It hasn’t taken long for the surreal to seem almost ordinary in Donald Trump’s America, for the absurd bluster and incoherent rhetoric of his campaign to blend into the quotidian. He is punishing undocumented immigrants, offending world leaders, tearing up environmental regulations and empowering the vulture-class billionaires to make the lives of his poorest supporters much worse.
Four years of Trump sounds like an unmitigated disaster for a country that, despite its horrific flaws, is built to outlast him no matter how many democratic norms he tramples. Eight years of Trump would be cause for alarm. All of this lead-up is meant to communicate that I have no fondness for Trump and will probably always shake my head a little sadly when I see his gamboge grimace wedged between the portraits of former President Barack Obama and whatever (un)lucky Democrat or Republican gets to inherit his mess in the 2020s.
But the hysterical reaction to Trump’s histrionics from the left-leaning media intelligentsia and professional Democrats obscure the fact that he is less of a threat than advertised.
Let’s begin with Russia. I do not like Russian President Vladimir Putin. He is a savage authoritarian and I would never want to be a practicing journalist in his country. His brand of strongman capitalism is repulsive.
Russia, though, is not a threat to America’s future. Russia is a wannabe superpower trying to play in the sandbox of Eastern Europe. Like the U.S., Russia wants to assert itself within its own sphere of influence. For us, it was the decades of lamentable interference in South America, the ways we propped up amenable tyrants who did business with the U.S. while oppressing their own people.
Of course, Russia’s actions in Ukraine are despicable. The question becomes: What moral high ground can we occupy in that fight?
Trump is not wrong when he suggests that cooperation between America and Russia could be beneficial. However inarticulately and ineptly, he is vocalizing a fundamental truth: It makes no sense to be at war with Russia, rhetorically or literally, and the Cold War mindset that tyrannized American political discourse for decades needs to go.
The rejoinder to all of this will be Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Assuming it’s true – anonymous sourcing from intelligence agencies never puts me at ease given the long history of these agencies lying to further their own agendas – why should it be the central preoccupation of Democrats? Why should the difference between the Democratic National Committee’s approach to foreign policy and U.S. Sen. John McCain’s be nonexistent?
Assuming Putin’s agents indeed tried to undermine Hillary Clinton to aid Trump – and leaking embarrassing emails is not exactly the same as manipulating voting machines, which Russia has not done yet – so what? When it comes to sabotaging elections, Russia is like an art school dropout pitted against America’s Jackson Pollock. The U.S. government interfered with at least 81 elections between 1946 and 2000, according to a database amassed by Carnegie Mellon University political scientist Dov Levin. That doesn’t even include military coups and regime change efforts following the election of candidates the U.S. didn’t like, such as Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran, Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala and Salvador Allende in Chile.
And let’s not forget Haiti, where former Secretary of State Clinton traveled in 2011 to successfully pressure President René Préval to admit Michel Martelly, a popular recording artist, into a runoff for president. Martelly was third in initial voting, but the Organization of American States believed that the man who was second had benefitted from voter fraud.
The night of the runoff, Clinton’s chief of staff Cheryl Mills wrote a congratulatory note to top American diplomats in Haiti that has lived in infamy – at least for Haitians. “You do great elections,” she wrote. “We can discuss how the counting is going! Just kidding. Kinda. :)”
If the Russian interference got the hungry, hungry hawks of the Democratic Party salivating, Trump’s dismissive and meandering tone toward NATO has riled them almost as much. Trump has called the treaty organization “obsolete,” and said it costs America too much money. What his administration actually does with NATO remains to be seen, but don’t ever expect him to offer an articulate, sober critique of the nearly 70-year-old alliance.
If Trump wants to seriously rethink NATO, as some of our country’s smartest people have done, he should ditch cable TV for one afternoon and crack open a Noam Chomsky book. As Chomsky has pointed out, NATO was established in the wake of World War II to counter Soviet influence in Europe and lost its raison d'être after its collapse.
Instead of disbanding, NATO became an American “global intervention force” in Chomsky’s words, another way for a fading empire to assert its hegemony. Anti-communism lost its strength as a propaganda device and was replaced with our Orwellian war on terror, a ceaseless struggle that consumed the entirety of Obama’s presidency and will outlast Trump’s because you can’t ever slake the bipartisan thirst for a thriving military-industrial complex.
When Bill O’Reilly, the right-wing blowhard, recently pressed Trump on Putin’s sins, his response rattled our commentariat, liberal and conservative alike. “There are a lot of killers,” Trump said. “You think our country’s so innocent?”
Trump probably didn’t think too deeply about his answer. He never does. What he did do, intentionally or not, is allude to a disturbing truth that doesn’t fit snugly into a CNN chyron. No single nation in our young century has unleashed more horror on the planet than the United States, thanks to an Iraq War dreamed up by Republican neoconservatives and enabled by gutless Democrats; a war that killed more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians, more than 4,000 American troops and blew a gaping hole in the region that has allowed ISIS to thrive.
Trump has gotten so much wrong already in his presidency. His answer to O’Reilly was a rare instance of stumbling out of the fog of a lie and into the realm of truth.
Ross Barkan is a journalist from Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in such publications as the Village Voice, New York Times, New York Magazine and Reuters.