In the film “The Manchurian Candidate” – the true and only John Frankenheimer version, not the misbegotten remake – an international operation conspires to place a Communist agent in the White House. The mechanism is complicated, involving brainwashing, fake heroism and an assassination scheme, but the core conceit has a distinctive genius: The agent of influence the Communists intend to raise to the presidency is basically a Joseph McCarthy figure – a right-wing politician named Johnny Iselin who rants about Red infiltrators even as he’s actually being manipulated himself, by a Machiavellian wife who takes her orders from Moscow or Beijing.
Sadly for this newspaper’s web traffic, this will not be a column about the mounting evidence linking Melania Trump to Kremlin handlers, the timeline that proves that she’s been running her husband as a Russian agent since the 1990s or the deep Cold War-era connections between her Slovenian circle and the KGB.
Instead, I want to talk about the striking contrast between Donald Trump’s strange Russian romance and the way that the Communists in Frankenheimer’s movie went about their America-subverting scheme.
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In “The Manchurian Candidate,” the whole point of the story is that the plot is secret, designed so that its intended outcome is the last thing that Americans expect. They’re being duped into voting for a man who they think is the most hawkish of Russia hawks, when all the while he’s being maneuvered into betraying America to the Comintern.
In Trump’s campaign for the presidency, by contrast, the Russian romance was not only out in the open, it was a deliberate selling point, which the candidate himself consistently brought up and emphasized and touted. Any American voter who paid attention knew that Trump was a Russia dove, that he intended to seek a détente with Moscow, that he wanted to make some sort of Great Deal with Vladimir Putin and inaugurate a new era of great power cooperation. He won the Republican primary on that position. He won the Electoral College on that position. The public had every reason to understand that he was unusually pro-Russia, and in the necessary numbers they voted for him anyway.
Now it may be, as many postelection commentaries have argued, that the public was underinformed about the various connections between Trump’s campaign staff and Russia’s oligarchic-intelligence complex, and that a thorough airing of Trumpworld’s ties would have made his pro-détente rhetoric seem more sinister.
But the fact remains that Trump told us, over and over again, that he liked the idea of improving relations with Russia – an idea, as it happens, that this man of few consistent ideas has held consistently since the armaggedon-haunted 1980s. He was forthright, not deceptive. He did not act like a man with a dark secret, a man for whom Russia was a dangerous subject to be avoided at all costs, a man with an interest in turning the public’s attention away from anything related to the Kremlin. He was happy to talk about Putin, happy to wear his Russophilic intentions on his sleeve.
This does not make it impossible to believe, as an increasing number of Trump critics do these days, that Trump’s inner circle was actually colluding with Russian intelligence during this period – or that Trump himself, for reasons financial or personal, was really a Russian asset of some sort. Our president is sufficiently undisciplined and self-sabotaging, sufficiently incapable of normal self-interested self-control, that you cannot dismiss the possibility that his public rhetoric on Russia was effectively a weird sort of advertisement for crimes or blackmail being perpetrated behind the scenes.
But because so much about Trump is abnormal, there’s a risk in always leaping over more normal explanations even when the fact pattern still points their way. And the Trump-Russia fact pattern is still quite consistent with what you might call an abnormal kind of normal – a Trumpian variation on a foreign-policy tendency that our two most recent presidents have exhibited as well.
By this I mean that it is not exactly unheard-of for presidential candidates to sport intimate ties, personal and financial, to foreign powers whose values are considerably different from our own. Nor is it exactly unheard-of for presidential candidates to imagine that their particular experience of the world, their personal connections and experiences and sympathies, can serve as the basis for a revolution in U.S. foreign policy.
In the first case I’m thinking of George W. Bush’s distinctive ties to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a long-standing U.S. ally that is also an ideological hub for Islamist terrorism and a regime whose style of theocratic authoritarianism actually merits “Handmaid’s Tale” comparisons.
In the second case I’m thinking of Barack Obama’s distinctive links to Islamic cultures, both African and Southeast Asian, which clearly informed his hope (and the hope of some of his supporters) that his mere election might radically change America’s image in the Muslim world and enable a broader shift in how Washington approached that region’s governments and people.
Trump is seamier, cruder and more temperamentally authoritarian than Bush and Obama, and his Russian romance lacks the establishment pedigree of the Bush-Saudi connections and the cosmopolitan idealism of Obama’s wooing of the Muslim world.
But his team’s dalliances with Russian oligarchs and his inner circle’s dumb attempts to set up a secret line to Putin could still just turn out to be a seamier, cruder, more stumblebum version of the Bush-Saudi links that set Michael Moore and Craig Unger ablaze in the Bush years, or the attempts to woo Tehran and tame the Muslim Brotherhood that persuaded anti-Obama paranoiacs that he was an agent of Shariah.
The whole Russia affair might, in other words, just be what it looks like when an inexperienced, incompetent and, yes, sordid presidential apparatus tries to pursue a different foreign policy agenda than its predecessors.
Which would not make that agenda wise. The Russian threat is currently inflated: A post-Communist Russia will always be a troublesome rival, but it need not be an eternal enemy, and if our presidents can maintain alliances and forge deals with dictators in Riyadh and Tehran, they can also make deals with the strongman in Moscow. But Trump pretty clearly lacks the gifts required for that kind of dealmaking, and instead he’s much more likely to be a mark for the Russians, who can use his desire for a kind of super-reset to sow divisions in NATO without offering much of substance in return.
So in a strategic sense I am content to have Trump’s desire for détente balked by leaks, probes and the resistance of his military advisers.
But his critics should also recognize that all those leaks and all that institutional resistance are also precisely the reasons a neophyte like Jared Kushner might have imagined that the bureaucracy should simply be bypassed, and his father-in-law allowed to hammer out his imagined bargain with Putin man to man.
Again, it might be more sinister than this, and if the investigations turn up the evidence of actual collusion or bribery or blackmail that liberals increasingly expect to find – well, let’s just say the Trump era has made me immune to all surprise.
But for the time being, the anti-Trump world has its own paranoias that need to be kept at bay. Follow the evidence, by all means. But keep in mind that the evidence we have is still perfectly compatible with a presidential candidate and his advisers who made a foreign policy promise in the clear light of democratic debate and set out to keep it with all the wisdom, imagination and experience at their disposal – which is to say, alas, not much.