Opinion Extra

At 100 days, Trump’s no facist or Russian stooge

President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump greet President Xi Jinping of China and his wife, Peng Liyuan at Mar-a-Lago earlier this month.
President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump greet President Xi Jinping of China and his wife, Peng Liyuan at Mar-a-Lago earlier this month. NYT

We were warned: Donald Trump is a Russian stooge. He is a fascist. He will upend the protocols and traditions that make governing possible. This is not normal.

Now that we are approaching the 100-day mark, it’s worth noting that the president is defying the expectations of his resistance. And while there is plenty to oppose in Trump’s young presidency, he is neither the Siberian candidate nor the second coming of Mussolini.

Let’s start with Russia. The FBI is still investigating whether and how his campaign may have colluded with Moscow’s efforts to influence the presidential election. And yet he has settled on a much tougher line with Russia than how he campaigned.

In the first month of Trump’s presidency, there were legitimate concerns he would attempt a grand bargain with Russia. He boasted that it was an asset that Russian President Vladimir Putin liked him. And he went out of his way to spare Putin from the harsh criticism he reserved for just about everyone else.

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Eli Lake BLOOMBERG WASHINGTON POST

But there has been no reset. In fact, Trump has been much kinder to China, Russia’s traditional Asian rival. Trump dropped his threat to revisit the One-China Policy that requires the United States not to recognize Taiwan’s sovereignty. More recently, he has said he won’t pursue China for currency manipulation, and tells us he is pleased by China’s cooperation against North Korea.

Instead, Trump is treating Russia the way he promised in the campaign to deal with China. His government has supported Montenegro’s membership in NATO, which Russia opposes, after aiding a failed coup attempt against the country’s prime minister.

The Trump administration last week rejected a request from Exxon-Mobil to get a waiver to explore energy exploration in the Black Sea with a Russia concern.

If Trump is a Russian mole, it looks like a very long con.

Then there was the decision this month to fire 59 tomahawk missiles at a Syrian airbase, following the Syrian gas attack on rebel populations. Those strikes against Russia’s only real client state in the Middle East caught Moscow by surprise, and further unraveled the relationship the Kremlin had hoped to reset with Trump. A few days after the missile strike, Trump’s White House released a dossier calling out Russia’s own fake news about the Syrian gas attack.

Russian bombers in the past week have been flying into Alaskan airspace, testing Trump’s resolve. Meanwhile, one of America’s top generals just suggested Russia was arming the Taliban in Afghanistan. If Trump is a Russian mole, it looks like a very long con.

This gets to the second resistance narrative: that Trump is an authoritarian or fascist in waiting. To be sure, he gave his critics ammunition. He encouraged his supporters at rallies to do violence to protesters. He promised to bring back waterboarding “and much worse” for terrorists captured on the battlefield. He campaigned on banning Muslims from entering the country and promised to build a wall on the Mexican border. More recently, Trump has cozied up to the strong men ruling Egypt and Turkey. His semi-endorsement of the far-right French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen is part of this theme as well.

The bete noir of the anti-Trumpists, senior strategist and former Breitbart publisher Steve Bannon, is currently out of favor.

All of that is alarming. But real fascists are much better at consolidating power and implementing an agenda. On this score, Trump has been no Caesar. The courts have rebuked him twice on the much-modified travel ban. His first effort to repeal and replace Obamacare failed miserably. He has yet to offer an infrastructure spending bill, tax reform or a plan to build the wall.

An added irony is that the bete noir of the anti-Trumpists, senior strategist and former Breitbart publisher Steve Bannon, is currently out of favor. Trump’s new inner circle is comprised of people such as the investment banker Gary Cohn, the kind of globalists the president campaigned against. The other set of advisers are retired generals such as National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who is seen as a check on the nationalist ideologues that so worry most of Trump’s opposition.

Traditionally, fascism is the marriage of corporate and military elites with an authoritarian leader. For Trump’s White House, however, his corporate and military advisers are steering Trump to a more traditional presidential agenda.

Slowly but surely, he has begun to resemble something less menacing and more normal than his foes predicted.

None of this is to say Trump is doing a great job. He has shown himself to be entirely unfamiliar with the intricacies of policy. His hostility to the press is dangerous and counterproductive. He continues to say outrageous falsehoods and is prone to extreme hyperbole. He has failed to address in a meaningful way the many conflicts of interest posed by his business empire.

But these flaws have not yet posed an existential threat to the republic. He has obeyed the courts, even as he has derided their decisions on Twitter. He has reversed himself on Russia. And slowly but surely, he has begun to resemble something less menacing and more normal than his foes predicted.

Contact Mr. Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net.

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