Our Mainstream Media friends love consensus and comity the way little kids love Santa Claus and the tooth fairy, and have been busy telling their readers that conservatives — who are, in their imagining, loyal opposition types like on The West Wing who you can count on to do the right thing when the chips are down — are, since Donald Trump’s disturbingly palsy-walsy turn with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, finally turning sour on the apparent Russian asset.
This may be true for certain old-fashioned wing nuts, but it appears right-wing up-and-comers, and some older ones keen to get with the new order, are actually loving this new Russia thing — or at least hating the people who are against it enough to go along.
Trump’s foreign policy ramblings last week — from his suggestion that our European defense arrangements with NATO just aren’t worth the effort, to his Monday meeting in Helsinki with Russian president Vladimir Putin and insistence afterward (later retracted) that, despite what his intelligence services said, Russia didn’t interfere with the 2016 U.S. election, to his seemingly impulsive invitation of Putin to Washington — made a lot of people nervous.
Big media outlets, perhaps trying to soothe these people, hastened to point out that some of Trump’s critics were conservatives.
“A conservative magazine criticized Trump for meeting with Putin,” headlined Vox. But they were talking about the Weekly Standard, already “a frequent critic of President Donald Trump,” Vox admitted.
“Even Conservative Media, Trump’s Usual Defenders, Struggle To Explain Helsinki,” announced NPR, offering in evidence a few right-wing demurrers, from mild (“I guess I don’t understand why he’s so deferential to a horrible person” — Fox News’ The Five) to spicy (“Disgusting” — Neil Cavuto).
“GOP lambasts Trump over performance in Helsinki,” reported the Hill, repeating measured criticisms of Trump’s Putinismo by such moral firebrands as Mitch McConnell.
The Guardian gave conservative writer Charles Sykes — from, surprise, the Weekly Standard! — room to criticize Trump. Sykes was more peppery than Trump’s congressional conservative critics (“He looked like Putin’s caddy”) and even went so far as to declare that Trump’s “vision is not conservatism,” which is rather like a parish priest accusing the Pope of heresy.
The Federalist let National Review author Jonathan S. Tobin grace its pages with “Here’s Why The Right Shouldn’t Excuse Trump’s Performance At Helsinki.” Tobin never quite followed through on his title, though, and if anything gave the impression that Trump’s actions, i.e., “abasing himself in front of Putin,” were less inexcusable than unseemly. Tobin also larded the essay with criticisms of Obama’s foreign policy, perhaps as a condition of publication, and ended by admitting, “If Trump continues to govern as a conservative he will not lose the support of his party,” and calling for Congress to “do something to restore American credibility.” What “something,” he didn’t say. Maybe another tax cut?
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But these criticisms, such as they were, came from an older, more publicly restrained species of conservative: those who support the same principles as any other kind (i.e., tax breaks for the rich and white supremacy), but who are obliged by tradition and social anxiety to pretend an interest in other, higher values as well — such as love of country and liberty and justice for all, if that’s not too embarrassing — if only to preserve their self-respect and protect themselves from public abuse.
The newer breed of conservative — rightbloggers, tweeters, internet Nazis, et alia — have no such anxieties, and are more inclined to approve of whatever Trump approves against all comers: liberals, national allies, other conservatives, whoever. Putin and Russia they saw as friends of Donald, like Roy Moore or Dinesh D’Souza, and that was good enough for them.
At the Federalist, in an article listed at this writing as their “Most Popular,” Willis L. Krumholz insisted Trump had “undermined” not America but rather “Our Power-Abusing Intelligence Agencies.” Krumholz first defended Trump by denouncing his attackers — for example, referring to a group of legal experts asked by Newsweek to assess Trump’s nearness to treason (and who had given mostly noncommittal, lawyerly answers) as “a group of liberal law professors, who naturally have an affinity toward bending the law to achieve their desired outcomes.” No, I don’t know what that means either, and Krumholz didn’t explain it, but he went on to tell readers the lib lawyers had “accused Trump of committing treason” and “treason is a crime punishable by execution.” In other words, they were calling for Trump’s death. So much for the tolerant Left!
As for Trump, Krumholz portrayed him as above suspicion, while saying that “of course it is appropriate to doubt the U.S. intelligence agencies” that were investigating him. These agencies were, Krumholz wrote, directly responsible for “arming bad guys around the world” — like those U.S. intelligence agents who traded arms to Iran in order to fund the Contras without the knowledge of poor, senile Ronald Reagan, and the CIA operatives who fucked up the Bay of Pigs, forcing an innocent John F. Kennedy to take the rap. (Just kidding: Krumholz’s references in this regard, and probably the long-term memories of most of his readers, only go back as far as Syria 2017.)
Some operatives lunged for former CIA director John Brennan, who unlike the Newsweek lawyers did accuse Trump of treason, for which Republicans in Congress, apparently not as skeptical of Trump as advertised, want to investigate him. “We see [Brennan’s] animus nakedly on display,” seethed Power Line’s Scott Johnson. “He is demented by hatred.”
