Good Friday Morning! Russia is back in the news thanks to the ill-conceived summit with Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. Given all the available information we have, that summit should have never happened. And as I’ll lay out below, the results of Trump’s weakness in front of Putin could have long-lasting ramifications.
I’ll also get into why the embrace of moral relativism by Putin’s defenders in western media is a dangerous game. Links follow.
New this week at the Conservative Institute
In this piece I go through the one opinion Kavanaugh has written regarding abortion. It crosses over with immigration law, and I explain why Kavanaugh didn’t have the chance to write more on the subject. But what little there is on him regarding the issue looks good for pro-lifers.
The late great Antonin Scalia predicted that Supreme Court nomination hearings would become more contentious over time. He predicted that in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, the case that upheld the right to an abortion in 1992. I cover why his prediction is essential now.
The Trump-Putin Summit
It’s hard to put into words how utterly weak President Trump was at the summit with Putin. For all Trump’s bluster about being a strong leader and negotiator, when he had to stand on the same stage as a stone-cold killer, he faltered. And that weakness endangers America and her allies.
You can read the transcript of the press conference, but only the video accurately shows how weak Trump was in the press conference. He cowered before Putin.
Trump enjoys the bluster of a strong-man. He even had harsher words for Putin once he returned to the United States. But there’s no mistaking when Trump stood in the presence of Putin – a stone-cold killer – the bravado vanished.
The only historical parallel I can come up with is President John F. Kennedy meeting Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1961 for a two-day summit in Vienna. Khrushchev berated Kennedy on a variety of topics and pushed him around. Khrushchev saw in Kennedy a far weaker man than the previous President, Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Kennedy admitted he showed weakness at the summit and the results of his failures were immediately felt. Kennedy revealed that weakness in June of 1961. Khrushchev ordered the construction of the Berlin Wall in August of the same year. Khrushchev believed he could push Kennedy around after the Vienna summit and used that knowledge against the US. He only backed down after the Cuban Missle Crisis.
Vladimir Putin is ex-KGB. In the profile of him, I wrote for the Conservative Institute last year; I went through how he’s consolidated a brutal police regime around himself. He’s as smart as he is ruthless. He was able to fool George W. Bush, out-think the Obama reset, and now is faced with a former reality TV show host in Donald Trump. Trump’s hollow bravado does not move Putin.
The question isn’t IF Putin will do something after this summit — it’s what and when he’ll do it. Putin wants the downfall of NATO and to push American influence out of Europe and away from Russian borders. If Donald Trump is already squeamish at holding the line with NATO and defending other countries in a press conference, Putin will see that weakness as a chance to invade or attack another country on his border, like Ukraine or the Baltic states.
If he can continually attack NATO members without pushback from the American President, then the NATO alliance is dead, and a de-militarized Europe sits at Russia’s doorstep.
It’s a shame. Because on a pure policy basis — Trump has been better on Russia than Obama. As John Noonan noted, Trump and the Republicans have:
- Beefed up military spending
- Increased the intelligence budget
- Increased NATO exercises in the Baltics
- Sent lethal aid to Ukraine
- Developed new low-yield nuclear options
These are all steps Obama refused to take during his time. In fact, even in the face of clear evidence of Russian malfeasance during the election, he refused to do anything. The US has taken better steps in the interim, and each of these policy points is something Putin hates (which is why, as some have noted, if Trump is a stooge of Putin, he’s the worst stooge ever).
But — and this is a big but — Trump showed considerable weakness in that press conference. Which means Putin likely believes he can push Trump around and get what he wants. Trump’s weakness and naivety in dealing with Putin are the prime reasons why that summit should have never happened. As I wrote last year, capitulating to Putin produces nothing:
While some may consider Trump’s desire to work with Putin admirable, it’s a mistake. It’s ironically the same mistake George W. Bush and Barack Obama made; they believed that they were somehow better equipped than predecessors to deal with Vladimir Putin. They were wrong.
Trump is wrong for the same reason — not because he’s not prepared to work with other leaders, but because Vladimir Putin will not change and cannot be trusted.
Listening to American politicians talk about how they can somehow magically work with foreign leaders like Putin, unlike predecessors, is like listening to a battered woman explain how this relationship is somehow different. It’s not. It never is.
Vladimir Putin is the Scorpion who stings the Frog while crossing the river. He does it because that’s who he is, not because there’s some fault with the frog, or America, or the world.
Vladimir Putin attacks the United States not because of our foreign policy, but because he views the U.S. as a geopolitical threat to Russia. There is no policy the United States could adopt that would cause him to alter his worldview.
The more American leadership capitulates to Putin, the more he will take. There’s no magic line where he’ll suddenly exclaim, “You’ve given enough in our relationship, I’ll change now.”
Which means the next question is: What is Putin’s Berlin Wall moment? What will he try to take to prove Trump’s weakness?
If history is any clue, we won’t have to wait long to figure it out.
Fox News, Donald Trump, and The Right’s Embrace of Moral Relativism
Beyond the simple policy questions, one of the most frustrating parts of listening to Trump talk about US-Russian relations is his reliance on moral relativism.
