Begin with what is obvious: no responsible citizen ought to support in any way the presidential aspirations of Donald Trump. But in a wild election season, intelligent discussion cannot afford to end there. The past few weeks have cemented an extraordinary alliance to defeat Trump that joins two foreign-policy sects that were never entirely distinct: the neoconservatives who commandeered the Bush-Cheney foreign policy of 2001-2006, and liberal interventionists who supported the Iraq war, the Libya war, an expanded program of drone killings, and military intervention in Syria beyond what the Obama administration has allowed. With a spate of recent articles and op-eds, these people are preparing the ground for Hillary Clinton to assert that the Russian government is in league with the Trump campaign, and that Russia has intervened in the election by releasing hacked Democratic National Committee emails to embarrass Clinton.
In Slate magazine, for example, Franklin Foer explained that “Putin has a plan for destroying the West—and that plan looks a lot like Donald Trump.” The Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum echoed this verdict: “we finally have a presidential candidate, Donald Trump, with direct and indirect links to a foreign dictator, Vladimir Putin, whose policies he promotes.” Foer and Applebaum have written earlier about Putin, in articles that had a stronger factual basis, and their stances are not surprising. A more telling measure of the efforts in the mainstream media to project a sinister association between Trump and Moscow may be found in a column by Paul Krugman entitled “The Siberian Candidate.”
Krugman here floats the idea that Trump may be a Russian agent, “Vladimir Putin’s man in the White House.” Stimulated by his own conjecture, he goes on to suggest that Trump “would actually follow a pro-Putin foreign policy”; that “Mr. Trump does, indeed, admire Putin”; that Trump’s helpless fondness for Putin comes out in his insistence that our NATO allies pay their share of the cost of maintaining NATO; that among Trump’s advisers, there may lurk a more “specific channel of influence”; and finally (a nameless general menace) that “there’s something very strange going on here.”
Krugman’s theory strikes a new note, for him. The column is an experimental smear, not in character for a Nobel Prize economist (though reminiscent of his predecessor at the Times, William Safire). Many people, these days, are being drawn to betray their best instincts, and it is not clear that Trump can be blamed for all of it; but he has succeeded in setting the tone even for his stoutest opponents. Thus Krugman in his final sentence echoes Trump’s own favorite device of speculative slander. “You just look at the body language,” said Trump a week ago about President Obama’s words in defense of the Baton Rouge police. “There's something going on. Look, there’s something going on.” And now Krugman on Trump: “There’s something very strange going on here.”
Yet it was not Krugman but the Atlantic Monthly blogger and reporter Jeffrey Goldberg who stole a march on subsequent alarmists by saying the choicebetween Clinton and Trump was really a choice between Clinton and an agent of Putin. This, in turn, was a clever variation on the tune called by Goldberg’s neoconservative associates, who a few weeks earlier had agreed in designating Trump a fascist. The collected previous writings against fascism by neoconservative pundits would make a very short book. But in an uproar, as soon as Trump’s nomination became a certainty, they discovered that fascism exists and that it is evil. In the 1980s, the same persons took care to soften their description of real fascists or quasi-fascists by using the adjective “authoritarian” in preference to the noun “tyrant.” They did so in keeping with their pragmatic need to palliate the actions of despots south of the border, whom they wanted the United States to support. Look up the New Republicarticles of Charles Krauthammer in the 1980s, the testimony of Elliott Abrams before the Select Iran-Contra Committees, and the flattering account of U.S. policy in Robert Kagan’s book on Nicaragua, A Twilight Struggle, and you will get a fair impression of this literature.