At some point in the last week or so, “Make America Great Again” became “Blame America First.”
What we saw on Monday from Helsinki is why conservatives (like me) can’t back Trump—even with two Supreme Court picks.
So much of what constitutes Trumpism directly contradicts everything that Reagan conservatives came to believe. Drawing a moral equivalence between Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the United States of America is an obvious, if disgusting, example.
Trump lit the match via Twitter on Monday morning, even before that disgraceful press conference. “Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!” Trump tweeted in advance of his summit with Russian “President” Vladimir Putin.
“I hold both countries responsible. I think that the United States has been foolish. We’ve all been foolish,” Trump added, regarding the tense relationship between the United States and Russia. “We have both made mistakes,” he continued—before stressing that there was “no collusion” between his presidential campaign and Russia.
Then, at the press conference, asked about Russian meddling in the 2016 election, Trump responded: “I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”
There were also signs of strongman envy. “What happened to Hillary Clinton’s emails, 30,000 emails... just gone,” Trump said, adding: “In Russia they would not be gone so easily.” Trump’s comments are often cryptic, but this was reminiscent of Trump’s chilling comments about North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un: “He speaks and his people sit up at attention,” Trump said. “I want my people to do the same.” (My people? I’m not his person, he’s MY president!)
Aside from the fact that he said this in Helsinki, standing next to Russian President Vladimir Putin at a joint news conference, Trump’s decision to put Putin on the same plane as Americans is not terribly surprising—nor is his refusal to admit that Putin’s Russia is still an evil empire, even if it is much less powerful than it was a few decades ago.
He has long downplayed the murderous sins of Vladimir Putin, telling then-Fox News host Bill O’Reilly in 2017, “There are a lot of killers. We have a lot of killers… Well, you think our country is so innocent?”
The irony, of course, is that this kind of talk flies in the face of everything conservatives used to believe. In his address to Protestant church leaders in March 1983, President Reagan warned his audience not to treat the arms race ''as a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong, good and evil," adding: “I urge you to beware the temptation of pride - the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire.''
One year later, Jeane Kirkpatrick (Reagan’s ambassador to the United Nations) delivered a speech at the 1984 Republican National Convention. In hindsight, it reads like an attack on Donald Trump’s current foreign policy: “When the Soviet Union walked out of arms control negotiations, and refused even to discuss the issues, the San Francisco Democrats didn't blame Soviet intransigence. They blamed the United States. But then, they always blame America first,” she said. (Note: By calling them “San Francisco Democrats,” Kirkpatrick was both jabbing at the progressives who had taken over her Democratic Party and noting that the 1984 Democratic National Convention had been held there.)
“The American people know that it’s dangerous to blame ourselves for terrible problems that we did not cause,” Kirkpatrick continued. “They understand just as the distinguished French writer, Jean Francois Revel, understands the dangers of endless self-criticism and self-denigration. He wrote: ‘Clearly, a civilization that feels guilty for everything it is and does will lack the energy and conviction to defend itself.’"
When confronted with liberal whataboutism during the Cold War, conservative icon William F. Buckley put things in context. “To say that the CIA and the KGB engage in similar practices,” Buckley declared, “is the equivalent of saying that the man who pushes an old lady into the path of a hurtling bus is not to be distinguished from the man who pushes an old lady out of the path of a hurtling bus on the grounds that, after all, in both cases someone is pushing old ladies around.”
Of course, one doesn’t need to hearken back to Reagan and Kirkpatrick and Buckley to find examples of cries of a false moral equivalence. As recently as a couple of years ago, conservatives were (in some cases fairly, in other cases unfairly) criticizing President Barack Obama for similar, if lesser, transgressions. Today, Obama’s dithering weakness feels almost quaint. Trump’s foreign policy worldview eschews Reagan’s moral clarity—and embraces the “Blame America First” mantra of The Gipper’s liberal critics. How can Trump supporters square this?
Although it seems like an eternity ago, it was only one short week ago, when Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, some Trump supporters took the opportunity to perform an end zone dance, and to mock the “Never Trumpers” who had (in their minds) been discredited for not bowing to the new savior.
A week later, the tables have turned. Again. On Monday, as Trump sucks up to a murderous former KGB agent, I ask the boastful Trump “conservatives” a question: How do you like him now?