Can't Turn Away
The Strange Pleasure of Seeing Carter Page Set Himself on Fire
In any other administration, this awkward and silly man would be at the bottom of the barrel. In Trump world, he’s in the middle quintile.
Watching Carter Page immolate himself and incriminate a half dozen of his colleagues from the Trump-Putin 2016 campaign has been a strange, almost guilty pleasure. Profoundly disconnected, socially awkward, and reeking of late-stage virginity, he gives off the creepy Uncanny Valley vibe of a rogue, possibly murderous android or of a man with a too-extensive knowledge of human taxidermy and a soundproofed van.
Legal scholars watching Page’s borderline insane interviews, reviewing his bizarre public statements and reading the wackadoodle transcripts of his testimony to congressional investigators have expressed various levels of shock. His testimony this week must have dismayed his friends in Trump world; a long, rambling, performance art piece before the House which confirmed key sections of the Steele Dossier and opened up entirely new venues for investigation.
The emerging paper trail of his forays into Russia has been an amazing mosaic of comic-opera misunderstandings, grand and petty corruptions, grade-school category errors, and fundamental delusions about Putin’s kleptocracy. In short, Page is a perfect example of the ad-hoc weirdness of the Trump campaign, Trumpism’s deep, misplaced love of Putin’s Russia, and the power of magical thinking among the coterie of misfit toys Trump calls his advisors. Page is weird and wrong and in most campaigns he’d be the weirdest, wrongest dog in the pack. In Trump world, Carter Page is in the middle quintile.
A bizarre fascination with Russia as an ally shaped the view of many of Trump’s foreign policy advisors like Steve Bannon, Mike Flynn, Stephen Miller, Seb Gorka and the rest of the Foreign Policy Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good and Want To Read Good. Yes, a meaningful fraction of it is informed by an alt-rightish belief that the U.S. and Russia are white Christian allies in the global war on Islam and brown people in general, but some of it is just their natural inclination toward nationalist authoritarianism.
Page didn’t just talk the pro-Russian talk; he threw himself into the eager arms of SVR operatives. Like the rest of the Trump world, Page brought a kind of underpants Gnome theory to his bromance with Team Putin. Through some unknown alchemy, he expected to benefit Trump, and gain influence and profit from his Russia foray.
It’s not that Page is stupid in the same way many Trump voters are mulishly immune to processing empirical facts in the world around them, it’s that Page’s odd affect and thinking reflects something profoundly off kilter about him in the same way Trump’s entire persona consists of bluster, magical thinking, and wilful self-deception.
The delta between Trump’s imagination of himself and the brand image that he desperately wants to sell is always wide; he’s the “billionaire” lout playing the Manhattan sophisticate who gorges on fast food. He’s a man with a lemur wig and a five-pound bolus of chin-wattle who think’s he’s irresistible to women. He’s the serially bankrupt master of the Art of the Deal. The TV talk show character who snuck into the Oval Office on a tide of Russian influence and now thinks he won on the merits.
Page was an easy mark for Russian intelligence services because he lives in the same world of willful self-deception as Trump. Carter Page, International Business Man of Mystery, jet-setting wheeler-dealer and foreign policy savant was a view shared by only Carter Page, world-class dork and sucker. In the FBI investigation of a Russian intelligence cell that sought to suborn Page in 2013, the contempt in which the SVR agents held Page was clear:
“This is intelligence method to cheat, how else to work with foreigners? You promise a favor for a favor. You get the documents from him and tell him to go f--ck himself.”
As Foreign Policy reported, “Based on the FBI complaint, it appears Page never realized his Russian contact worked on behalf of Moscow’s intelligence services.” It’s not simply that Page was credulous; his credulity was a hot wire inside the already Putin-philic Trump inner circle. Page is just the most obviously gullible of the Trump cadre. Mike Flynn, both venal and bitter, was also easy pickings. Seb Gorka would probably shine Putin’s shoes in exchange for a gimcrack medal. Steve Bannon, a man better suited to promoting bumfights than grand strategy, thinks of himself as a player on par with Putin, which is an eye-rolling hilarious thought to sane people.
The rest of the jetsam dragged behind Trump’s sewage barge of a campaign will be little different, and all of them are under the hot lights of Robert Mueller’s investigation. Something about the prospect of spending a long time in a federal prison wearing an orange jumpsuit peels away the layers of bluster and pretense. Page’s interview with the House was a situation in which he was in little legal jeopardy, but the flopsweat rolling off him came through in almost every strange exchange. Following a Breitbartian anti-Hillary screed in the beginning of his testimony, Page had all the confidence of a whipped dog, lost and desperate.
Like all Trump acolytes and supporters, Page is learning a key lesson: once the delusional sales pitch of Trumpism is pulled back, you’re on your own. This strange, lost man is one of the most public examples of how ugly the world looks when the con and the crimes are exposed, but he sure as hell won’t be the last.