Not even their wives want to see Joe Biden and Donald Trump measure dicks. Every time that men like them go off about how they’d beat each other up in a physical fight, it is a reminder of why we need more women in office. Their particular brand of pugilistic political puffery is so tired. This time, though, it is worth sifting through this viscous stew of machismo and testosterone to better understand something about the current President of the United States.
First, let’s dispense with what happened. Speaking to University of Miami students last Tuesday at a rally to end sexual violence, the former vice president made reference to Trump being caught on tape gleefully boasting about his preferred method of sexual assault – and then, once again, recommended the exact wrong thing to do. “If we were in high school,” he said, “I’d take him behind the gym and beat the hell out of him.”
President Biff Tannen, natch, took the bait. “Crazy Joe Biden is trying to act like a tough guy,” @realDonaldTrump tweeted on Thursday morning. “Actually, he is weak, both mentally and physically, and yet he threatens me, for the second time, with physical assault. He doesn’t know me, but he would go down fast and hard, crying all the way. Don’t threaten people Joe!” On Friday, the White House chimed in from the sidelines. Deputy press secretary Raj Shah issued a preemptive 2020 challenge to Biden, telling conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt that “we’d like to see him at the ballot box. We’d like to see him in the boxing ring.”
Even if I did want to see these two septuagenarians fight, which I sure as hell don’t, I would have to question Trump’s chances. I mean, Vladimir Putin is kicking his ass right now and the president has barely thrown a punch.
On the same day that Biden issued his phony challenge, Trump called Putin to congratulate him on his re-election in Russia, directly contradicting the advice of his national security advisers. He congratulated Putin, even after being strongly warned to avoid doing exactly that. He also chose not to condemn Russia for poisoning a former Russian spy in London, despite that also making sense. It remains frightening that we have a president who takes pride in not reading, but even he had to see “DO NOT CONGRATULATE” in all caps.
It wasn’t the first time that an American president had congratulated Putin on winning Russia’s sham of an election, but Trump became the first one to do so after we learned that Russia screwed with our elections. Not only do we have evidence that their government sought to interfere to help Trump win (and were arguably quite successful at it), but The New York Times recently reported that Russians hacked the United States energy grid and water systems as well. “From what we can see, they were there,” a Symantec security tech director told the Times. “They have the ability to shut the power off. All that’s missing is some political motivation.” The energy industry and federal regulators quickly tried to reassure the public that nothing bad had yet happened. But the administration declared that Russia was responsible for that, and less than a week later, Trump called Putin to give him a pat on the back.
The immortal question, of course, is why. Any president who behaved in such a sycophantic manner towards the leader of a foreign adversary would surely arise suspicions, but Trump’s history of false bravado arguably makes him look more guilty.
Trump clearly believes himself to be an alpha male, in the most common conception. This is a masculinity where there is no room for vulnerability or correction, domineering and unapologetic. It’s for the kind of guy who calls obedience “loyalty.” This is also an idea of manhood that celebrates sexual conquest and bad manners, seeing both as a biological mandate. Trump is still the guy who once made a habit of calling newspapers using a pseudonym, bragging about his marital infidelities, and later boasted to Billy Bush about being able to “grab them by the pussy.” He didn’t do any of that with the reservation one might see in someone afraid of being caught. Unless it’s time to fire someone or talk about Stormy Daniels, this is the president we usually see: brash, rash and boorish. Even his frankly scary choice of the warmonger John Bolton to be his national security adviser reeks of his need to declare war on vulnerability and to project antiquated ideas about what strength really is.
How, then, did Trump of all people end up prostrate in front of Putin? He has consistently provided cover for the Russian interference in his rhetoric, insisting that it could have been someone else. He issued a similarly evasive statement even after British Prime Minister Theresa May publicly excoriated the Russians for poisoning Sergei Skripal and Skripal’s daughter. Just as he claimed the Russia election hack could have been done by “a 400-pound genius sitting in bed and playing with his computer,” Trump said that he would “condemn Russia or whoever it may be” that was responsible for the poisoning. Belatedly, he imposed sanctions on Russia that pale in severity to the Congressional actions he refused to enact for months. I haven’t even mentioned the firings of James Comey and Andrew McCabe at the FBI, as well as his slandering of virtually everyone taking the Russia probes seriously. Even if we didn’t already have a good idea that Trump and his campaign aided the Kremlin’s effort to subvert our democratic processes, his subsequent obstruction is ex post facto collusion. It is almost embarrassing to watch him display the consciousness of guilt that we see in his tweets and newly harsh public bombast about the Mueller investigation.
Still, Trump’s fragile masculinity may be the biggest tell that he is actually beholden to Putin. It seems very unlikely that a true alpha male would submit this calmly and dishonorably to a foreign enemy without good cause. That’s what John Brennan, the CIA chief under President Obama, was suggesting when he said Wednesday that the Russians “may have something on him personally.” Brennan added, “The Russians, I think, have had long experience with Mr. Trump, and may have things that they could expose.” It remains to be seen whether those things involve financial criminality, the infamous “pee tape” reported in Christopher Steele’s dossier, or something else entirely. But even as Trump has displayed admiration for other despots throughout the world and clearly looks to them as examples of how to lead, Putin is different. He attacked us, and our president continues to praise him.
There is no good alternative explanation for an American president – at least one innocent of collusion and obstruction allegations – to behave in this way. Moreover, there is no incentive to doing it. It isn’t as if Putin has suddenly called off the dogs for 2018. Russia has continued its efforts to steer elections in Europe, and there is no sign whatsoever that Putin won’t try something similar during the midterms this fall. Our president doing nothing to stop or stem that interference is everything Putin could ask for. “If we don’t change the dynamic here, this is going to continue, and 2016 won’t be viewed as something isolated,” Admiral Mike Rogers, the head of U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in late February. “This is something that will be sustained over time.” If only the president cared.
The only things Trump does seem to care about are insults to his character, which makes his behavior all that more curious. Putin may be the one guy on the planet who should most infuriate an American head of state. Trump loves an easy target, and who would be easier to criticize than Putin? Yet our president, imbued with vast stores of unearned confidence, kowtows to this murderous despot and tries to pass it off as improving relations. Up is down in Trumpland, and sycophancy is diplomacy.
It’s clear that common sense is beginning to prevail here, even among Republicans. Republican Congressman Trey Gowdy, he of Benghazi conspiracy fame, criticized then-Trump attorney John Dowd for calling for the end of Mueller’s investigation. “If you have an innocent client, Mr. Dowd, act like it,” Gowdy said on Fox News’ Sunday program. “If the allegation is collusion with the Russians, and there is no evidence of that, and you are innocent of that, act like it.”
Apply Occam’s Razor, people. What is the most likely scenario? That an American president would willfully ignore the crimes of a foreign adversary all for the purposes of improved communication? Or that something is deeply awry? It is difficult to see why the president would take the kind of ridicule he receives from public and press alike, to say nothing of the humiliation Putin serves up, unless there is a damn good reason. The irony is that the false confidence that Trump projects is exactly why we know the jig is up.