Column

According to Trump, the U.S. is no better than Russia

Once again, President Trump has come to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s defense by throwing America under the bus.

In a pre-taped interview with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, aired on Super Bowl Sunday, Trump was asked to explain his respect for Putin.

"He is the leader of his country,” Trump said, adding the usual boilerplate about wanting to have good relations and help fighting Islamic State.

O’Reilly interjected, “Putin’s a killer.” And a vexed Trump replied, “There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country is so innocent?”

This was no gaffe. A similar conversation played out between MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and Trump in December 2015. Scarborough asked about Trump’s bromance with Putin and Trump responded, "When people call you brilliant, it's always good. Especially when the person heads up Russia."

Putin “kills journalists, political opponents, and invades countries," objected Scarborough. "Obviously that would be a concern, would it not?"

“He's running his country, and at least he's a leader, you know, unlike what we have in this country,” Trump said, referring to then-President Obama.

"But, again, he kills journalists that don't agree with him," protested Scarborough.

“Well, I think our country does plenty of killing also, Joe,” Trump said.

In July, Trump said something similar in response to questions from the New York Times about the bloody repressions and mass arrests by Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “When the world looks at how bad the United States is, and then we go and talk about civil liberties, I don’t think we’re a very good messenger.”

One might expect to hear that kind of logic from a dorm room full of Marxists. And if Obama had ever suggested the same, conservatives would have pounced. Of course America isn’t without sin. But ethically speaking, America has towered above Russia – including Russia under Putin.

Why does Trump insist on such absurd moral equivalency?

Setting aside the left’s Manchurian candidate theory, one distressing possibility: Trump doesn’t recognize the difference between U.S. and Russian or Turkish governance.

Another: Trump thinks that autocratic behavior is absolutely fine. In the summer of 2015, Trump explained to a tea party audience that he doesn’t like talk of “American exceptionalism” in part because he finds it “insulting” to other countries, but also because it encourages them to “eat our lunch.” As Stephen Wertheim put it in Foreign Policy, “Trump rejects American exceptionalism mainly because he thinks it paralyzes the United States: It prevents the country from playing to win.”

But let’s give Trump the benefit of the doubt and assume that all he really wants is to repair relations with Russia.

Well then, he should find a new way to talk about, and defend, his policy.

The remarkable thing is that there are plenty of ways Trump could rebuff criticism of Russia without impugning the United States or compromising his apparent desire for a rapprochement.

He could say, for instance,  “Look, during World War II we allied ourselves with Joseph Stalin, who did far worse things than Putin has been accused of.” He could mention George W. Bush’s “with or against us” approach to the war on terror and say he’d rather have Russia with us. He could even note that Obama and many of his intellectual supporters have been calling for more “realism” in foreign policy, taking the world as we find it etc.

It’s the president’s job to help shape public rhetoric, because how we talk about our ideals determines whether we sustain or erode them. Or, as the late literary critic Wayne Booth put it, rhetoric is “the art of probing what men believe they ought to believe.” To listen to Trump, Americans should believe a number of dismaying things: our public institutions cannot be trusted; he alone can fix our problems; absent him, our best days are behind us; and, most worrisome, America’s ideals have been part of the problem, not the solution.

I don’t care if Trump thinks we’ve fallen short of ideals – of course we have, that’s why we call them ideals. What bothers me is that he often sounds like he has contempt for those ideals in the first place.

jgoldberg@latimescolumnists.com

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