WASHINGTON – One of the puzzling aspects of Donald Trump’s hyper-nationalism is its consistent denigration of the nation itself.
In a 2017 Oval Office conversation between Trump, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, the president did more than boast that the firing of FBI Director James Comey had relieved “great pressure” on him. Trump also, according to a recent report in The Washington Post, appeared to White House officials to be “forgiving Russia for an attack that had been designed to help elect him,” while noting that America engaged in such election manipulation itself.
Citing one former administration official, the Post article added: “The president and his top aides seemed not to understand the difference between Voice of America, a U.S.-supported news organization that airs in foreign countries, with Russian efforts to persuade American voters by surreptitiously planting ads in social media.”
This is not the first time Trump has asserted a moral equivalence between American and Russian roles in the world. In his 2017 Super Bowl day interview with Fox News, he dismissed criticism of Vladimir Putin as a “killer” by musing: “There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country’s so innocent?”
If such a statement were made by an Ivy League college professor, conservatives would have had all their suspicions about the anti-American tendencies of tenured radicals confirmed. Yet, Republicans seem to have no problem rallying around a politician who looks at the Russian/American relationship and sees equal and opposite amorality.
The assertion of moral equivalence between the Voice of America and Russian troll farms is particularly ignorant and galling. The VOA does actual newsgathering and journalism in countries without a free press. The Russians deliver lies on social media to encourage division and hatred among Americans.
For all his flag waving, Trump seems to lack the instinct for patriotism. It is one thing – as the president does regularly – to throw people who work for him under the bus. This displays the absence of downward loyalty. But in his 2017 meeting with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador, Trump effectively threw his country under the bus, endorsing the Russian perception of American hypocrisy on election tampering. This indicates a lack of upward loyalty. It doesn’t seem to matter to Trump that American “meddling” in foreign elections often consists of promoting regular and fair elections, encouraging the protection of minority rights and speaking up for press freedom.
None of these objectives holds much appeal or urgency for Trump. He calls for the renewal of nationalism, but in a manner that has little to do with our national values. He wants us to take pride in blood and soil rather than in a set of universal ideals. His calls for loyalty are based on geography, not morality. He urges us to love America because it is powerful, and because it is ours, not because it is good.
In this sense, Trump seeks to normalize American nationalism – to make it more like the Russian or Chinese varieties. He invariably defines national goals in terms of exercising military dominance, or controlling access to resources, or maintaining national sovereignty, or achieving trade surpluses. And he seems to view this as an expression of realism about the nature of power. America may claim to be a new order for the ages, but we kill people too. We interfere with elections too.
Trump appears to find this kind of moral relativism liberating. A world without rules and ideals is a world without limits on his instincts and whims. This may be why he has offered praise for the leadership styles of Putin and Xi Jinping while generally ignoring democratic activists in Moscow or Hong Kong. Trump views himself as the embodiment of the national will rather than the steward of American ideals. His sympathies lie with the powerful because he imagines himself in their company.
Despite this pretense, Trump manages to look small and silly on the global stage. He has been tricked and exploited again and again by North Korea’s murderous man-child. At the Helsinki summit last year, standing next to Putin, Trump was cringing and pathetic. When it comes to foreign policy, he is not sitting at the adult table.
But the most alarming spectacle is this: an American president who doesn’t understand the meaning of America.
Michael Gerson is a columnist for The Washington Post.