I am eighty-four years old. For most of those years, I have been observing other people and making judgments about why they behave as they do. There is nothing remarkable about this fact. Everyone in the world does the same thing, and always has. It is the way we humans live. All of us are remarkably good at assessing and interpreting the behavior of others. We have to be to survive. Some of us, of course, are better than others, and a few are so good at it that they seem to have supernatural powers. I would estimate that I am about average when it comes to figuring out why other people are acting as they do. In this post, I am going to offer an opinion about why Donald Trump is doing what he is doing. Do I have inside information? Of course not. Is my opinion admissible in a court of law? A silly question. Am I some sort of expert on human motivation? Hardly. I am just a person, which is to say I am someone who, like everyone else, has spent a lifetime interpreting the behavior of others. Feel free to disagree. But please, do not appeal to conspiracy theories or anti-Main Stream Media or ideological considerations. If you think my explanation is wrong, then as another human being, which is to say as someone who has spent a lifetime making sense of people’s actions, tell me why you think Trump is doing what he is doing. Remember, generally speaking, your judgment is as good as mine.
Let me give you my conclusions first, so you know where I am going with this. I think Trump is being paid by Putin to conform American foreign, economic, and military policy to what Putin thinks are Russia’s interests. This is not the only possible explanation for Trump’s behavior, but it seems to me the most plausible. The principal items of evidence on which I am basing this conclusion are Trump’s trade war, his efforts to undermine NATO, his acceptance of Russia’s reabsorption of Crimea and effort to control Ukraine, his scuttling of the Iran nuclear deal, and somewhat more atmospherically his efforts to rehabilitate Putin as a respected player on the international scene.
Now, please do not protest that NATO is an evil arm of American imperial policy and ought to be undermined. Perhaps so, but that is irrelevant. I am not offering an opinion about the wisdom, virtue, or defensibility of America’s geopolitical stance. I am offering an opinion about what is motivating Trump.
Here are three alternative explanations, together with my reasons for believing they are wrong.
First: Trump has a coherent, thought-out geopolitical view about America’s proper role in the world, a view that conflicts with the consensus view that has ruled American policy in a bipartisan fashion for the past seventy years. This is certainly possible, but it seems to me to be in conflict with what I know about Trump from my observation of him. He is, in my judgment as an average human observer and interpreter of people, ignorant of world affairs, uninterested in world affairs, either unwilling or incapable of learning about world affairs, and temperamentally unable to focus his mind on such matters long enough to formulate anything resembling a geopolitical position.
Second: Trump is being guided by his advisors, who are, in Lenin’s immortal phrase, using him as a useful idiot to advance their own carefully thought out policies. This would make a good deal of sense, save that it flies in the face of the evidence. Trump’s trade war defies everything that Larry Kudlow has believed for years. Trump’s pro-Russia tilt and attack on NATO is the exact opposite of Bolton’s hawkish neo-con leaning. Neither Mattis nor Kelly is, so far as I know, an opponent of the basic alignment of America’s military policy.
Third: Trump’s policy choices are being determined by what he conceives are the interests or prejudices of his political base. This comes closest to being plausible, and certainly suffices to explain his anti-immigrant policies and some of his mercantilist economic choices. But it completely fails to explain his bromance with Putin. There is not, and never has been, any deep groundswell of pro-Russian sentiment among White non-college educated men in America. The traditional loyalties of German-Americans in Joseph McCarthy’s state may have explained his willingness to accept the claim that Russia, not Germany, was responsible for the Katyn massacre. But there are no pockets of Russian-Americans yearning for the steppes of the old country [save perhaps in Brooklyn, but that is not the locus of Trump’s base of support.]
Well, why then? Taking everything we know about Trump and his business dealings, the most plausible explanation seems to me to be money. If public reports are correct, Trump’s repeated bankruptcies put him in a bad way financially twenty years or more ago. Banks would not lend to him. Russian oligarchs proceeded to bail him out by lending him money and using his real estate holdings as a vehicle for money laundering. It really looks as though Trump is deeply in hock to Putin and Putin’s circle. The most plausible explanation for Trump’s assault on the North Atlantic alliance is that he is doing Putin’s bidding for pay.
That is my judgment, as an ordinary human being with eighty-four years’ experience figuring out why people are doing things. If you disagree, offer an alternative explanation. You too have spent your life trying to figure out why people are doing things. Give it a go.