As the 2016 campaign season opened, I was an optimistic Republican voter. The party was blessed with an abundant crop of attractive, serious, and qualified presidential candidates ready to move the country away from what I saw as the disastrous national security policies of the Obama administration and prevent what I feared most, a third Clinton administration.
Then there was Donald Trump. Though I welcomed the long-overdue things he was saying about China and North Korea, I did not see him as the desirable, or even conceivable, GOP standard-bearer. I considered him crass, crude, gratuitously cruel, and generally unsuited for the presidency. I added my name to the original “Never Trump” letter though I would have written it differently. Along with three dozen or so cosigners, I attended a foreign policy briefing by the Clinton campaign, which was followed by an invitation to join her campaign. I declined.
If Trump were ever to secure the nomination, I thought, then he would surely lose the election and usher in a return of Bill and Hillary Clinton and their coterie to the White House. From the standpoint of national security alone, I saw that as the worst possible outcome: A family member said I suffered from an extreme case of Clinton Derangement Syndrome.
When he won the GOP nomination anyway, I despaired at what seemed a certain Clinton victory. Based on the often self-immolating ways Trump campaigned, it even seemed at times that he was trying to throw the election to Clinton. I urged other Republican office-holders with bipartisan appeal, such as John Kasich, to run a write-in campaign. As none rose to the challenge, I desperately looked to the Electoral College mechanism somehow to stop the universally-predicted Clinton victory.
If some third-party candidate could win at least one state’s electoral votes, then Clinton might be denied the necessary 270 and the contest would go to the House of Representatives. A Republican majority there would choose the next president, and I believed it would not be someone named either Trump or Clinton.
As things stood, this would become known as “the impeachment election” no matter which of the two deeply-flawed candidates won. Without any realistic hope of a deus ex macchina to rescue the country from the certainty of a bitterly divisive four years, I resigned myself to the futile gesture of writing in Kasich’s name.
But then, something happened to change my mind and my vote. One morning in late October, I was listening to WPFW, Washington DC’s excellent blues-and-jazz radio station during one of its political call-in hours. I was startled to hear a series of self-identified African-American women—the key demographic in the District’s electorate—disparaging Hillary Clinton and urging voters to choose Jill Stein, the candidate of the Green Party who was listed on the DC ballot.
There, I thought, was the last-ditch answer to my personal voting dilemma, and I cast my ballot for Stein in November. At worst, I felt, it was no more an empty gesture than writing-in someone’s name would have been. And if those radio callers were representative of the larger constituency and Stein actually won in DC, maybe our three electoral votes could make history. Such was the effect of Clinton Derangement Syndrome.
Like Trump himself, I was surprised at the result and relieved that the nation at least had avoided an encore of the Clintons. I remained anxious at how the implausible new president would perform but resolved to support him. I hoped that his better instincts would prevail—especially his no-nonsense approach to economic and security challenges in East Asia—and that the awesome responsibilities of the presidency would temper his personal rough edges. I wanted my grandsons to be able to look up to their new president, if not as an inspirational super-hero, then at least as a decent role model.
I urged others who had signed the Never Trump letter to accept the new reality and offer their services to the fledgling administration. Given the critical challenges it would face, and Trump’s lack of experience, I argued it was time for “all hands on deck.” Despite the vehement objections of some family members, I followed my own advice when I saw some of the admirable people being appointed in the Asia offices and offered to help wherever I could. I was subsequently informed I was under consideration for a moderately prestigious and potentially important position. Had it been offered, I would have accepted it and performed as I had in the earlier administrations I served: offering unvarnished policy recommendations for a tougher, more clear-eyed approach to Communist China. But, as months passed with no movement on the appointment, I decided the administration did not consider the position so important after all. Since I wasn’t interested in a sinecure, I withdrew my name from consideration. (The job remains filled by an Obama administration holdover.)
Meanwhile, I had pretty much forgotten about that curious series of pro-Stein calls ostensibly from DC voters—until this past January when National Public Radio reported on a New York Times story about Russian disinformation in the United States. It said that an outlet called Radio Sputnik (formerly Radio Moscow) was broadcasting messages on three popular music stations in Kansas City. It reported that since 2016, Washington, DC had also been the recipient of Sputnik broadcasts—around the clock on two stations, AM and FM, at an expenditure of more than $2 million by the Russian government. I checked to see if WPFW was one of the sponsored stations—it was not. But the story aroused my curiosity about Russian activities in Washington’s popular media.
I looked into the December 2018 report on Russian election propaganda and disinformation commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee. It stated: “No . . . group received as much attention as Black Americans, whose voter turnout has been historically crucial to the election of Democrats. Russia's influence campaign used an array of tactics aiming to reduce their vote for Hillary Clinton.”
The report further discussed how the disinformation campaign utilized social media: “The Black-targeted pages . . . lobbied for votes for Jill Stein.” That seemed pretty close to a smoking gun indicating I probably had been influenced indirectly by a Russian disinformation campaign. I wasn’t one of the targeted voters, but by tuning in to the black radio station when I did, I caught the ricochet and acted on it.
This year’s electoral decision for me will be simpler and clearer, but no less painful given the ongoing bitter divisions over the Trump presidency among family, friends, and respected colleagues, reflecting the unhappy reality in the rest of the country. The widespread intolerance and lack of respect for those with different perspectives, all claiming the moral and Constitutional high ground, sadly echo the deep national rancor over Vietnam and civil rights that tore America apart in the 1960s. (Fortuitously, though, that was how I met my wife: we were introduced as “the only two thinking people in Boston who support Lyndon Johnson on the war.” We also supported LBJ on civil rights and the “war on poverty.”)
Over the past four years, it became clear that the 2020 election would devolve into a choice between a more likable, conventional, “respectable” person whose policies, personnel, and party orientation I nevertheless view as dangerous for America—especially on national security—and Trump. Sure, Trump has many personal faults but he also has the policies and personnel I see as demonstrably well-suited to meet the nation’s economic and security challenges.
The starting point for me is Communist China—which James Clapper, President Barack Obama’s director of national intelligence, told the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2011, constituted the “greatest mortal threat” to America. Russia, he said, was second. I agree with that harsh assessment of both hostile dictatorial powers and held that position long before the Trump presidency.
So does the Trump administration. The National Security Strategy that it published in the first year of Trump’s presidency described China and Russia as major potential adversaries bent on upending the U.S.-led international order and replacing it with aggressive authoritarian systems led by Communists in Beijing and former Communists in Moscow (the reference to Communists is mine, not from the report).
The strategy cited China’s “influence operations and implied military threats to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda; . . . [i]ts efforts to build and militarize outposts in the South China Sea [that] endanger the free flow of trade, threaten the sovereignty of other nations, and undermine regional stability; . . . and [its] rapid military modernization campaign designed to limit U.S. access to the region and provide China a freer hand there.”
For all Trump’s unfortunate flattery of Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin (along with Kim Jong-un and a few other dictators), the policies he has enabled and authorized his appointees to carry out against China and Russia overall have been sensible and tough-minded. What started out as a trade war and security challenge with China has gradually expanded through a series of administration actions and speeches by top officials into a veritable human-rights crusade with the explicit goal of regime change in China. The Trump administration has brought the objective of American policy back to where it all started under Richard Nixon. He wrote this in his 1967 Foreign Affairs article: