It’s now increasingly clear that the US president has a cozy relationship with the Russian state—a relationship that is at best incautious, at worst sinister. This has understandably whipped the country into another round of political bloodletting. Can it really be possible that we have delivered a victory to our old enemies not by tanks and missles but through the power of our own ballot box?
Whatever the case may be with Trump’s connection to the Russians, however, it’s frustrating that this might be what it takes for the lumbering system of to finally take this living nightmare seriously. Do we really need an old-fashioned Red Scare, do we really need a movie-script drama with wool-jacketed spies trading flash drives for luxury-hotel construction contracts, in order to realize that Trump is a disaster for the country? Is it true that we can only feel really threatened when the threat originates from “over there,” from “other people” meddling in “our affairs”? Are we incapable of realizing how much harm we can do to ourselves, without the Russians’ help?
After all, even it does turn out that Trump and Putin have been riding barechested on the same horse, it’s still vanishingly unlikely that the Don Cossacks will be riding up the Ohio Valley anytime soon. By contrast, it’s almost absolutely certain the Trump–Republican agenda will lead to millions losing health insurance, many poor people losing food or housing assistance, and a worsening climate problem that leads in the direction of untold catastrophes in the next decades. We would willingly do those things to ourselves, inflicting sometimes brutal harm on our own people, and many dutiful Senators and newspaper columnists would go on nodding their heads. But it takes the Russians chatting with Paul Manafort to finally mark out a line which cannot be crossed?
Here’s Edward Bellamy more than a century ago in Looking Backward:
“In my day,” I replied, “it was considered the proper functions of the government, strictly speaking, were limited to keeping the peace and defending the people against the public enemy, that is, to the military and police powers.”
“And, in heaven’s name, who are the public enemies?” exclaimed Dr. Leete. “Are they France, England, Germany, or hunger, cold, and nakedness?”
The vast majority of Russians are not so different from the vast majority of Americans—dissatisfied with their jobs, concerned about the health of their families, bored and anxious in a world weighted down by meaninglessness. But rather than fighting with urgent anger against those forces which keep us dissatisfied, sick, and anxious, we rattle our swords when we fear that “they” are messing with “us.” We can forgive (in fact, we even expect) greed, callousness, self-dealing, and hypocrisy in our leaders. But if they are treasonous—that is the only way to ensure a crisis.
I certainly do not intend to defend the strongman government of the Putin regime, which is almost certainly even worse than the Trump oligarchy. If this is the scandal which will finally soil Trump beyond recovery, then fine, I’ll take it. But if this does finally doom the contemptible Trump circle to political purgatory, it will not be on account of this revelation being materially worse than those that came before. It is only because we still, foolishly, draw a distinction between other people’s bad guys and our own bad guys.