Donald Trump’s presidency feels like it is in crisis. Reading the Washington Post is almost comical now. At least once a week we are treated to at least 18 — now 24, now 31! — sources within the White House reporting that Donald Trump had another very Trumpish day. He’s berating advisers. He’s cursing Barack Obama and the Deep State. He’s making decisions based on fake news. He’s bungling even routine jobs, such as an introductory phone call with the Australian prime minister. Everyone who works for him hates him. The press has the whiff of blood in their nares. They might just be able to take this guy down.
But it’s not Trump’s attempts at self-enrichment, the rank amateurism of his staff, or even his mismanaged relationships with his own party that are dragging him down. From the media’s perspective, it’s the Russia stuff that’s working. It flummoxes Trump, unmans him, and people love to share the latest conspiracy.
Granted, Donald Trump hasn’t helped himself. Russia and Trump seem to collect the same shady and deluded co-conspirators, and real second-raters at that. His former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and his national-security adviser, General Michael Flynn, were pushed out over their dealings with Russian politicos. Trump’s habit of talking about foreign leaders in overly familiar ways — he has “great chemistry” with some — leads him to say too many admiring things about Vladimir Putin. And Trump Tower was notorious for leasing apartments to shady Russian characters associated with organized crime. Every time Trump tries to cauterize the wound, for example by firing the FBI director for not clearing his name, he makes things worse.
But now almost all of the justifiable anxiety about Trump’s character and behavior is transmuted into the Russian story. And frankly, we should be worried about how that plays out. For all the talk about how Russia is an unpleasant Eurasian gas station with a stunted economy, it’s still a nuclear power that feels itself humiliated. Our last two presidents both tried to improve relations with Moscow. And there are geopolitical situations where a president of the United States, Trump or someone else, would desperately need Russian help and cooperation. If the “get Trump” hysteria impedes that, it could do more harm than good.
And it is a matter of hysteria right now. Amateur conspiracy theories proliferate across Twitter and in the media. A viral story at the Washington Post alleged Russia had been involved in a sophisticated campaign to spread fake news. The evidence amounted to little more than what the Kremlin-funded RT network had tweeted over a few months. Another viral story alleged a secret back-door computer communication between the Trump campaign and its Russian masters; it was most likely a server sending spam and hotel promotions. There was the entertaining and prurient “dossier” on Trump, a document in which it seems intelligence agents shared rumors and fantasies about Donald Trump’s bizarre private forms of revenge on Barack Obama.
Brexit: Russia did it. Vermont’s power grid hacked: Russia did that too. Except the grid was fine. Russia hacked C-SPAN and piped in propaganda instead. Except that never happened. It’s now commonplace to ascribe to Russia any plot that fits a pattern, whether the pattern is well established or not. Was Russian intelligence really so boneheaded as to wait until the last 36 hours to release the completely non-scandalous e-mails of Emmanuel Macron?
Was Russian intelligence really so boneheaded as to wait until the last 36 hours to release the completely non-scandalous e-mails of Emmanuel Macron?
What’s even less reassuring is how little so many retweet-chasing experts on Russia actually know about Russia. Watch them blame the appalling treatment of homosexuals in Chechnya on “Christofascism.” Last December, a survey showed that 50 percent of Democratic voters believed that Russia tampered with vote tallies to help Donald Trump. The huge New Yorker feature on the New Cold War even admitted that the foundational story of our Kremlin panic, that the Kremlin aided WikiLeaks in obtaining Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, is based on an intelligence report that “provides more assertion than evidence.”
These stories and non-stories go viral for two reasons. Progressives are predisposed to believe they own the future, and so it is comforting to believe that their reversal of fortune over the past 18 months must be a dastardly plot from without. Russia’s super-competent interference saves their worldview from examination. They also love the role it allows them to play. Many progressives tend to feel guilty or embarrassed by activists who shout “America was never great.” They positively relish the idea that the so-called “Real American” rubes in flyover country elected a man committing treason. Now it is liberals’ turn to be tricorn-wearing patriots, wrapped in Old Glory.
It’s not hard to imagine, however, how making Russia into a great Satan can present a danger to the United States and its allies. Presidents want better relations with Russia for a good reason. Russia is a powerful nation that can throw its weight around in important regions. The need for Russian help, or at least acquiescence, can present itself in several places, and Trump or his successors need the political room to ask for it.
Let’s say the Trump presidency continues to be mired in Russian scandals — some real, some fake — for the rest of the summer. Then North Korea’s regime begins to melt down. Chinese policy makers may go quiet deliberating whether to let the U.S. and South Korea dominate the entire peninsula and put military bases right along their border or to press their advantage when U.S. credibility and its president’s ability to act is constrained.
Or the problem could be civil unrest in Belarus. Like Ukraine, Belarus exists in between NATO and Russia. A crisis there could send our Polish allies reeling for fear that Russia will spring out of its post–Cold War cage once more.
Of course, the best thing would be to have a president who does not make incriminating blunders when it comes to our relations with Russia. We don’t have that right now. But in the course of trying to generate enough panic or outrage to remove him, the anti-Trumpers who imagine themselves defending America from a malign Christofascist power bent on the destruction of C-SPAN may end up constraining this president’s or another’s ability to handle a very serious crisis.