The story of the government documents that Donald Trump stashed at Mar-a-Lago continues to become increasingly alarming regarding the nature of the material and the difficulties in identifying the full extent of the resulting damage to national security. Meanwhile, a significant portion of the American body politic defends or excuses what Trump did, looks the other way, or makes contorted attempts at whataboutism. The most obvious explanation for this response is simple partisan tribalism, and that indeed is probably the main reason.
In this regard, we are seeing a repeat of the responses to many of Trump’s earlier transgressions, ranging from personal conduct as recorded by the Access Hollywood tape to his most serious offense, which was his attempt to overturn the result of the 2020 presidential election. But reflecting on the responses to those other episodes gives reason to suspect that other factors also are in play regarding Trump’s disregard for national security and responses to that disregard, as reflected in the matter of the documents.
In those other episodes, those condoning Trump’s behavior or looking the other way could see offsetting benefits, from their point of view, related to the very issues that the behavior raised. For example, Christian evangelicals, who have constituted a large part of Trump’s base of support, may have winced at his un-Christian personal conduct but saw him serving their religious objectives by appointing anti-abortion judges and being deferential to Israel. The latter policy is seen as furthering the dispensationalist theology in which many evangelicals believe. When Trump moved the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem—despite this move diminishing further any prospects for resolving conflict over that contested city—he was quite candid about his motive. “That’s for the evangelicals,” he declared.
Similarly, Trump’s effort to overthrow American democracy with his big lie about the 2020 election is less of an offense to those in his party who don’t especially care for democracy anyway than it is to other Americans. Anti-democratic sentiment—to be clear, this is about democracy with a small “d”—and partiality toward authoritarianism have been increasingly heard in Republican Party circles, including in Congress as well as at the state and local level. The underlying perception among party members holding that sentiment is that neither demographic trends nor the way that party policies affect the interests of the majority of Americans augurs well for future Republican prospects in free and fair elections.
With endangerment to national security, there is no similar apparent payoff. Even theocratic authoritarians presumably would like to have security for their theocratic autocracy. Again, party tribalism is the main explanation for condoning behavior by Trump. The hoped-for payoff of having him or someone like him in power—whether that payoff consists of right-wing judicial appointments, pandering to Israel, tax cuts, or other measures—need not be substantively related to the behavior being condoned.
But there is something else in play, and that is a negative attitude toward the national security bureaucracy, the people who work in it, and the secrecy that it necessarily employs. Traditionally most of that negativity has come from the political left, and much of it still does. This is especially true regarding the handling of classified information. It is primarily on the Left that one finds those who have excused the treason of Edward Snowden and portrayed Julian Assange as a hero.
Trump’s conduct has perhaps done more than anything else to engage the Right as a bigger part of attacks on a supposed “deep state,” which is often equated with the national security bureaucracy. An early and big part of this came from Trump’s collision with the intelligence community regarding Russia’s interference on his behalf in the 2016 election. Trump’s flagrant law-breaking regarding the purloined documents has led some of his supporters, who not long ago were proud to stand for “law and order” following talk on the Left about defunding police, to call now for defunding the FBI.
There must be much cognitive dissonance on the Right over all this. But there is yet another background factor that is involved, and that is the degree of security threat, especially from abroad, that the nation faces at any given time. With the end of the Cold War and the onset of the “unipolar moment,” the level of perceived threat to the United States became less than it had been for decades. The 9/11 terrorist attacks brought a different sort of scare about security threats, but with more than two decades having passed without a comparable attack or anything close to it, that effect has faded.
When the nation is not perceived to be facing large and salient security threats, public and political attention to national security is lower than at other times, and people are less likely to be exercised about behavior that endangers national security. People don’t care as much about how loose lips can sink ships if there doesn’t seem to be an adversary actively trying to sink one’s ships.
A corollary to this dynamic is that without the unifying and disciplining effect of a major external security threat that everyone feels, domestic divisions intensify. There is more perceived latitude to play political games with national security. This comes full circle to that prime explanation of recent behavior involving partisan tribalism. Such partisanship does explain most of the behavior, but the partisanship itself would not be as intense as it is if the perceived threats to national security were greater. Trump’s shenanigans with the classified documents would have elicited a different response in the middle of the Cold War.
Even if the security threats are not as salient and widely felt as they have been at other times, they still exist. And careless disregard for national security is likely to cause such threats to grow.
Paul Pillar retired in 2005 from a twenty-eight-year career in the U.S. intelligence community, in which his last position was National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia. Earlier he served in a variety of analytical and managerial positions, including as chief of analytic units at the CIA covering portions of the Near East, the Persian Gulf, and South Asia. Professor Pillar also served in the National Intelligence Council as one of the original members of its Analytic Group. He is also a Contributing Editor for this publication.