Trump, like Gorbachev, has lost faith in what his country stands for

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
President Trump and former  Soviet  President Mikhail Gorbachev (Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: AP, Getty Images)

I thought a lot about John McCain this week. About how McCain, his grave still fresh, would have reacted to the revelation that President Trump has gone to extraordinary lengths to keep the notes of his conversations with Vladimir Putin shielded from history, or even his own aides.

I wondered what McCain would have said after his closest friend in the Senate, Lindsey Graham, having already kowtowed to Trump on the planned withdrawal of troops from Syria, attacked the FBI agents whose duty had led them to investigate the president for espionage.

I don’t know if McCain would be talking openly about impeachment right now. But I can promise you his head would be exploding, and I’m pretty sure he’d be looking around for another candidate to back in 2020.

Because McCain was the last of Washington’s towering cold warriors, forged in a world dangerously divided between East and West. And he would have understood intuitively that, for the Russians, Trump isn’t merely a strategic asset (witting or unwitting), nor is he just some hapless dupe to exploit.

No, for Putin and his nostalgic nationalists, Trump represents a cosmic payback 30 years in the making. From their perspective, he must seem like the American Gorbachev, dismantling the empire all at once and without firing a shot.

Here in the United States, a generation removed from all that Dr. Strangelove stuff, we seem to have trouble remembering much about the Cold War these days, except to make some throwback movies about it.

Maybe that’s because we have no great battlefields to commemorate (aside from the entire Vietnam War), or because we’ve all moved on to radical Muslims, or because we just don’t take a very long view of anything.

In a Washington Post op-ed last week, a writer named Namrata Goswami, making an otherwise cogent case for us to pay attention to China’s space program, dismissed the U.S.-Soviet space race as being principally about “global prestige and simply ticking off boxes.” Which is kind of like saying the American Revolution was mostly about tea.

In fact, technological superiority during the Cold War — the ability to control every conceivable frontier — seemed essential to resisting global tyranny, even if the goal lay just out of reach. It’s easy enough to dismiss that as propaganda now, but for decades leading up to the Reagan era, there was very little partisan disagreement about it.

But then the crushing costs of militarizing the world began to set in, as the great cities in both countries crumbled. And it was Mikhail Gorbachev who stood down first, accepting the economic ruin of Communist doctrine and yielding to democratic movements throughout the Soviet sphere.

To us, naturally, Gorbachev was a peacemaker and a visionary — someone who understood the futility of the cause he had inherited, and who courageously, if cautiously, embraced American ideals of freedom and capitalism. I think of him this way still.

To hardened Communists and Russian expansionists like Putin, however, you can imagine he seemed like something else — namely, a capitulator who sold out the cause of Russian greatness for a Nobel Prize.

It has fallen to Putin, in power now for 20 years, to painstakingly reassemble an absolutist regime and a militarized bloc that creeps ever westward. His dream is to reverse the imbalance of global power he was handed and restore a far-reaching Russian hegemony.

And his patience has been richly rewarded in the ascendancy of President Trump.

I’ve said before that I don’t think Trump is some kind of Russian agent or formal collaborator (although, I will say, I am starting to wonder if I’ve been naive on that point). I don’t think he’s got some secret plan to build a bunch of casinos in Moscow in exchange for, say, Alaska.

Rather, like a reverse image of Gorbachev, Trump is a political leader who has lost faith in the efficacy of his country’s governing philosophy.

He believes our bedrock commitment to liberty, here and around the world, has left us weak and overextended. That we are too in thrall to a pluralistic ideal, too entangled in global alliances and far-off conflicts, too obsessed with free trade and open borders.

Trump recently praised the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, which is tantamount, really, to renouncing the entire basis of the 45-year Cold War. You can’t believe America was right to check Soviet expansionism and also believe the incursion into Afghanistan was just fine; Jimmy Carter got that.

Gorbachev allowed the most egregious symbol of Soviet domination, the wall dividing Berlin, to be toppled on his watch. Trump has spoken fondly of the Berlin Wall and held it up as a model for the one — still unrealized — on which he has staked his presidency at this point.

Gorbachev tried to delegitimize despotism. Trump — who exalts the Saudi crown prince and favorably compares the Chinese ruler with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer — envies the simplicity of dictatorship. He gives every appearance of admiring Soviet-style absolutism as much as Gorbachev idealized American democracy.

And just as Gorbachev’s liberalization fed the energy of pro-liberty movements all over the world, so too does Trump purposefully fuel the passion of nationalist uprisings in England, France and Germany. He sympathizes with any movement that puts ethnic identity above the building of a civil, tolerant society.

All of this fits nicely into Putin’s vision for a world where Western alliances unravel, enabling Russia to do its level worst. Maybe his mastery of Trump stems from something sinister, a bit of information in some old KGB file or a business arrangement shrouded in secrecy. No doubt the special counsel has poked around for something like that.

More likely, though, Putin recognizes Trump’s weakness for what it is — a secular crisis of faith, much like the one that brought his country to its knees in the 1980s. Trump doesn’t think our defense of democratic values really works for America anymore, and in this he has more in common with Putin than he does with his own Cabinet or his military.

That’s probably what the interpreter’s notes from the Trump-Putin meetings would tell us, if Trump hadn’t snatched them up and stuffed them into his underwear, or wherever he’s hiding them now.

Trump can’t capitulate entirely by himself, however. It’s up to his allies in Congress to decide whether they’re OK with handing victory after victory to Putin’s neo-Soviets, to act as if America’s guiding purpose were to stay in our lane.

I know where McCain would be on that. But the old warrior is buried in our memory now, and so, it seems, is the long war we fought.

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