I’d like to take a moment to pull together a series of recent threads on Donald Trump. We’ve now seen another episode of Donald Trump’s impulsive and self-destructive behavior play out in his fight with the Khan family. There was a less noted moment where he apparently didn’t realize that Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula two years ago and has been operating in eastern mainland Ukraine ever since. This brings me back to my early posts drawing concern to Trump’s mix of policy friendliness and financial ties with Russia and especially persons in the orbit of Vladimir Putin. They all flow together in ways that may not at first be clear.
Since the DNC hacking story and Trump’s apparent ties to Russia moved to the center of the campaign discussion there have been a number of different reactions. One I would call the ‘bigthink backlash’, articles in a series of the country’s smartest, most literary publications which declare flatly that Trump either is not or is almost certainly not a Russian agent or intelligence asset, dismiss the whole topic and then turn the page to discuss some deeper question about Vladimir Putin’s malignant rule or why Russia might not fare well with a Trump presidency.
These are fascinating discussions. But they mainly miss the point. I don’t put any foolery or bad-acting past Trump. I certainly don’t think Donald Trump is actually a Russian agent. I mean, Good Lord, let’s hope not! But framing the question in that way creates a nonsense framework in which unless Trump is actually a Russian agent (something that is almost impossible to believe) there’s no there there and you just move on. That’s silly and writes off most of what is dangerous about Trump and his ties to Russia.
Another response has been from Russia hawks, people who have been pushing for a much harder line against Russia under President Bush and especially under President Obama. They see Russia as an aggressive hostile power and generally believe we should take a hardline, likely including at least direct military aide, against Russian actions in any of the post-Soviet states. Regardless of how close a relationship they believe Trump has with Russia, I think their worry is that he’d abandon NATO allies in Eastern Europe, particularly the Baltics and essentially write off the rest of what Russia calls its ‘near abroad’ to a new Russian sphere of influence. Given that Trump has all but said he would do these things, it’s hardly a far-fetched concern.
My concern is quite different. I worry much less that he’ll betray our allies to Russia and much more that he’ll stumble into a war with Russia. Why that very different scenario most concerns me goes to the heart of why I find the Russia ties and the whole picture so worrisome.
Any presidential candidate’s financial history and associations should be closely scrutinized, especially with someone like Trump whose financial dealings are so pockmarked with bankruptcies, lawsuits, foreign entanglements and more. Speaking strictly for myself, the key predicate to my concerns about Trump’s ties to Russia are his ignorance, impulsiveness and impressionable-ness. We all tend to pick up from or even conform to the thinking of people we’re in business with – literally or figuratively. We tend to pick up or follow the advice of the people who advise us. That’s just natural. We tend to think a lot about people we owe money to or people we may need to call on for help in the future.
All of this is just human nature. Most of us counter these vulnerabilities with a set of pre-existing ideas, values, beliefs, a broader stability in our lives or our work that prevents us from being overly dependent on too many others, particularly malign individuals.
With Trump, though, I see none of these. Since Trump’s worldview is rooted in dominance, he is incapable of seeing international treaties or security alliances as anything other than protection rackets. He seems inclined to act on that notion. He’s also surrounded by people who have a pro-Putin orientation, which is in turn cemented by money. He has deep financial ties to Russians who’ve invested in his various business ventures. All of this might not be quite so worrisome if Trump had well-formed and half-reasonable foreign policy views or advisors with the same. But again, over the weekend he wasn’t aware that Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula two years ago. He wasn’t clear that Russia is already operating, half by proxies, half not, in eastern Ukraine. And this is a country where his top advisor worked for years and an issue that has come up a number of times in the campaign.
This is just an illustration of what should be obvious: Trump knows virtually nothing about the issues he would be called on to contend with as President. He is not only ignorant, he is militantly ignorant. So he has extensive financial ties to Russia, a curiously fawning attitude toward Putin, a mix of at best shady advisors who have long histories of pro-Putin orientations and a character defect which makes him gravitate toward attacking friends/allies as much or more than actual enemies. You don’t have to think Trump is a Russian agent or that Putin controls him financially (I think neither) to find this a highly ominous confluence of realities.
Then we come back to the essential issue. Whatever his IQ, Trump is impulsive and stupid. He doesn’t just hurt others, he frequently hurts himself through impulsive and erratic behavior. Actual influence operations, as opposed to the Hollywood versions, usually thrive in just these ecosystems of chaos, corruption and incompetence into which Trump seems to gravitate or create around him.
The kind of scenario I fear is one (just one of many hypotheticals) in which Trump unsettles or junks the NATO alliance, which drives threatened European states to take a more belligerent and aggressive stand toward Russia. Or perhaps Putin thinks he’s got a greenlight and makes some reckless move. The pressure for a response will be overwhelming. There are many stakeholders in the American security posture in Europe beyond the US president. Or maybe Trump’s primal reaction to being dominated kicks in and he does something stupid in retaliation against Putin. It all comes back to what I wrote a few weeks ago. The largely peaceful and prosperous world we live in is not the natural order of things. It can all come apart very quickly. And once it does it can be extremely hard to put back together, to reassemble the mechanisms and norms and virtuous cycles on which the kind of world we live in is based.
This may all sound like a jumble of hypotheticals but remember Trump is dumb, impulsive and corrupt – and if not personally corrupt surrounded by advisors who live in the dark post-Soviet world of big cash and slow war. The quiescence of Europe rests on many things but one of them is a highly predictable set of actions both sides will take under certain circumstances. Uncertainty is dangerous for all concerned. If Trump were really some kind of Manchurian Candidate that would be one thing. What he is is maybe less treasonous but not much less dangerous. You have a confluence of at best untoward Russian influence via advisors and money, a mentally unstable potential president and one who is ignorant enough and indifferent enough to learning that he can be filled with pretty much anything this or that advisor suggests to him at a given moment. Am I painting too hyperbolic a picture of the kind of clumsy, stupid and malignant actions Trump is capable of? Just look what we’re seeing right now.