What explains Trump’s behavior toward Russia?

I believe that Trump’s behavior toward Putin is over-determined. That is, there are multiple causes which could, on their own, explain Trump’s extraordinary behavior toward Russia — and that matters when it comes to interpreting the meaning of this moment.

The most exciting theory for many critics of the president is the idea that Putin has “kompromat” on Trump — some damning evidence of a misdeed so enormous that it could ruin his presidency — and that Trump feels obligated to cater to Putin in order to prevent its release. Whether a salacious pee tape or some kind of document showing high-level collusion traceable to Trump, in this theory Trump is willing to serve as Putin’s puppet to ensure his own political survival.

But there are also other explanations for Trump’s pro-Moscow orientation. The biggest one is probably that he considers claims of Russian meddling in the 2016 election to be a blow to his mandate and credibility — Trump is obsessed with eliminating any notion that he didn’t win the election all by himself. By downplaying Russian interference, he protects the legitimacy of his victory.

The fact that he goes about this by undermining the assessments of his own intelligence services lays bare another potential motive. Trump has a political interest in damaging the authority of the intelligence community that’s probing his ties to Russia. By making the intelligence community look fallible or wrongheaded, he weakens the Mueller probe’s credibility among his supporters.

There are other factors as well: Trump has business ties to Russia and has sought to build a Trump Tower there in the past — it’s possible that he sees warming ties with Putin as a long-term business play. During his career he has demonstrated a more sustained interest in his own wealth and power than geopolitics.

Trump also has a cultural affinity for Russia. There are parallels between the look of some of his grandiose properties and stereotypical Russian aesthetics. He appears to love Eastern European women. He shares Putin’s Islamophobia and machismo. And Trump has an obvious admiration for authoritarian strongmen from Xi Jinping to Recep Tayyip Erdogan — he is impressed by men who seem to have a strong grip on power in their countries. Striking deals with these leaders and aligning with their worldview holds allure for him.

And lastly, there is of course the do-it-to-spite-the-mainstream-media impulse.

Trying to figure out why Trump is doing what he does is often a fool’s errand. But it does matter that there are a range of possible motives for his behavior. Many of Trump’s critics see his deference to Putin as the most telling sign that he’s got something to hide, and then paint him as Putin’s lapdog. But if Trump isn’t actually motivated by kompromat, then he’s not really being manipulated — he’s deliberately trying to align the US with Russia, or least has few qualms about making concessions to Russian interests.

This is all a long-winded way of saying don’t assume that Trump’s pro-Russia behavior is proof that Trump is guiltier than we have evidence of. There are plenty of reasons to believe he’s acting of his own volition.

Are some liberals losing their minds over the Trump-Putin presser?

In some liberal quarters it appears that Trump’s lovefest with Putin on Monday was about the worst thing that’s ever happened to America.

Prominent liberal journalist Sarah Kendzior co-signed a tweet from political activist Garry Kasparov calling it “the darkest hour in the history of the American presidency.” Former Watergate prosecutor Jill Wine-Banks cried out that Trump’s performance “will live in infamy as much as the Pearl Harbor attack or Kristallnacht.”

This kind of hyperbole is ahistorical to the point of being offensive. Kasparov’s statement is mind-boggling: Surely the defense and expansion of slavery, ethnic cleansing of Native Americans, sending Japanese-Americans to internment camps, incinerating tens of thousands of civilians with nuclear bombs, and launching wars of aggression on false pretenses in the Middle East are … quite a bit darker. And it’s hard to know how to take Wine-Banks seriously as she likens a press conference to attacks that took human lives.

What Trump did was very bad: He undermined his own intelligence services; he excused Russia’s interference with the American electoral process; he gave Moscow the green light to pursue its most vicious foreign policy strategies and goals that are odds with US interests; he elevated Putin while putting down his own citizens; he dealt yet another blow to a liberal international order which, while unjust by many measures, is keeping the world relatively peaceful at the moment; he made the US look like a joke before the whole world.

Why not just call it what it is? Where does this need to instantly canonize it as the Worst Thing in American History come from? Why the need to rank it alongside or ahead of cleansings and massacres and enslavement? (None of which, I should say, I’m inclined to rank as the “worst” considering how disparate they are.)

