Editor’s Note: Please see a counter perspective, courtesy of Dov Zakheim, a former U.S. Undersecretary of Defense during the George W. Bush Administration, as part of a two-part debate on the 2020 Election and Donald Trump. You can read the essay here.
PRESIDENT DONALD Trump, despite his numerous and well-documented faults, is by far a better choice than former vice-president Joe Biden in 2020. If the election were strictly a referendum on Trump, the answer might be quite different, and the Democrats would understandably want to portray the election as a referendum on a controversial and unpopular president. But as with most presidential elections, there are really only two candidates. The election is not only about what the incumbent president has done, but also about the actions of the opposition—in this case, the Democrats—to checkmate his efforts.
First, a word on Trump’s own record: he clearly has mishandled the greatest current challenge to the United States, namely, the coronavirus pandemic. His response to the crisis has been, at best, erratic, and, at worst, a mixture of self-delusion and a search for personal political benefit. Many thousands of people have died needlessly because the president was unwilling and unable to form an effective response to the pandemic—a challenge that required a disciplined and deliberate analysis, the right balance between medical and economic considerations, and skillful federal leadership in coordination with governors and mayors. As a result of the president’s fumbling, the economy is now in worse shape than it needed to be. In contrast, for most of his term, Trump provided quite sound economic leadership, and by most indicators, both Wall Street and Main Street were in good shape before the virus struck. It is clear, however, that a lack of adequate preparation to a fairly predictable pandemic, an absence of minimally adequate supplies, a failure to organize mass testing comparable to what was done in most of Europe, China, Korea, and even Russia, has made the pandemic more severe than in most other advanced nations. The president’s emphasis on reopening the economy no matter what has also now contributed to a new wave of the virus, which in turn triggers new closings of the economy, more unemployment, zig-zags in financial markets, and a general uncertainty.
Trump can also not escape personal responsibility for the recent wave of political protests, accompanied in far too many cases by outright violence against police, businesses, average citizens and even monuments—a central part of the American tradition whose violent destruction symbolizes the impotence of authorities in dealing with illegal actions by a relatively small but belligerent movement of radical militants. Trump’s insensitivity toward acts of police brutality—which garner most attention when directed against African-Americans but are experienced by citizens of all races—has heightened tensions following the dreadful death of George Floyd, a black man virtually strangulated by a white police officer. Trump’s response to the subsequent riots was a combination of bravado, empty threats, and a demonstratively inadequate yet provocative action which left the rioters emboldened—and average people exposed and unprotected.
More fundamentally, the United States is the most polarized it has been since the Civil War. States controlled by Democratic governors, mayors, and legislatures demonstrate an open contempt for President Trump’s orders, and the president has so far shown little ability to either find common ground with them—even on dealing with such essential matters as the pandemic—or to subjugate them to his will. Democratic governors and mayors defiantly declare their disregard for federal orders, ranging from the pandemic to immigration, without ever suffering serious consequences for themselves and for their states. The president, who thinks of himself as a tough leader in the mode of Winston Churchill, often sounds rather like King Lear.
In addition to a defiant bureaucracy and paralyzing leaks, Trump also finds himself confronted with senior officials in his own administration who openly disassociate themselves from his positions. Even amid riots in the nation’s capital, both the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff indicated that they did not see the need to use the regular military against rioters. While there was indeed probably no need for the president to go that far, there is no doubt that the intent of such statements was to distance themselves from the president and to create doubts that he would be able, if necessary, to use military force to deal with domestic disturbances—a measure that has been used on several occasions in the past without much controversy. This de facto condemnation by heads of the military against their own president would be totally unjustifiable if Trump himself was not constantly providing mitigating circumstances by issuing ridiculous statements, ranging from comments about being a “stable genius” to threatening to smash his opponents both at home and abroad in a way nobody could actually take seriously.
