It’s hard to ignore Paul Krugman.
Leading lights of the neo-con foreign policy establishment – people like Anders Aslund and Anne Applebaum – are doing double-takes as they find themselves re-tweeting a recent column by the left-wing economist, in which Krugman wonders aloud whether Donald Trump might be working for Vladimir Putin.
To be fair, Krugman doesn’t actually say that Trump is an agent of the Kremlin. Instead, he points out the ways in which Trump’s politics – his disregard for the rule of law, his knee-jerk reactionism, his moral and financial corruption – resemble Putin’s. And then he points out the very real ties that some members of Trump’s team, particularly campaign manager Paul Manafort, have to the Kremlin (and to numerous other odious governments around the world). And, Krugman says, it stinks.
The real hack job in what is becoming something of a trend in American punditry, though, belongs to Franklin Foer. Writing in Slate, Foer pieces together evidence and observation in ways that are suggestive but nothing more than that, then accompanies them with sinister black-and-white images of Putin peering over Trump’s shoulder; you’ve got to read the fine print to find out that they’re “photo illustrations” (i.e., photoshopped). “In the end,” Foer writes, “we only have circumstantial evidence about the Russian efforts to shape this election—a series of disparate data points and a history of past interference in similar contests. But the pattern is troubling, and so is the premise.”
Foer and Krugman are wrong.
I don’t know what the relationship is between Putin and Trump. It is absolutely true that there is Russian government-linked money floating around right-wing (and left-wing) fringe groups in Europe and that the Kremlin enjoys stirring up hornets nests in Western capitals, including by means of Russia Today and other propaganda outlets. Much of that has been amply documented, and the parts of it that are illegal should be prosecuted. And it should come as no surprise. We know, after all, that Putin believes his own opposition in Russia – as well the movements that toppled Viktor Yanukovych and other dictators in the post-Soviet space – to be above all the work of the U.S. State Department. It would thus strike him as perfectly legitimate to ‘meddle’ in Western politics, the way he accuses the West of meddling in Russia. In fact, I would be surprised if he weren’t doing it. And so it is perfectly possible that there are nefarious ties between Trump’s campaign and the Kremlin.
But Krugman and Foer are still wrong, and here’s why. Vladimir Putin isn’t the greatest threat to democratic politics and the stability of the West in my lifetime: Donald Trump is. Putin has cemented an authoritarian political order in Russia and presents a very real geopolitical challenge to Europe and the U.S., but that threat pales in comparison to the one posed by Trump. Putin might needle and belittle American institutions, but Trump would destroy them. Putin has called into question the post-WWII international order, but Trump would bring it crashing down. Putin might resent American dominance in world affairs, but Trump would end it.
Would Putin enjoy a Trump presidency? Almost certainly. Is he using what means he has at his disposal to bring that about? Quite probably. But Trump doesn’t need his help. Trump got all the help he needed from Ronald Reagan, when he introduced Americans to the thought that government is the problem, not the solution. Trump got all the help he needed from a Republican Party that spent the eight years of the Obama presidency claiming that abrogation of duty is a responsible mode of governance. And Trump continues to get all the help he needs from a conservative American establishment that has legitimized hatred, bigotry and violence as a means of political contestation.
This focus on Russian ‘active measures’ – on the hacking of Democratic Party computers and the subsequent leaks, or on the ties between Manafort and Deripaska, for example – is the most pernicious of red herrings. It allows us to believe that America is in a battle with a foreign adversary, and thus to avoid the conversation we need to be having with ourselves. The threat to America, my friends, is domestic.