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Do Your Trump-Russia Priors Need Updating?


Scott’s already posted about Trump’s remarkable performance in Helsinki, which comes after his remarkable performances in London and in Brussels. Indeed, I almost worry that the appalling awfulness of the Helsinki summit will overshadow the horror show of Trump’s behavior at the NATO summit and in the country of “so many different names.” Almost.

I’ve mentioned before that it’s increasingly irrelevant if Trump is a Russian asset—or even if he actively colluded with Russia ex ante rather than merely ex post—because his behavior is indistinguishable from someone who is. And here I mean “asset” in the sense discussed by Tom Nichols: not as a Siberian Candidate, but rather someone who has been cultivated and nudged in the direction of serving Moscow’s interests.

The point of that isn’t simply to call back to the argument I’ve made before at Lawyers, Guns and Money—that Trump’s explicit foreign-policy preferences were disqualifying as a candidate, and that Russia’s support of him underscored that fact—but also that, to be frank, the experts I know who assumed the worst about Trump-Russia have generally come out looking more prescient than those of us who, no matter how much we warned about the dangers, still couldn’t quite believe it. Indeed, for a long time I considered my doom-and-gloom writings as prophylactic in character: if enough people raised the alarm, then that would help us to avoid the worst.

Despite all of this, Trump’s press conference in Helsinki was… both shocking and not shocking. Clearly, plenty of people are shocked. The GOP’s crack ‘very concerned’ brigade seems larger and more concerned than I can ever recall it being before. Indeed, it’s been less than two week since Jonathan Chait was being accused of going full tinfoil for laying out, in excruciating detail, the strangeness of Trump’s history with Russia.

At the same time, Trump’s behavior fits the pattern we saw before the election. It fits the pattern we saw during the early days of the administration, whether in the form of Trump’s speech before the CIA, Trump’s attempts to protect former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, or Trump’s meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak. It fits the pattern we’ve seen since then, as Trump berates American allies while saying nice things about Putin, all the while insisting that his administration is the toughest on Russia because of policies he clearly would prefer not to implement.

I’ve become a real fan of folk-Bayesian reasoning. My sense is that Bayesian metaphors are particularly helpful in the face of the high levels of uncertainty—unsettled times—that characterize the Trump Era. Trump’s behavior defies standard tools—both scholarly and popular—for making sense of presidential decision-making. It has also introduced high levels of uncertainty into the calculations of American allies and adversaries. In consequence, observers and policymakers are consistently forced to evaluate their “priors”—their theories about institutional stability and institutional checks, their theories about what motivates Trump, and so on—against each new development.

Developments since 2016 have forced me to rethink a lot of priors. One involves not Trump-Russia, per se, but the broader context of US-Russian relations. After the invasion of Crimea, my basic view of Russia was that it was a declining power that posed no real military threat to the United States. What I grossly underestimated was the political threat posed by Russia—which is particularly odd, considering I’d used it as an illustrative example in an co-authored scholarly article first published in 2015. In fact, until Trump was actually elected my biggest worry on this front was that future Democratic or Republican administration would be too hawkish toward Russia.

A similar dynamic is at work in the Russia-Trump matrix. The possibility that the President of the United States colluded with a foreign rival to secure election is not unprecedented. Nixon colluded with South Vietnam in 1968. The Reagan campaign may have colluded with Iran in 1980. But it still seems difficult to reconcile with basic assumptions about American politics: that international affairs happen ‘externally’ and affect campaigns largely by setting context and providing ‘surprises’; that major-party candidates may differ radically in their views of what’s best for the United States, but still have some common commitment to American national interests; and that, while politicians are at least somewhat corrupt, the political process will, by the end of the major-party primaries, weed out candidates who are thoroughly self-dealing.

Of course, many Democrats and political liberals accept, to varying degrees, that these baselines do not apply to Trump. But we can always explain that through motivated bias. After all, the Republican base thought all kinds of ridiculous things about Obama—including that he was out to destroy the United States–based on lies and disinformation. That template serves as a cautionary example, one amplified by the charlatans and publicity-hounds who have hyped Trump-Russia far beyond what we can reasonably conclude from available evidence. So a lot of those who self-identity as level-headed skeptics exercise caution; they have strong priors that the worst-case interpretation of Trump-Russia cannot be true.

Meanwhile, some on the left look at the people they derisively call “liberals” and see the mirror image of GOP insanity during the Obama administration, which fits the ‘both sides’ positioning that helps shapes their priors. Those who see the American national-security state as the single biggest threat to world peace code concern about Russia-Trump as an effort by the military-industrial complex to gin up a new Cold War—as if defense contractors, the intelligence community, and elected officials actually need a Russian threat to make good money (everyone, meet the “China threat” and the “Iran threat”).

I think it’s too much to hope that the axis-of-Russophobia will change their tune, but their numbers are small. But perhaps we are starting to see cracks elsewhere. The facts are now clearer than ever: Trump is unfit to serve, his presidency is a danger at home and abroad, and what he stands for must be thoroughly discredited, whether through impeachment, the ballot box, or both.

Moreover, perhaps the broader progressive movement will more fully contemplate what US-Russia policy should look like after Trump. Because it will be very hard to find the ‘sweet spot’ between defending progressive values internationally and avoiding unnecessary conflicts. And the world Trump leaves us will be even more difficult to navigate than the one he inherited.

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