This article is Part 4 of Order from Chaos: The Architecture of American Renewal Comes from a Mindset of Grey-Zone Superiority — a Great Power monograph. You can read the introduction here, Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, Part 4 here, and Part 5 here, but you can also read each section as a separate piece.
PART 4: The mad intersection of Kremlin objectives and the Trump presidency
In their few meetings together, Trump’s bulky frame seemed diminutive next to the smaller Putin — a supplicant suddenly devoid of signature bombast, shifting in his uniform too-long tie and ill-fitting suit as if suddenly seeing them through someone else’s eyes. These were some of the few moments in his presidency where Trump allowed his awareness that he was unequal to the requirements of the moment to show.
Trump, to be sure, is no Putin — not a man of skill, training, or institutions. Not a man with decades of operational experience to draw on. Not a man willing to do the work. Not a man with a core set of beliefs about anything more than himself. Trump inspires fear with tantrums and tweets (RIP @realDonaldTrump) and bullying and humiliation; Putin’s opponents tend to mysteriously fall out windows or shoot themselves in the back of the head or die ostentatiously after spritzing themselves with neurotoxins or sipping radioactive compounds. Trump never — thankfully — had any real idea how to make the arms of state power fully do what he wanted; Putin rebuilt the state so that it could more fully execute in the way he required.
There are only two real similarities between them. First, both of them are constructs, entirely fabricated personas, layers upon layers of lies so deep not even they know the truth of what they once were. Second, both believe their great advantage is in their willingness to break rules (commit crimes) for specific gains, combined with their knack for ensuring that everyone around them is also enlisted as a participant so that everyone is complicit and the system can never be taken apart.
As Trump departs the White House, we remain in the dark about the many private conversations between Putin and Trump. But Trump has parroted Kremlin explanations for events and Kremlin interpretations of history with reliable frequency; he has given credence to anti-democratic behaviors the Kremlin relies on. Just the overt deliverables are enough to know how thoroughly Trump’s decision-making was influenced by information passed along via the many channels established from the Kremlin to Trump. If nothing else, he excused the Kremlin’s attack on American democracy, preferring to lead his followers down a rabbithole of conspiracies and turn them into a weapon against America rather than admit that Russia is an enemy to the nation.
Trump came to office aided by the Kremlin, and it’s hard not to see how he acted as a president aligned with them. He never needed to. But at every turn, Trump gave advantage to the Kremlin — in stature, in territory, in deference, in influence, in power — even as he questioned and undermined our democratic values, our leadership, and the way that we exercise power. Trump has been a tremendous and never-ending gift to the dream of a broken and discredited America.
The Kremlin has accelerated an information environment in America where perceptions of division and dysfunction and despair are amplified and seem impossible to dislodge. This is not just about social media or disinformation. It’s also about Donald Trump, and why the Russians were all-in behind him — whether Trump & Co ever understood that or not. Charging up the Capitol steps, kitted out in hodgepodge body armor and tactical gear, was the living manifestation of the intersection of ideologies that both Trump and the Kremlin championed as tools to dismantle American power. Both knew what they were doing, if only one of these parties fully understood the power of that unspoken alliance, and what it would look like in the end.
It will take time, but the sweeping infiltration in the cyber domain will be undone, addressed, learned from. The Biden administration will rebuild our institutions. The Capitol architect will make sure that the scars of insurrection are repaired. But when we go back to that thing we put aside for a moment — the hacking of our minds, our perceptions, how we see ourselves and our nation and the world — no recovery teams are parachuting in while a military command searches for answers. No push update will return our systems and beliefs to their factory settings. No army of builders and cleaners can sweep away the waste laid by systematic radicalization.
Trump was the ultimate hack of our brains — a daily injection of Kremlinesque rhetoric and cynicism straight into our veins. Even if — if — it was only that he admired the worldview and vision of power embraced by Putin, and only sought to emulate those aspects, the way this admiration has been used to erode our moral clarity and objective truth is devastating. Every We’ve got a lot of killers and NATO’s obsolete and Crimea is Russia that would have been right at home in Russian state media changed minds in America, changed how we saw ourselves and what our responsibilities are in world. But so too did every stand back and stand by and every don’t be too nice.