“John Brennan is the epitome of the swamp…the one who knew that Hillary Clinton paid for a fake dossier,” yelled TV’s Judge Jeanine Pirro on Fox & Friends, presumably referring to the Steele Dossier, which appears to be coming true before our eyes. Pirro further vocalized, “What was [Trump] supposed to do, take a gun out and shoot Putin?” I wonder which congressional investigator will carry her question to Brennan.
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The cleverer Trump fans applied some imaginative spin to the problem. The New York Times’ Ross Douthat pooh-poohed the idea that Trump is a Russian asset on the grounds that he’s too dumb: “You would expect a real Russian asset to pretend he isn’t one publicly while quietly pursuing pro-Russian policies behind the scenes,” tweeted Douthat. “Trump has basically done the reverse.”
While Trump’s Russophilic effusions are obvious, Douthat did not delineate what Trump’s anti-Russian policies might be. NPR’s Scott Horsley did it for him: For example, Trump “gave U.S. forces in Syria more leeway to engage with Russian troops” — the helpfulness of which is limited now, however, as Trump has pulled U.S. support from the Syrian rebels. Horsley further noted Trump’s April sanctions on some Russian oligarchs, though it’s beginning to look as if Trump’s way of getting money to Russian oligarchs is more interesting — as well as more effective — than his way of keeping it from them.
The Federalist’s John Allen Gay backed Trump on his shocking dismissal of new NATO member Montenegro. It’s just a little dinky place, sniffed Gay, yet “we are tied to them for all future scenarios.” Makes you wonder why we have these stupid treaties in the first place! Also the Senate approved Montenegro’s entry in a “rubberstamp procedure” — they let anyone in these days — and “it will likely be a similar story when Macedonia joins next, even though Macedonia also can’t do much to defend America.” C’mon, let Putin have the place if he wants it so bad — and events suggest he does! At least it’s too late to let Ukraine drag us down with their membership.
On his podcast, Ben Shapiro did funny Trump and Putin voices, then shrugged off Helsinki as “anti-climactic” and claimed that even though Trump’s “rhetoric does kind of suck,” his policies were hard on Russia and that’s what counted — or, as Shapiro put it in his National Review column with the bait-and-switch headline “Trump’s Disgraceful Press Conference in Helsinki” (thus ensorcelling both pro- and anti-Trump punters to read it — that little feller ain’t dumb!), “only Trump seems blissfully unaware of the disconnect between the nonsense he spews and the policy his administration promulgates. In this case, we’re better off for that disconnect.” You have to admit, as far as defenses literally based on the imbecility of your president go, that one’s at least confusing enough that Shapiro can get away before the townspeople catch on and start boiling the tar and feathers.
Like all reform movements, the new conservatism has at least one elder statesman, though there may be more hiding in Argentina. “Trump Stays Defiant Amid a Foreign Policy Establishment Gone Mad,” declared ancient paleocon and lunatic Pat Buchanan at the American Conservative.
Buchanan may be old, but he showed himself adept at what modern young ultra-rightists consider the most important political skill of all: trolling. Shaking his head over calls for Trump’s impeachment, Buchanan tsked, “Not since Robert Welch of the John Birch Society called Dwight Eisenhower a ‘conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy’ have such charges been hurled at a president” — an obvious inside joke, as Buchanan and the JBS have a lot in common, not least that Buchanan actually chose a Bircher as his Reform Party presidential running mate in 2000.
“America’s elites have been driven over the edge by Trump’s successes and their failures to block him,” Buchanan scoffed — here one might imagine Buchanan, like Ben Shapiro, hoisting a “leftist tears” mug. He also claimed that people calling Trump “traitor” and “Nazi” used language that “approaches incitement to violence.” The tiki-torch boys couldn’t have projected blame for violence any better! Soon we’ll see Pitchfork Pat wearing a Pepe shirt and making the OK sign as the tear gas swirls.
And you know who else doesn’t care whether or not Trump sold out to Putin? Republican voters. According to an Axios poll, while most Americans disapproved of the co-presidents’ post-Helsinki press conference, 79 percent of Republicans thought it was good. In an ABC News/Washington Post poll, 66 percent of Republicans approved of Trump’s Helsinki performance.
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As I suggested before, this is probably more about Republicans’ general love of Trump — which is as high now as it’s been for any GOP president — than about their understanding of the issues, though Putin’s hardcore authoritarianism and, ah, other qualities would, if they knew about them, probably just make them approve even more strongly.
This may be why the conservative critics of Russia-Trump sound so wan and unconvincing; they know their own people aren’t listening to them. It may also be why defenders of Russia-Trump sound so confident, and so relaxed that they hardly even attempt to make any kind of rational argument for their position at all — it’s as unnecessary as a reasoned defense of a home team at a pep rally. The polls suggest that those who are not already fans of the home team are far less likely to be convinced, but we’ll have to wait and see if they will vote to register their disapproval — or, given the Putinistic tendencies of the American Right, whether they’re able to.