Why, Andrew Sullivan asks, are we searching for some Rosetta stone to explain Trump’s foreign policy? Some evidence of his being a Russian asset? Some bribe? Some document or email proving his fealty to Moscow? “Isn’t it possible that Donald Trump simply believes what he says.” And as Sullivan writes in a recent NY Magazine article:
I realize, of course, that this believing what he says is technically impossible from moment to moment. But bear with me. The slackened jaws, widened eyes, and general shock that greeted his chuffed [being overly pleased with himself] endorsement of the Kremlin over Washington this past week were understandable but misplaced. Everything Trump did in Europe — every horrifying, sick-making, embarrassing expostulation — is, in some way, consistent, and predictable, when you consider how he sees the world. It’s not a plan or a strategy as such. Trump is bereft of the attention span to sustain any of those. It is rather the reflection of a set of core beliefs and instincts that have governed him for much of his life. The lies come and go. But his deeper convictions really are in plain sight.
And they are, at root, the same as those of the strongmen he associates with and most admires. The post-1945 attempt to organize the world around collective security, free trade, open societies, non-zero-sum diplomacy, and multicultural democracies is therefore close to unintelligible to him. Why on earth, in his mind, would a victorious power after a world war be … generous to its defeated foes? When you win, you don’t hold out a hand in enlightened self-interest. You gloat and stomp. In Trump’s zero-sum brain — “we should have kept the oil!” — it makes no sense. It has to be a con. And so today’s international order strikes Trump, and always has, as a massive, historic error on the part of the United States.
There’s nothing in it for him to like. It has empowered global elites over national leaders; it has eroded national sovereignty in favor commerce and peace; it has empowered our rivals; it has spread liberal values contrary to the gut instincts of many ordinary people (including himself); it has led the U.S. to spend trillions on collective security, when we could have used that wealth for our own population or to impose our will by force on others; it has created a legion of free riders; it has enriched the global poor at the expense, as he sees it, of the American middle class; and it has unleashed unprecedented migration of peoples and the creation of the first truly multicultural, heterogeneous national cultures.
He wants to end all that. He always hated it, and he never understood it. That kind of complex, interdependent world requires virtues he doesn’t have and skills he doesn’t possess. He wants a world he intuitively understands: of individual nations, in which the most powerful are free to bully the others. He wants an end to transnational migration, especially from south to north. It unnerves him. He believes that warfare should be engaged not to defend the collective peace as a last resort but to plunder and occupy and threaten. He sees no moral difference between free and authoritarian societies, just a difference of “strength,” in which free societies, in his mind, are the weaker ones. He sees nations as ethno-states, exercising hard power, rather than liberal societies, governed by international codes of conduct. He believes in diplomacy as the meeting of strongmen in secret, doing deals, in alpha displays of strength — not endless bullshit sessions at multilateral summits. He’s the kind of person who thinks that the mafia boss at the back table is the coolest guy in the room.
This is why he has such a soft spot for Russia.
OK, That’s Andrew Sullivan’s explanation for Trump, whom we’re all trying to understand. Is Sullivan correct? Is he correct when he says that Trump “wants a world he intuitively understands: of individual nations, in which the most powerful are free to bully the others.”
Yes, I think so. For wouldn’t it seem that our history is mostly the account of the most powerful nations bullying the less powerful? In your own experience do people hold back from taking for themselves what’s out there, and which may belong to someone else? Do people think of the repercussions on others of what they do and say? Do people think of others before themselves? From my own experience I would say no. People, most people, think first of themselves. And that’s what Trump is doing, and probably “better” than most.
And this would explain Trump’s being attracted to Vladimir Putin. For Putin is simply doing on the world stage, among the world’s nations, what Trump had been doing all his life among NY and NJ real estate agents. And now that he’s president, an eventuality that probably surprised himself as much as the rest of us, where could he most readily look for examples how to be President? Well to Putin, of course, who was out there, already a favorite of his, and already a great bully to his neighbors and to his own people. Look Trump admired the guy, and wanted to be like him.
As Sullivan says, the post-1945 attempt to organize the world around collective security, free trade, open societies, non-zero-sum diplomacy, and multicultural democracies was and is still pretty much unintelligible to Trump. And it seems also to be unintelligible to his Republican base, hence, Helas! his good chances for future elections for Congress in 2018, and for the Presidency in 2020.