corporate spending at home just as we should condemn the financial influence of oligarchs from abroad.
One final point to bring things together. The biggest problem it seems to me is the overwhelming focus on national leaders. Why say that Trump has betrayed America? Only a small section of the country put their trust in him in the first place. Many people spent the campaign and now the presidency pointing out how little Trump represents them or what they think of as America. You see the same blinkered vision with Russia. Rarely do we learn about the thoughts, beliefs, or actions of ordinary Russians. Pick through the major newspapers, and you'd be forgiven if you thought Russia was composed solely of Vladimir Putin, Russian intelligence officers, and some shadowy oligarchs.
Foreign intervention is bad for all people who want to live in a democratic society. It doesn't matter which opponent, whether at home or abroad, is standing in the way. Similarly, the transnational capitalist class is bad for working people everywhere. It doesn't matter if they're hardened Russian mineral magnates or vulgar American real estate scammers. Surely, we could do without either.