It was bad enough, for example, when Trump repeatedly said that NATO wasn’t good at fighting terrorism but pointed to Putin’s methods — aka wholesale civilian slaughter — as yielding good results. But admiration for wielding brutality went further, and Trump kept recommending it for our own forces, and then he pardoned war criminal after war criminal that had used it, holding them up as role models, never understanding that our restrictive rules of engagement are to protect those who serve in uniform — psychologically, morally, spiritually— from what they may be asked or required to do for their nation, not to limit their lethality. And now a whole cult following admires these war criminals, cheering them and sending them funds, holding them up as heroes and examples of those willing to do “what needs to be done.” It’s so easy everyday to be captivated by the craziness of things like QAnon and miss the true insanity of how allegiance to Donald J. Trump requires abandoning the values that are the only thing that make us American.
Trump is a generational poison, normalizing what we know is wrong, gutting our institutions, breaking us apart, breaking us down, grinding us down until just about every American believes, at least a little, that we — or at least a good chunk of us — are broken, morally bereft, not so exceptional after all. Trump’s non-belief that democracy is special — or that our pursuit of it is proof that it is a durable model of governance even when it is flawed — is, in the end, the worst deception that Make America Great Again represents. Every red hat, if you gaze from beneath the brim in the way Trump looks out to the world, is an agreement with Putin that there’s nothing special about America because democracy is just a short anomaly in the long arc of history that is strongman rule. Every red hat that flooded through broken doors and windows, issuing wild yawps beneath the Capitol dome, is an agreement with Putin that truth is what you say it is, and the manipulation of truth the most powerful tool there is to maintain control.
Moral flaws aside, the irredeemable defects in Trump’s understanding of power and leadership made him the perfect rabid dog to unleash on America — so of course, of course, Putin saw why there was advantage in helping him win. The Kremlin didn’t create Trump. They don’t write his scripts. But if they had actually recruited and prepared a Manchurian candidate, it wouldn’t need to look much different, up to and including the parade of oligarch minions and middling spawn eager to profit from the brand. Trump brought the rot that is the Kremlin to the White House, and now we believe it’s always been there all along.
It’s not just that Russia has advanced during Trump’s presidency — as it was certainly doing while Obama and Bush were at the helm — but that Trump has aggressively retreated from things important to the Kremlin. Even 2020 alone was a big year of gimmes for Putin. The ongoing politicization and insult of Ukraine following the impeachment. Pulling out of Syria (somehow, like three separate times). The drawdown in Europe, and the chaotic, unplanned, absurd reshuffling of what’s left of forces in Europe and Africa. Abandoning Afghanistan. Leaving territory and influence for the Kremlin and its pets — Assad, the Taliban, Iran. Eroding the trust-based system of collective defense that is the necessary core for the Western alliance, and extorting our Asian allies for cash for good measure. The kabuki of accepting aid from Russia during COVID. Bizarre White House statements commemorating historical events from a Kremlin perspective. The list goes on and on. And all of this while the hackers were sitting in our systems, and while Putin and Trump exchanged frequent calls about, I don’t know, stuff.
Putin believes democracy is a farce, mostly theater that is sometimes a convenient method for capturing the energies of “the people” in a cathartic and evocative but ultimately useless display. We — all of us, from elected officials to business leaders to media commentators to willing fabulists to insurrectionists — have not yet fully assessed how committed we have become to the parts we have been assigned in the play of destroying America. The maddening chaos that was Trump made all of us — all of us — fall too easily into those roles of elevating rhetoric, amplifying conflict, deepening divides, eroding faith in institutions and authority. We played along in attacking each other far more often than we want to admit, and the storming of the Capitol was only the tip of the subversion iceberg that will absolutely sink us if we can’t de-escalate the activation potential in ourselves and reorient toward a more shared vision for our nation.
/end Part 4
Catch up on all the sections of Order from Chaos: The Architecture of American Renewal Comes from a Mindset of Grey-Zone Superiority, on Great Power:
Introduction: Autocracy ascends the cracks of democracy
Part 5: THE WAY AHEAD. Civil defense to build resilience. Influence monitoring to lessen infiltration. Enhanced unconventional warfare capabilities to detect grey zone threats and help design a response. A whole-of-government approach to waging and deterring political warfare. Fight for our ideals at home and abroad.
A full copy of the monograph will also be available on Great Power. It is my hope that it will orient us toward action that structures order that allows us to navigate this time of disruption, and to lead again.
An EXTRA SPECIAL THANK YOU to Great Power’s founding subscribers, who supported the writing of this monograph, and who want thoughtful American leadership, at home and abroad. —MM