California Forum

Trump and Putin are out to end democracy. Are you going to let them get away with it?

Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to U.S. President Donald Trump during a press conference after the meeting of U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, Monday, July 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to U.S. President Donald Trump during a press conference after the meeting of U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, Monday, July 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) AP

One does not have to be a fan of Cold War-style politics or of the military-industrial complex to be deeply suspicious of Vladimir Putin’s motives in his dealings with the United States and Western Europe. Or to be appalled by the fact that President Donald Trump has publicly sided with Russian political and intelligence systems over Western ones – not just American institutions, but core multinational structures that collectively make up the concept of “the West” developed out of the rubble of World War II.

In the past two weeks, Trump has made clear that he views the continued existence of the European Union as antithetical to America’s newly minted might-is-right world role. Like Putin, he is now publicly siding with far-right parties in Europe, intervening explicitly in the domestic politics of countries such as Germany. Seeking to take advantage of Britain’s Brexit woes, he has trashed the US-UK alliance, the cornerstone of American foreign policy for the past century, in the most public and humiliating of ways. And he has questioned key mutual defense precepts of NATO.

This is about what the next chapter in the global human story will look like. Will it be a narrative of expanding political and economic and cultural freedom, or will it be a narrative of autocracies divvying up the world as they see fit?

If Trump were pacifist in belief and in temperament, a criticism of NATO would make sense. There is, after all, a longstanding critique, from the left, of the alliance. But Trump is anything but pacifist. His beef with NATO comes not from a suspicion of militarism, not from a dislike of the hardware of war, but, it appears, from a conviction that its member states are not as simpatico with his brutalist world view as are Russia and other autocracies.

The way Trump talked about the alliance, before heading to Helsinki to meet Putin, was calculated to give the Russians a green light to expand their sphere of influence – perhaps through incursions into the Baltic states, for example, or the southern Balkans. For at the end of the day, however abased American foreign policy becomes, and however dysfunctional its domestic politics are, Russia isn’t about to invade the US – but it is entirely possible that Trump’s fixation with, and ceding of influence to, Putin, will eventually lead to the shedding of much blood in Europe.

Trump’s Helsinki performance was destructive enough. But perhaps even crazier was the rationale he gave, once stateside again, for his cataclysmic press conference – that it was all about a grammatical error and double-negatives; and for the subsequent answer that he no longer viewed Russia as a threat to American elections – that he was answering another question. These manufactured excuses, puerile, manifestly unbelievable, were so contemptuous of the basic intelligence of his audience that they in and of themselves represented an attack on democracy.

Democracy works when there is intelligent, fact-based discourse, both at the level of the power-elites, and also between governed and leaders. It breaks down, and breaks down fast, when leaders show such contempt for the people that they think they can say and do anything, that they can massage facts again and again and again to fit the moment’s needs.

Trump’s ludicrous “clarifying” of his transcripts is no different from Stalin’s airbrushing out of photographic existence figures subsequently deemed “enemies of the people.” Totalitarian states make inconvenient people and facts simply disappear, make them disappear not just from the future but retroactively. That is what Trump was doing with his post-Helsinki performance.

And when the media – even his beloved Fox News – didn’t buy it, he resorted to a familiar canard: labeling the press the “true enemies of the people” for the way they covered the summit.

Here’s the do-or-die reality: Trump’s July swing through Europe shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is hell-bent on reorienting America away from its alliances with open, genuinely democratic, internationalist, countries and supranational institutions, and toward authoritarian states and leaders.

He is infatuated with dictators and envious of their abilities to censor, imprison, or kill opponents. In his statements against immigration while on his European sojourn he is openly allying America with the autocratic, paranoiac, white nationalism and Christian chauvinism pushed by Putin’s Russia, and embraced by European fascist movements.

And in his undermining of American institutions while touting Putin’s bona fides, he has shown either that he is lethally compromised by Russian intelligence, or that he is temperamentally a Putin-ista, or that he is simply too stupid, too senescent, to realize that he is being played. None of these three scenarios is in any way reassuring.

Trump has detonated one bomb after another against the concept of “the west” this past month. He is turning the United States into a closed-in, walled-off, snarling, paranoiac, irrational actor on the global stage. He is shifting America’s alliances at dizzying speed, and he is doing so with a virtual blank check from a poisoned Republican Party.

Some commentators compared the performance in Helsinki to the Munich appeasement of 1938, when British prime minister Chamberlain met with Hitler and agreed to give the Fuhrer a free hand to carve up Czechoslovakia. A more apt comparison might be the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, when the Soviet Union, which claimed, however ludicrously, to represent an internationalist, socialist vision in diametric opposition to Fascism, suddenly concluded a deal with its arch-enemy to carve up Poland, Finland, and the Baltic States.

This isn’t about politics-as-usual. This is about what the next chapter in the global human story will look like. Will it be a narrative of expanding political and economic and cultural freedom, or will it be a narrative of autocracies divvying up the world as they see fit?

We are truly at a moral crossroads. If Trump’s July performance is not fully disowned, by his own party and by the electorate as a whole, our democracy will have been perhaps permanently corroded.

Will it be a narrative laced with values of universalism, seeded with a language of human rights against which countries large and small can be measured? Or will it be a narrative in which language itself has become so debased that the very concepts of democracy, of rights, of universal values, of protections that minorities have against predations of the majority, of human progress, of logic and of reason, cease to be communicated, cease even to be imagined?

We are truly at a moral crossroads. If Trump’s July performance is not fully disowned, by his own party and by the electorate as a whole, our democracy will have been perhaps permanently corroded. The concept of “the west” will have been fractured. And the triumph of autocracy will become that much closer.

The stakes are huge. Trump has played his hand. Now America must respond.

Sasha Abramsky is a Sacramento writer who teaches at UC Davis. His latest book is “Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream.” He can be reached at sabramsky@sbcglobal.net.

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