I think there are two major drivers of it:

(1) The spectacle of Trump siding with an adversary of the US over his own government is deeply shocking to people, and the fact that it’s happening with Russia of all countries makes it intolerable for many. The Cold War still shapes American perceptions of Russia, and among many the idea of Trump colluding with Moscow appears to be the highest form of betrayal that a president can commit. For some reason infidelity to the nation-state seems to register as more dishonorable than mass atrocities.

(2) The desperation to see Trump taken down over his ties to Russia is doing unhealthy things to some people’s minds. The more that Trump’s “treasonous” behavior is framed as a singular kind of sin, the stronger of a case they have for impeachment. Or so they hope.

Again, what Trump did was disturbing on a number of levels, many of which I didn’t touch on. But it’s important to keep perspective. Not just so that dark chapters of American history aren’t eclipsed, but so that today’s advocates can remain judicious and strategic.


Notes on Hawaii

DSC00597Size and space are eerie things in Hawaii. When I visited the Big Island last summer, there was so much packed into so little. I was told that two-thirds of the world’s major geographical features could be found there. Over the course of a drive you could pass a volcano, a rainforest, and a desert. Dense cloudscapes would billow overhead then vanish; rain cascaded over the sun in sheets. Lush green fields bordered scorched yellow expanses which bordered black lava fields. Sulfur leaked out fissures, magma frolicked in calderas, waterfalls streamed over giant cliff faces, eucalyptus forests towered along ridges. It felt like you were traveling through time and catching a glimpse of what came before human life.

One evening after visiting a volcano I looked at the sky and was transfixed. Never had I seen a more colossal moon. Never had I seen rowdier stars. The sky hung low, the island shrank, and I didn’t trust gravity to keep me on the ground. I looked out toward the water and felt another rush, a taunt by another infinity. It was all too vivid. The sky and the sea had shed their roles as backdrop and muse; they were just there, staring and swallowing.

The beauty was melancholic, like a vast library where you know you can’t ever read a fraction of the books. And it was menacing, as you take in how little you do to take care of the world, and how easily it will exact its revenge.

Notes on Trump at the UN


Covering Trump’s speech at the UN General Assembly yesterday was one of the wilder experiences I’ve ever had as a journalist.

Have you ever noticed Trump’s slack-armed amble when he mills around during important gigs? It’s such a blatant admission of his indifference to the events he’s witnessing and shaping. He looks like he’s been told to be somewhere but he’s not sure why. He’s not opposed to being there, but he’s not committed to it either. That is, until the moment that he steps up to the podium and he speaks. And then his body comes alive with such force that it’s almost as if it’s a different person. He barks and points and sneers and flashes his teeth. It almost seems as if he’s a ventriloquist manipulating his own body. But then he misses and stumbles over words, and places the emphasis on the wrong part of sentences, and you remember that the passion has less to do with the language than it does with him harnessing the power of the scene. He is animated by the spectacle, given life by the authority to command. He is pantomiming the American affect, and revealing its darkest essence.

(Cross-posted on Facebook.)

Notes on election night

It was after midnight when we accepted that Donald Trump was going to be president of the United States. After an evening of cycling through desperate hope and nausea, there wasn’t much to say. Kyle and I finished our whiskey and I got up to leave.

I stepped outside, inhaled deeply. I wondered if I looked different now.

My conflicting emotions erupted with such perfect simultaneity that they canceled each other out and I was left simply feeling blank.

I walked into a bar and ordered a beer. It was Williamsburg, so people were generally well-dressed and unfazed. A white woman walked through the door and embraced her black friend, crying. After a few sips I left for the subway.

Inside the Bedford stop was a group of young black teens waiting for the train. One boy said that Trump’s election meant police would have even fewer qualms about gunning black people down in the streets. Another reckoned he should probably buy his own firearm.

One of the girls in the group of teens pointed and giggled at a white woman who appeared to be drunk, further down the subway platform. The woman was offended and yelled something loudly about how everything was not OK at the pointing girl. The girl continued to laugh, then the woman yelled louder, and then they got in each other’s faces. It’s unclear how it de-escalated, but the woman eventually stormed off.

