It is only natural to ask why President Trump chose to make himself look like such a chump. Was it really blackmail? Is he worried about an actual scatalogical recording of himself with Russian sex workers? Whatever the reason, the president of the United States went limp Monday as he stood next to Vladimir Putin, a thug who murders journalists, poisons political opponents and successfully attacked American democracy two years ago. The whole thing was a spectacle that was almost Shakespearean in its disaster, calling to mind Mercutio’s description of Romeo as he allowed Tybalt to beat him: “calm, dishonorable, vile submission.”
Even though this was a possibly historic failure, it was expected. Trump has significant experience in this realm. And despite his now (ridiculous) claim to have simply misspoken, it’s worth examining what we really saw in this moment.
David French, a conservative writer for National Review, called the Helsinki debacle “the foreign policy version of Trump’s press conference after Charlottesville,” referring to the president’s display of false equivalence last August, in which he deemed some of the rioting white supremacists “very fine people.” When I contacted French and asked him to expound, he wrote to me in an email: “When given the opportunity to rally Americans, he instead turned us against each other.”
Last summer’s Charlottesville chaos was led by people who, in all likelihood, voted for Trump in the 2016 election. They are his people. As is Putin, who, when asked whether he wanted Trump to prevail over Hillary Clinton two years ago, said, “Yes, I did.”
Like the Charlottesville agitators, Trump and Putin share an interest in white hegemony – both men use similarly slanderous phraseology to describe the foreigners seeking refuge in their nations and in others.
“Allowing the immigration to take place in Europe is a shame,” Trump told a British tabloid before his visit to the UK last week. “I think it changed the fabric of Europe and, unless you act very quickly, it’s never going to be what it was, and I don’t mean that in a positive way.” Trump’s talk of “losing your culture” is white nationalist boilerplate, and shares much with Putin’s culturally puritan and anti-secularist rants. There is a good reason why Russia is a template for nationalist movements here in the United States.
It is no mere coincidence that Trump received Putin’s aide, through word and deed. Nor is it surprising that both the president and his fellow Republicans have largely embraced that support, illicit as it may be. Putin’s regime has sought, through propaganda and direct interference, to get more extreme conservatives elected around the world. From its support of radical right-winger Marine Le Pen’s campaign for the French presidency to its backing of the extremist Jobbik party in Hungary, Russia has practiced an ethnic politics under Putin that has resonated with the most ardent (and racist) members of Trump’s base. Now, Putin’s antipathy for marginalized minorities and migrants has found an audience in America in the MAGA crowd, its message filtered through a cruder vessel.
Fear of The Other has never lost its marketability. There is a long history of American leaders selling out the country for the sake of advancing white nationalist ideals and policies. Activist and artist Bree Newsome, remembered for her climb up a flagpole to remove the South Carolina statehouse Confederate flag in the aftermath of the 2015 Charleston massacre, believes that this flaw has been baked into the American experiment since the beginning. “What was demonstrated by the Civil War and what has been demonstrated by the pattern of racism in the United States ever since is that there is a segment of the nation that firmly believes the United States is and should always be a white nation,” she tells me. “That segment of the population would quite literally rather burn the republic to the ground than to live in a multiracial democracy.”
The racism Newsome describes predates Putin’s election interference, of course. We have seen that many Republicans can’t win national elections with their policy ideas anymore. Satiating the cultural resentment of angry white voters only gets you so far in a diversifying America. That’s why you have folks like Fox News host Tucker Carlson both coming to Russia’s defense and feeding lies about undocumented immigrant voting, falsely asserting on Monday night that Mexico interferes with U.S. elections more by “packing our electorate.” Rather than trying to win over voters of color, conservatives in power have largely sought to diminish or eliminate the influence of minority ballots. (Enter gerrymandering, voter suppression and Citizens United.) They can’t win in a true democracy, so to hell with the rules. For all the talk of efforts to protect our elections from further attacks, the Republicans in charge of Congress have remained passive. Some Republicans now grasp that they can’t dominate without significant assistance from a foreign adversary, so, they welcome it.
The sycophancy towards Russia extends beyond Trump. Seven Republican senators spent the 4th of July in Moscow meeting with Russian officials, without holding them to account for their attack. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) came home sounding as if he had been hypnotized. Johnson argued that the U.S. has gone too far with sanctions and that Putin’s efforts to help elect Trump have been “blown way out of proportion.” It’s doubtful that Putin has “pee tapes” for all of these senators. What could possibly motivate them to do this?
Republican complicity with Trump’s agenda runs deeper than a few strongly worded statements of condemnation. (We heard those after Charlottesville, too.) While many agreed that Trump had acted imbecilic in Finland, there were no Republican threats to withhold votes on future confirmations, or to caucus with Democrats during the remainder of this legislative term. Not one of Trump’s national security staffers who had been thrown under the bus by their boss, including Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, resigned in protest.
“There may not be open warfare in the fields of America, but the institutions of the United States are being shaken at their foundations by this presidency,” Newsome says. “If we were to assume that everyone is united by a commitment to American democracy, we would be woefully incorrect.”
When speaking of Trump, we should use the word “sellout” cautiously, more so than even the words “traitorous” or “treasonous.” We have long known of the president’s hatred for America articulated through both destructive rhetoric and poisonous policy. What he is doing now is an even broader offense, because it goes well beyond serving Russian interests. He has left us vulnerable, auctioning off our national security and stability for the endorsement of a murderous madman. Nobody knows how this ends.