It’s a fascinating read, if ultimately unpersuasive–as others have noted, at the end of the day, the fact that the two men share a distasteful and dangerous worldview is insufficient to explain Trump’s puppy-dog fidelity–but it is wickedly perceptive as far as it goes.
Sullivan’s opening presents his thesis:
It is possible, is it not, that Donald Trump simply believes what he says.
I realize, of course, that this is technically impossible from moment to moment. But bear with me. The slackened jaws, widened eyes, and general shock that greeted his chuffed 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.
Those “deeper convictions” are the ones that drive rational people crazy. As Sullivan says, they are pretty much the same as the convictions (“impulses” might be a more accurate term) of the strongmen and thugs with whom he has always surrounded himself.
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?
This rings true. As we’ve seen with his phony Foundation, “generosity” is the last word one would apply to Trump.
Sullivan’s entire description of Trump is devastating because it is so consistent with what we have seen every day from the embarrassing buffoon who has soiled the Oval Office for the past 18 plus months. After describing the post-WWII world that America was instrumental in building, Sullivan writes
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 multinational 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. Its kleptocratic elites see the world in just the same way.
Why look for collusion when this agreement of worldviews explains so much? Yes, Sullivan says, it’s perfectly possible that Trump knowingly accepted Russian help. It’s perfectly possible that he is still encouraging Russia to help him again.
But that’s simply the kind of unethical thing Trump has done for years, without batting an eyelid. He sees no more conflict here than he did in seeking Russian funding and German loans for his businesses.
Sullivan concludes that Trump simply wants an alliance to advance his and Putin’s amoral and cynical vision of world politics.
The descriptions of Trump and Putin that emerge from this essay are devastatingly negative–and yet, I think Sullivan ends up giving Trump too much credit. Much like other critics who ascribe sinister and devious strategies to our pathetic President, he attributes “vision” to a man I see as utterly incapable of formulating a vision– even a dark and self-serving one. Urges, yes. Vision? Not so much.
Sullivan does get one description absolutely right: that of today’s GOP.
And we know now that the whole Kabuki drama in which we keep asking when the GOP will resist this, or stop it, or come to its senses, is simply a category error. This is what the GOP now is. It’s an authoritarian, nationalist leadership cult, hostile to the global order. Republican voters increasingly like Putin, and 71 percent of Republicans backTrump’s handling of Russia in the Reuters/Ipsos poll. A whole third of Republicans do not believe the Kremlin attacked our democracy in 2016, despite every single intelligence agency and the Republicans in the House saying so. Seventy-nine percent of Republicans in a SurveyMonkey poll actually approved of Trump’s performance in the Helsinki press conference.
This is not treason as such. It is not an attack on America, but on a version of America, the liberal democratic one, supported by one of the great parties in America. It is an attack on those institutions that Trump believes hurt America — like NATO and NAFTA and the E.U. It is a championing of an illiberal America, and a partnering with autocrats in a replay of old-school Great Power zero-sum politics, in which the strong pummel and exploit the weak.
And it is all infinitely depressing.