Donald J. Trump: America's Useful Idiot
H. David Baer

Among the shocks Donald Trump has wrought to American politics, one of the strongest has been his assault on bedrock tenets of American foreign policy. The Republican nominee for president has urged better relations with Russian president Vladimir Putin, called into question the value of NATO, and expressed disdain for European integration. At first, the “unfair” media mostly ignored Trump’s novel geopolitical worldview, but after Trump conveyed his support for Russian efforts to spy on Hillary Clinton, the “unfair” media started calling attention to the consummate dealmaker’s business relations with Russia and the pro-Russian sympathies of his key advisors.

This whole weird soap opera might have been tremendously funny, except for the fact that Trump could end up as president of the United States. That frightening prospect compelled former CIA director Michael Morell, in an August 5 op-ed for The New York Times, to label Trump an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation. Those who remember the Cold War or who follow European politics are familiar with Russian attempts to meddle in the democratic processes of Western countries. Usually, however, that meddling remains on the margins. That it assumed center stage in an American presidential election is simply stunning, and an indication of how disastrous a Trump presidency could be.

To understand how bad Trump’s foreign policy “vision” is, one must see the way that US interests have come into conflict with the interests of Putin’s Russia. Since World War II American foreign policy has aimed at the economic and democratic integration of Europe. The premise underlying this policy is that integration is the necessary condition of a permanent European peace. Economically dependent nations have strong disincentives against fighting each other, and democratic states hardly ever, indeed arguably never, wage war among themselves. The best way to avoid war in Europe, therefore, on a continent plagued by war historically, is through economic integration and the spread of democracy.

Putin’s view of the matter, however, is quite different. From his perspective, the economic and democratic integration of Europe represents a threat to Russia’s historic hegemonic interests. Compared to any single European state, Russia is a great power, but compared to an integrated and well-functioning European Union, Russia is a weaker party forced to play by European rules. Thus, insofar as Putin perceives Russian interests hegemonically, his foreign policy will aim both to thwart and roll back European integration. And to be sure, Putin has been working to undermine the European Union for a number of years. He does this partly through military intimidation (annexing Crimea and invading Ukraine), partly through economic pressure (attempting to control the flow and price of gas from Russia to Europe), and partly through a distinct kind of information warfare. 

Russian information warfare is not a naïve propaganda strategy that aims to brainwash. Rather it seeks to generate uncertainty about Russia’s intentions and the state of international affairs so that Western decision makers will choose the path of least resistance, which just so happens to coincide with Russian objectives. According to Maria Snegovaya at Columbia University, the Russians refer to this strategy as “reflexive control.” Reflexive control seeks to cause “a stronger adversary voluntarily to choose the actions most advantageous to Russian objectives by shaping the adversary’s perceptions of the situation decisively” (Snegovaya 2015, 7). As an example Snegovaya cites Ukraine, where Putin has been employing reflexive control to persuade the United States and Europe to adopt a passive stance toward Russian aggression, something the West is inclined toward anyway.

Information warfare, therefore, is cynical rather than ideological. It seeks to latch onto sentiments and critical rhetoric already present in democratic societies so as to reduce these countries’ ability to act. This cynical information strategy involves multiple techniques. First, Russian officials deny or distort facts in order to create confusion and superfluous debate. In Ukraine, for example, the Russians deny they are militarily involved while also insisting that the 2014 Maidan demonstrations in Kiev were instigated either by neo-fascists or American agents. As ridiculous as all this sounds to most Americans, such factual distortions generate suspicion and speculation in other parts of the world more susceptible to conspiracy theories. Second, the Russians seek to relativize moral differences between their conduct and the conduct of the United States. When accused of violating the territorial integrity of Ukraine, for example, Russian spokespeople quickly refer to the US invasion of Iraq, a war viewed as illegitimate throughout most of the world. Third, by relativizing moral differences, the Russians also seek to undermine confidence in democratic norms. Since the United States appeals to those norms extensively when justifying its own foreign policy, the ability to point out American hypocrisy undercuts US criticisms of Russia’s foreign policy.    

