The watershed that wasn’t in Helsinki

U.S. President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin shake hands during a joint news conference after their meeting in Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque - RC181F828BC0
Editor's note:

James Kirchick writes in the wake of the Trump-Putin meeting in Helsinki: Not since Trump insisted that there were “very fine people” among the neo-Nazis who provoked a riot in Charlottesville last summer has there been such intense outrage among the media, the “resistance,” former Obama administration officials, and even Republicans. This piece originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

Helsinki … Helsinki … what happened there, again?

Less than two weeks ago, President Trump—standing beside a Russian dictator who had meddled in the 2016 American election, annexed the Crimean peninsula and waged a brutal war in Syria—took the side of said Russian dictator over that of his own intelligence officials.

Trump’s deference to President Vladimir Putin on the matter of election interference was, according to Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the low point of an “incoherent and appallingly self-serving circus.” His Republican colleague Bob Corker called Trump a “pushover” and the Horror in Helsinki a “sad day” in American history. Former CIA director John Brennan, displaying the calm rationality and discretion we ought to value in those holding our nation’s secrets, tweeted that Trump’s behavior at the podium was “nothing short of treasonous.”

Listening to the president’s numerous detractors these last two weeks, one might have received the impression that his days in the White House were reaching their inevitable, ignominious end.

Except we’ve been here before.

Not since Trump insisted that there were “very fine people” among the neo-Nazis who provoked a riot in Charlottesville, Va., last summer has there been such intense outrage among the media, the “resistance,” former Obama administration officials and even Republicans.

But we moved on from those shameful events last year. And we’ll move on from the president’s appalling performance in Helsinki too.

Helsinki is already shaping up to be the international analogue to Charlottesville. In both cases, the president behaved in decidedly unpresidential fashion, righteous objection was voiced not only by his usual critics but also supporters, and confident predictions were made as to the premature expiration of his presidency. And in both cases, contrary to these near-unanimous assertions, the president’s approval ratings either held or increased, and the prophets of his political demise were proven wrong.

What explains the president’s ability to withstand massive backlash to behavior that even many of his supporters find objectionable? I suspect it lies in the tendency of Trump’s critics to ascribe dark and evil motives to rhetoric and conduct that is more likely motivated by vanity.

Trump divides the world into two groups of people: those who like him and those who don’t. It is this, and only this, calculation that determines how he treats a private citizen, foreign leader, corporation or country.

When Trump insisted that “some very fine people” were among the far-right demonstrators, he wasn’t endorsing the virtues of a white ethno-state, as his more vituperative critics maintain. Rather, he was motivated by something more prosaic and, frankly, pathetic: a desperate hunger for approval and consequent reluctance to condemn anyone—no matter how objectively despicable—who supports him. The president isn’t a Nazi. He’s a narcissist.

Trump’s obsequiousness toward Putin, particularly on the issue of election interference, stems from the same colossal self-absorption that led him to praise American fascists.

Asked about Putin’s flattery of him in the summer of 2016, Trump replied, “He says Donald Trump is going to win and Donald Trump is a genius, and then I have people saying you should disavow. I said, I’m going to disavow that?”

Maybe Trump is compromised by the Russians. Maybe he’s covering up some grand conspiracy. (Though if he is a Russian “asset,” as former director of national intelligence James R Clapper avers, he is the worst Russian asset in the history of Russian assets, because so many people think he is one.) Equally possible, if not more likely, is that Trump relishes Putin’s adulation and sees a kindred spirit in the Russian strongman. Moreover, Trump realizes how the issue of election interference is being used to delegitimize his great, fabulous, terrific election victory over Crooked Hillary Clinton, credit for which he jealously guards all to himself.

I suspect that many Americans—not just Trump’s most loyal followers, but also those who voted for him reluctantly or are on the fence—understand Trump’s behavior on an intuitive level, and are turned off by the speculation that the president is working on behalf of a foreign adversary.

There is a lesson for Trump’s critics here: move outside the self-reinforcing bubble created by Twitter and cable news. To understand the effect the former has on shaping elite opinion, imagine a flying flock of Twitter’s logo: a bird. At the front of this flock are the most influential opinion-shapers—the major network and newspaper correspondents, the social-media-savvy #resistance activists—and fanning out behind them are the rest of the medium’s users, in descending number of followers. When, in response to the latest bit of Trump-induced mania, the users at the head of the flock declare that now Trump has done the impeachable or is definitively guilty of collusion with Russia, the rest of Twitter moves in turn.

Continuing with the analogy, when someone on Twitter dissents from the prevalent line on any momentary outrage, the rest of the flock will descend on him or her like the birds from the eponymous Hitchcock thriller. All this has the effect of enforcing a stultifying conformity among the influencers who spend their lives on Twitter, visible in the herd-like way they cover events.

But the people whom Democrats need to win in 2020 do not spend all day on Twitter, if they even use it all. Nor do they see the president as a Nazi or Russian asset.