Then a pair of white women struck up conversation with the group of teens, assuring them that protest movements would prevent things from getting too bad. The kids seem unconvinced. One of the white women then asked them if they liked to dance, and started miming step dance moves. They lost interest.

As the train arrived, they were approached once more. Another white woman came up and told one of the girls in the group that she liked her outfit. As the girl turned to get on the train, the woman reached out and stroked the girl’s hair. The girl recoiled, then stepped into the subway car.

When we got on the train, the boys danced for money. I handed them whatever cash I had in my wallet and got off at First Avenue. I wondered if they felt they looked different.

Worse is not better

I can’t believe that around this time one year ago we were debating the merits of Bernie Sanders adopting reparations for the black community for his economic platform.

Material and mental resources are finite, and a lot of energy on the left is now being spent figuring out how best to respond to Trump’s breed of reactionary authoritarianism. I think the Leninist “worse is better” arguments I saw floated in the run up to the general election were — in addition to being ethically problematic and under-appreciative of what it takes to inspire some kind of revolution — neglectful of how time and energy defending things as they are takes time and energy away from envisioning how they can be. Cross-posted on Facebook.

Two parties or four?

Watching Chris Christie endorse Trump was a bit surreal yesterday. Whether he did it for a coveted cabinet position or because it was one of the first signs that the GOP establishment is accepting the inevitability of the Trumpocalypse, it drove home the absurdity of the two-party system, which requires the forging of very odd alliances. The 2016 cycle has exposed that the public would at the moment be best served by at least 4 parties in a multi-party parliament setting:

Free market traditionalists (GOP establishment)
Nationalists (Trump)
Multicultural neoliberals (Clinton)
Social democrats (Sanders)

Black Panthers at the Super Bowl

Were the Black Panther-themed costumes during Beyonce’s performance an example of her being politically edgy or more a sign that corporate pop culture is so powerful that it can accommodate the iconography of anticapitalist black nationalism without seeming to implode from its internal contradictions? If she feels safe dancing with panthers, then have they been defanged? Beyonce’s performance elicited worshipful gaze and a chorus of affirmation, with cries that she slayed and that she deserved her title as queen of pop culture. How should we square that with a nod to a group whose raison d’etre was to slay queens and kings, to destroy empires?

I’m not somebody who thinks that pop can’t be subversive, or that one should dismiss an artist because of contradictions. But in this case, I am skeptical of the messenger (although I fully admit I have huge gaps in knowledge of her music) and especially the setting — presumably hundreds of largely apolitical people okayed this idea and thought it wouldn’t threaten one of the most lucrative ad spaces in American history. The identitarian turn in contemporary pop culture helped make this safe. But does its emphasis on consciousness rather than actual power also make it impotent? What do people think?

The real problem with the Oscars

The biggest problem with the Oscars isn’t that they’re so white. It’s that they’re a garbage institution with garbage taste and values. Every year thousands of provocative new films grace the world and the Oscars do things like nominate Seabiscuit or American Sniper for best picture or award Crash or The Hurt Locker with best picture, and a few obvious directors and movies dominate the ceremony in a manner that turns what could be a celebration of artistic diversity into a prestige dick measuring contest that largely cements the cinematic and sociopolitical status quo.

The best critique isn’t pointing to films that have minorities and were “snubbed” — as Freddie DeBoer has pointed out, “there’s just no way to prosecute these arguments without insisting that your aesthetic taste is objective.” The stronger critique, the one that provides the most promise in the long run, is that the Oscars’s selections should reflect diversity in form and origin and style and intellectual leaning and political sensibility and social context / goal — ethnic diversity will naturally emanate from that process. That’s the best way to avoid strong-arming vacuous institutions into degrading rituals of tokenism which we’ll be sure to see in the coming years.

Better yet, let’s just scrap the whole thing — between the cost of the crowd’s clothing and producing the show, you could probably pay for a good chunk of reparations. Then let some smart people who are more interested in expanding artistic horizons than serving as guardians of mediocrity and celebrity start something from scratch.