Donald Trump and Russia

I have some thoughts about the latest developments concerning the relationship between Donald Trump and Russia.

To catch up those who have not been following. The Democratic National Committee’s email server was recently hacked. There is strong forensic evidence linking this breach to actors within Russia, and likely within the Russian government itself. At the same time, there are links being uncovered between Donald Trump and Russian investors. In what would be a mind-boggling coincidence, this comes weeks after Trump’s advisors forced the GOP to remove a plank from its platform that opposed the Russian occupation of Ukraine. Minutes before writing this, Trump claimed he would be willing to acknowledge the Russian seizure of Crimea and lift sanctions against Moscow.

Weirdly, this saga is coming more and more to resemble the argument I make in the book I am writing. Briefly, and simplistically, the book is about how big countries get small countries to do what they want them to. The core argument I make is that these big countries have for the past seventy years or so focused on controlling the leadership of other countries.

What leader holds power within another country is really important. They control the political coalition — that is, the groups that support the leader — that ends up translating their desires into policy. If you can control the identity of this leader and his or her coalition, you indirectly control that country by shaping the interests that country will pursue. We have already seen one manifestation of this in the Trump campaign’s insistence that the GOP remove from its platform opposition to the Russian occupation in Ukraine.

The European colonial empires undertook a number of strategies, including outright warfare, to shape the leaders that held power within their former colonies. This allowed them to reap many of the benefits of empire even after decolonization had taken hold in the 1960s.

Likewise, the United States undertook in the 1940s to aid non-communist groups in Western Europe, particularly in Italy and France. And, like the European powers, the United States at times engaged in violent subterfuge to bring favorable leaders and their coalitions to power in other countries. During the same time period, the Soviet Union played much the same hand, usually focusing more on violence — for instance, in Hungary and Czechoslovakia — than economic support.

This is really bizarre to write, but this pattern looks almost exactly like what Russia is doing to the United States right now. I don’t know whether Trump is knowingly complicit in this or not. I kind of doubt it. If the Russians wanted to deliberately construct a Manchurian candidate, they’d almost certainly pick someone smarter than Trump. But ultimately it doesn’t matter. As Liz Mair wrote on Twitter:

Now, you might say to yourself, “the United States is reaping its just rewards for seventy years of doing the same.” But whether you think that’s a fair critique or not, note that the United States still plays an important role in underwriting domestic political arrangements throughout the globe. Some of this is direct, like the aid that runs to Pakistan or Israel. Some of it is more indirect, like support for global economic mechanisms that can alleviate debt crises — in the late 1990s in Asia, and more recently in Europe.

If the United States comes under the sway of Russia, all of these relationships may disappear quickly. As I show in the last chapter of my book, the end of these relationships is often accompanied by violence, particularly within states: note the waves of civil conflict that swept the globe following decolonization in the 1960s and the end of the Soviet empire in the 1990s. We are potentially looking, then, at a virtual detonation of U.S. interests: we could not protect our allies, we could not support friendly regimes, and we could not avoid another wave of global civil conflict.

This is a strange time to follow politics. I try to read developments at some remove, and generally don’t react in what I’d describe as a visceral way. The past month or so, layered on the past year of his campaign, has made me deeply uneasy in a way I cannot ever remember being.

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