A journalist will ask Trump a simple question about what he thinks or will say to Putin about Putin/Russia’s human rights abuses, or how they murder dissidents (for examples, see the poisonings of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in the UK). Trump pushes it all aside by saying, “You think we’re a good country? We do bad stuff too.”
It’s the height of moral relativism, and as Sohrab Ahmari points out in a brilliant column at Commentary Magazine, it’s straight out of Noam Chomsky’s book of anti-American attacks:
Even before the event itself got underway, Trump went full Chomsky with a pre-conference tweet blaming Washington for the state of U.S.-Russian relations: “Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity. . . .”
That sent the right’s Trump-whisperers scrambling. They insisted that the “foolishness” Trump had in mind was Obama’s weak posture. But given Trump’s refusal at various points to condemn Russian meddling in elections across the West and illegal annexation of Crimea—not to mention his persistent reluctance to criticize Putin directly—the rest of us can’t be blamed for thinking that by “foolishness” Trump meant “American hawkishness.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry’s pithy response to Trump’s tweet cleared up any remaining doubt: “We agree.”
Chomsky should be proud. He has won legions of fans over the decades, mainly among the simple and the half-erudite who imagine the MIT professor’s jeremiads offer secret knowledge of the way the world really works. And the key to that secret knowledge is that the U.S. is just as bad, if not worse than, its most vicious adversaries among rogue and revanchist regimes.
Trump has long had a Chomskyite streak, of course. Recall his flirtations with 9/11 trutherism amid the GOP primary campaign; his claim that President Obama quite literally founded ISIS (“ISIS is honoring President Obama. He is the founder of ISIS. He is the founder of ISIS, okay? He is the founder”); and the moral parallel he drew between the U.S. and Russia’s thugocracy in an interview with Bill O’Reilly soon after he took office.
But all that paled next to the spectacle of Trump humiliating America’s security apparatus, elevating the Kremlin’s global prestige, and crediting Putin’s incredible denials of election interference—all while standing next to the Russian strongman, who grinned Cheshire-like with a look of ironical amusement in his eyes.
Now you could say that Trump is just deflecting, and the odds are he’s never picked up a Chomsky, or Howard Zinn book. And you’re probably right on that count. But these types of critiques of American power in the word are steeped heavily in old-leftist analyses of America.
In this type of moral relativist ideology, there’s nothing different between American and Vladimir Putin’s or North Korea. And even if Trump doesn’t know better on these issues, people like Tucker Carlson at Fox News should know that.
Which is why it’s disgusting to see Tucker Carleson bring on his show — and SIDE WITH — Stephen F. Cohen, a far-left professor, and author who has built a career around siding with Vladimir Putin over the US. He’s never met a version of America he likes, but he’s seen plenty from Russia and the USSR he loves.
And Fox News now lets this editor of The Nation, a magazine that’s so far out in left field its neighbors are the socialists at Jacobian Magazine, flaunt his pro-Putin propaganda for everyone to see, just because he predictably believes Vladimir Putin’s side of the story on everything.
There’s a reason Trump’s only supporters during this time are people like nutjobs like Cohen on the left, and radicals like Ron Paul on the right. These types have always viewed anything America does abroad as inherently evil. Nothing America does is right in foreign policy, and we should punish ourselves for badness.
In reality, all they do is repeat blatant Kremlin propaganda which says the same thing.
Moral relativism is always wrong. And to see it get validated by some of the worst segments of society, just to run protection for a sitting President is revolting.
Links of the week
In Defense of the Long Twilight Struggle – Jonah Goldberg, National Review
In International Diplomacy, Words Matter – David French, National Review
The President’s Do-Over – Andrew C. McCarthy, National Review
Stop Calling It ‘Treason’ – Kevin D. Williamson, The Weekly Standard
The Shape of the Post-Kennedy Court – Jack Goldsmith, The Weekly Standard
The pervading dishonesty of Roe v. Wade – Timothy P. Carney, The Washington Examiner
Wave Alert: House Democrats Setting Fundraising Records: Republicans are getting beaten badly on the financial front. It’s an ominous sign for their chances of holding a House majority. – Josh Kraushaar, National Journal
A Democratic Blue Wave? Don’t Forget the Republicans’ Big Hill – Nate Cohn & Dominic Kesterton, The Upshot in The New York Times
Warren Is Preparing for 2020. So Are Biden, Booker, Harris, and Sanders. – The New York Times
Satire piece of the week
WASHINGTON—With results that were consistent across every demographic group in all 50 states, a poll published Monday by the Pew Research Center revealed that 97 percent of U.S. citizens do not know who Donald Trump is. “When interviewed, the overwhelming majority of Americans did not recognize Donald Trump’s name, did not know he was associated with the federal government, and were unable to state whether he was a living person or a historical figure,” said pollster Jason Costello, adding that an even greater proportion of survey respondents, 99 percent, could not point to the correct picture when presented with photographs of the president and three other people. “Approximately 89 percent of the individuals we questioned merely shrugged or shook their heads upon hearing the words ‘Donald Trump,’ while 7 percent said the name sounded vaguely familiar, but they couldn’t quite place it. Another 2 percent incorrectly identified Trump as the owner of the Dallas Cowboys.” The survey also discovered that an alarming 18 percent of Americans were unable to name current Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.
Thanks for reading!