The Communist Party of the USSR had two categories for helpful people who were not members: fellow travelers and useful idiots. Fellow travelers openly subscribed to and worked to further the Party’s goals. Useful idiots might have no interest in the Party, but they acted in ways that helped the Party. The terms predate the Cold War and were originated by Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin. Their use became particularly charged during the Cold War. When the Soviet Union collapsed, they were abandoned.
The debate surrounding Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia is whether he is a fellow traveler –consciously working for Russia – or a useful idiot, acting in ways that benefit Russia although that may not be his plan.
Donald Trump is a useful idiot.
My previous three posts on Trump and Russia (here, here, and here) summarized what I can find on the internet about Trump and Russia. It isn’t much. Trump admires Vladimir Putin and would like to extend his investment empire to Russia. There is little evidence that he has succeeded in making Putin his bff, as he tweeted in 2013, or has even begun any projects in Russia, much less succeeded at them. There is no evidence that Russian investors have a stake in Trump’s net worth.
But there is very little information available publicly. Trump’s income tax returns, which his campaign manager Paul Manafort said this week will not be released, would give more information about what Russian ties there might be or show that, as Trump says, there are no such ties. Trump’s financial ties to Russia have not been investigated in anything like the depth of investigations of the Clinton Foundation. We can hope that this week’s events will encourage some reporters to follow the money.
Trump has referred favorably to Putin a number of times, but often in combination with criticizing President Barack Obama. Trump may be using Putin as a contrast to make his distaste for Obama clear. But he once made President George W. Bush the sad comparison. There is a continuing theme of admiration for Putin, as the man himself, rather than for Russia. This is consistent with Trump’s presentation of himself as the only one who can make things right in America.
What is in the public record is Trump’s consistent (so far) position on a number of foreign policy issues. Kevin Drum summarizes:
- Wants to reduce America’s commitment to NATO and reorient its activities to the Middle East. This is perhaps Vladmir Putin’s greatest foreign policy desire.
- Says America has no moral standing to complain about human and civil rights violations.
- Welcomed Russia’s incursion into Syria.
- Considers Putin a great leader.
- Would consider eliminating sanctions against Russia and recognizing their annexation of Crimea.
- Wants to weaken American ties to its allies by insisting that he will walk away from them unless they pay us more for our military protection.
- Never mentions Russia in his otherwise endless litany of countries that are taking advantage of us.
- Opposes sending arms to Ukraine.
- Is pro-Brexit.
- Isn’t sure he would defend the Baltics if Russia attacked them.
Individual positions on that list are arguable by reasonable people: Russia’s role in Syria, sending arms to Ukraine, Brexit. Others, like the commitments to NATO and other American allies, would change America’s role in the world significantly. The sum of the positions is closer to Putin’s than to any other recent American president’s.
That list doesn’t include Trump’s invitation to Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails from when she was Secretary of State. Trump has now said that that invitation was sarcastic. That is possible. Many things are possible about what Trump says, because he says many conflicting things. His ghostwriter says he lies when he gets into trouble.
The frequently-seen quotes from Donald Jr. that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets” and “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia”, followed by “As much as we want to take our business over there, Russia is just a different world. It is a question of who knows who, whose brother is paying off who. . . . It really is a scary place” may or may not be meaningful. They are from 2008, and Trump finances could have changed since then. Or the first could have been a Trump exaggeration. Or the second.
Putin himself has spoken kindly of Trump, although there is some question about the English translation of what he said. North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has endorsed Trump, as has Hungary’s Putin-admiring Viktor Orban.
The evidence that Russia hacked the Democratic National Convention’s computers is strong. It could be one more indication, given the release of unfavorable information just before the convention, that Russia is on Donald Trump’s side. That story is developing.
Would Putin want Trump as president of the United States? Putin likes predictability and control. Trump shows neither of those. He is spreading a narrow and racist nationalism among the American people and disrupting the normal political process. He is discrediting that process and one of America’s two major political parties. He is undermining international confidence in America’s commitment to its allies, particularly NATO, Putin’s bugaboo. All that is enough for Putin to be pleased. He is providing money for far-right parties in Europe. His supporting Trump is fully plausible. Joshua Yaffa reports some Russian reactions to Trump and why Trump is probably not directly Putin’s man.
So far, no evidence ties Trump to Putin. In fact, the ties seem to be less than Trump has claimed, although his latest claim is that he has no ties. His comments to the press in 2014 appear to be a restatement, with exaggeration, of a probably exaggerated claim in 2013.
A legal analysis concludes that Trump is not a foreign agent under current laws. But the consistency noted by Drum and others is disturbing. Several of Trump’s campaign advisors have long-standing financial connections to Russia and have spoken favorably of Russia’s policies. In particular, Carter Page has used language that approaches fellow-traveler territory, with tropes from Soviet times. It is possible that the consistency comes from Trump’s discussions with them. His knowledge of foreign policy is severely lacking; his advisors may be filling in the holes with their preferences. The full degree to which they are indebted to Russia is not known. Again, reporting must follow the money.
At present, many of the stories declaring Trump to be closely associated with Russia or Putin are overdrawn. We need more information.
But we can say that Donald Trump is a useful idiot.