IF ALL of this is true, how can one make a case for the reelection of Donald Trump with a straight face? Rather easily, it turns out, at least if you consider two important factors. First, the Democrats’ actions against the Trump presidency since day one have rendered it difficult, if not impossible, for him to govern in any kind of normal manner. Second, what alternative to President Trump have the Democrats offered? Is it a moderate alternative within the existing political system, or is it a revolutionary choice with the possibility, as the president claims, of left-wing fascists coming to power in the United States—a kind of totalitarianism rejecting most of American tradition, threatening basic American freedoms, and accelerating a demographic change in America which would make an election of another party virtually impossible for many years to come?
As soon as Trump began to look like a serious candidate in March and April 2016, the Democrats began portraying him not just as a misguided opponent, but as a corrupt and vicious threat to American democracy. Particularly unfair and damaging to Trump, both during the campaign and throughout his presidency, were the totally unsubstantiated accusations that he was in the pocket of Russian president Vladimir Putin, and was elected with Putin’s help. As so often is the case, Trump was his own worst enemy, bragging about his successful business deals in Russia and his non-existent meetings with Putin. The basic underlying reason for the Democrats’ accusations, however, were Trump’s substantive foreign policy positions, and two in particular: First, he did not view Russia as an enemy and thought he could get along well with Putin. Second, he believed that existing alliances worked poorly, provided allies with one-sided benefits, and needed significant reform.
Regarding his non-adversarial view of Russia, it suffices to say that no post-Cold War president before Trump ever viewed Russia as an outright enemy. Russia, moreover, hardly acted as an enemy of the United States. Was it a ruthless competitor? Yes. A country with different political values? Certainly. Today, the Russian military budget is dwarfed by America's, and while Russia had built a close cooperative relationship with China, it did not seek a real alliance directed against America, nor did it have much chance to build one—China is so far reluctant to enter long-term alliances, and it has a healthy appreciation of the importance of the United States, both for Chinese prosperity and accordingly for the very stability of its communist political system. Candidate Trump did not suggest any unilateral disarmament with Russia and did not advocate any major concessions to Putin—that is assuming that any flexibility in dealing with Russia, even if it is not at the expense of important American interests, should not be considered treasonous.
On NATO, Trump essentially argued that allies did not pay their fair share. This was a demonstrable fact, considering few NATO members have military budgets at the required two percent GDP level. The lack of an immediate military threat from Russia, moreover, only bolstered Trump’s argument. Russia does not have the military capability to take on a much superior and better-funded NATO, and Putin has shown no sign of contemplating such reckless aggression. One therefore need not favor appeasement to have serious doubts about NATO enlargement as candidate Trump indicated during his campaign. Trump has demonstrated little sympathy for the aspirations of Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO, similar to the Europeans themselves, particularly France and Germany, who have no appetite for bringing two countries with territorial disputes with Russia into the alliance. Actually, the Obama administration also showed no readiness to make any meaningful move to accelerate Ukrainian and Georgian NATO membership.
Trump’s substantive positions therefore hardly justified allegations of him acting in the interest of Moscow, nor had his history with Russia. Trump had fairly modest business interests in Russia—and ambitions to do more—but he demonstrably did not have real connections. He otherwise would not have gone through the office of Putin’s press secretary to try to get support for his real estate project. No evidence exists that the Russian government gave Trump any favors. It simply ignored his palpable desire to meet with President Putin. But the national security establishment—primarily allied with the Democrats—was so entrenched in its near-theological sense of American entitlement to hegemonic power after the Cold War that any vocal departure from this orthodoxy became treated as a cardinal sin. This was felt particularly strongly because Trump did not hide his contempt for the self-appointed guardians of the post-Cold War orthodoxy. A lot of people, not just in the Obama administration but in the national security establishment as a whole, felt that their jobs, career prospects, and even influence were at stake. Nothing triggers a fiercer reaction than a combination of righteous indignation and pragmatic calculation of one’s own career interests.