A bull runs through it: Trump and the Western Alliance

President Donald Trump went through Western Europe—Brussels, London—like the bulls run through Pamplona.

Trampling all over the leaders of two of this country’s closest allies, Great Britain and Germany; aiming his horns at NATO, a military alliance created and controlled by the United States, saying that the European Union is a foe of this country. On this most recent trip, Trump outdid his obnoxious treatment of the Western leaders at the earlier meeting of the G-7, where he chose the host, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, as a special target for his insults.

After going through Western Europe like a wild bull, Trump went to Finland to meet with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. That’s when the real trouble began.

Apparently not content to throw Theresa May and Angela Merkel under a bus, in Helsinki the president reserved the Trump treatment for two high-profile American institutions. Target 1 was the totality of the U.S. intelligence apparatus, which includes well over a dozen agencies like the CIA, the FBI, and the NSA. They have at their disposal an impressive array of cutting-edge technology. They cost the American taxpayers a huge but undisclosed sum. Target 2 was a perennial Trump whipping boy, the press, an institution expressly protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The bulls did not come out in Finland. Helsinki was more like a tea party than a bull charge. Under a normal administration any one of the myriad things Trump said and did at the summit with Putin would have been discussed and debated for weeks by the American media and political class. But this is no normal administration and people have adapted to all but the hardest shocks.

In Helsinki Trump crossed the threshold. The dramatic climax came when an American reporter asked Trump if he believed the conclusion of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia interfered with the 2016 U.S. election or the Russian president’s denials. Although Trump responded in a typically rambling and roundabout way, in the final analysis he could not say whom he believed but raised more questions about the categorical judgment of the intel agencies he commands than the “very strong” denials of the president of the Russian Federation. Trump sounded more like defense counsel for Putin than a prosecutor making a case against Putin based on the evidence established by law enforcement investigators.

In the United States there was a widespread reaction of disapproval, condemnation, shock, and anger. For once this rejection extended even to a substantial number of GOP members of Congress and Fox News, the unofficial propaganda arm of the Trump administration. It remains to be seen if this atmosphere will be sustained and whether there will be real political consequences. Even after this, impeachment by the Republican Congress is a non-starter but come November the Helsinki fiasco could tilt the balance in some closely contested Congressional elections.

This foreign foray by Trump seems to fit into a Trump foreign policy practice that I wrote about after the G-7 meeting and the summit with the North Korean leader: First, kick friends in the teeth, then embrace adversaries. Trump’s policies in general do not make sense, but you can usually divine the motive if you can detect the morally and ideologically warped beliefs, assumptions, and intentions behind them, such as white supremacy and top-down class war.

The case of Trump’s recent foreign policy poses a bigger challenge. Qui bono? Who gains from it, other than Putin? It’s hard to decipher but let’s not give up.

A psychological take might posit that Trump, who has an ego like a cheap balloon, vastly inflated but extremely fragile, over-identifies with authoritarian leaders. Trump is bad at American-style politics of compromise and detests having to engage in it. He envies and admires leaders who have no need to do it, who seem to have an indestructible ego, an ironclad political will, and total control of their nations. He wants to reward them so that they will befriend him. He has contempt for and belittles the leaders of countries that work within the give-and-take of democracy, as he ultimately does, and calls them weak. Perhaps he projects onto them his own feelings of impotence and his own resulting self-hatred.

An alternative, or complementary, explanation might go like this. Trump sees Russia as a falling star which can’t compete economically with the United States. His arms’ buildup is meant to convince the Russians that they are no match militarily either. The G-7 countries as well as China can compete economically with the United States. By castigating the G-7 and the European Union (and to some extent China) while simultaneously boosting Russia, Trump hopes to elevate the economic position of the United States relative to other advanced economies. On the one hand, he threatens to withdraw the U.S. defense umbrella from Europe and Canada to coerce it into spending more money on wasteful military expenditures at the price of foregoing productive investments. He uses the threat of a Russia unchecked by U.S. power in any military adventures it chooses to undertake as another way to scare the allies into undermining their own competitiveness through increased military budgets.

Maybe that’s Trump’s secret plan for making America great again. It’s perverse enough to be Trumpian. But it’s not likely to work. It’s one thing to proclaim a 1,000-year Reich, or to promise to restore the glory of Rome through fascism, or to propose to build the classless society, or to desire to make America great again by hook and by crook. It’s quite another to do it. Grandiose projects like these tend to end by implosion. It could happen here. American voters must come to their senses before it does.