During the Cold War, Russian information warfare was more successful in latching onto the rhetoric of the political left. Today, however, the strategy is bearing fruit on the right. Putin presents himself as a defender of traditional values and a proponent of national sovereignty, themes important to the European right. Indeed, the political parties furthest to the right in Europe frequently cultivate informal relationships with Russia. Many experts suspect that they also receive Russian financial support (Orenstein 2014). Whether or not this is true is, from the point of view of information warfare, mostly irrelevant. Putin need not pay off Western politicians to pursue his information campaign. He needs only to find a few “useful idiots”—public figures who stir up democratic debate by unwittingly advocating policies the Russians also favor. 

Useful idiots, although always present in Western democracies, have historically been consigned to the margins. That’s why Russian information warfare has not scored a lot of historical success. We can therefore only imagine the tremendous glee in the Kremlin when in the United States the Republican Party nominated one such useful idiot as its candidate for president. Like his analogues in Europe, Trump has opaque financial relations with Russia. After bankrupting four companies, Trump reportedly has trouble securing capital. He’s forced to rely on private investors, and seems to have borrowed from Russian oligarchs (Marshall 2016).

None of this means Trump holds his pro-Russian positions insincerely. Whether or not he does is irrelevant. His dismissive attitude toward NATO and the European Union closely resembles that of his foreign policy advisor Carter Page. Page (who, incidentally, has significant investments in the Russian gas company Gazprom) has been critical of America’s response to the “so-called” annexation of Crimea. He even goes so far as to draw a parallel between NATO expansion and the case of Eric Garner, the African American man who was killed in 2014 by a white New York police officer. In 2015 Page wrote in Global Policy that the “deaths triggered by US government officials in both the former Soviet Union and the streets of America in 2014 share a range of close similarities.” Meanwhile, Trump’s campaign advisor, Paul Manafort, spent years working for Viktor Yanukovych, the Putin-backed president of Ukraine who fled office and sought refuge in Russia after the 2014 Maidan demonstrations. This past August the New York Times even reported that, according to handwritten ledgers released by a Ukrainian anti-corruption agency, Manafort had been earmarked to receive $12.7 million in undisclosed cash from Yanukovych’s political party.  

To be sure, Trump’s supporters are probably not interested in his foreign policy positions. What attracts them, presumably, is his domestic agenda. In that respect, Trump’s dangerous geopolitical views are a kind of collateral damage, the unintended consequence of nominating a useful idiot for president. However, the Republican nominee’s support for such unorthodox and ignorant views demonstrates that even basic political consensus is breaking down. The breakdown is no doubt the result of many factors, but surely one contributing factor is our country’s extreme political polarization. Political polarization is not only undermining the possibilities of effective governance in Washington, but also, as Donald Trump shows, it is weakening the country and threatening our national interests. Assuming we survive the circus of 2016, one lesson to draw is that political polarization has real costs. In a world more unstable and uncertain than at any point since the height of the Cold War, all of us, both politicians and citizens, should recognize the importance, and the patriotic duty, of reestablishing a core consensus on America’s values and interests.


H. David Baer is professor of theology and philosophy at Texas Lutheran University.


Works Cited

Kramer, Andrew E., Mike McIntire, and Barry Meier. “Secret Ledger in Ukraine Lists Cash for Donald Trump’s Campaign Chief.” New York Times, August 14, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/15/us/politics/paul-manafort-ukraine-donald-trump.html

Marshall, Josh. “Trump and Putin. Yes, It’s Really a Thing.” TPM, July 23, 2016. http://talkingpointsmemo.com/edblog/trump-putin-yes-it-s-really-a-thing

Morell, Michael J. “I Ran the C.I.A. Now I’m Endorsing Hillary Clinton.” New York Times, August 5, 2016.  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/05/opinion/campaign-stops/i-ran-the-cia-now-im-endorsing-hillary-clinton.html

Orenstein, Mitchell A. “Putin’s Western Allies: Why Europe’s Far Right is On the Kremlin’s Side.” Foreign Affairs website, March 2014.  https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russia-fsu/2014-03-25/putins-western-allies

Page, Carter. “No Justice, No Peace: Weapons of Mass Destruction in an Age of Inequity.” Global Policy, January 5, 2015. http://www.globalpolicyjournal.com/blog/05/01/2015/no-justice-no-nuclear-peace-weapons-mass-destruction-age-inequity

Snegovaya, Maria, Russia Report I: Putin’s Information Warfare in Ukraine. Institute for the Study of War, 2015.

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