Nothing dies so quietly as a political narrative. You can spend years insisting there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the Republican Party is dead or that Hillary Clinton will win the presidency in a landslide only to transition seamlessly into the next crusade after reality discredits your postulates, with little acknowledgement that everything you’ve been saying has been invalidated. Mea culpas by pundits are rare. More common is a total void of public self-introspection, and anyone who has the temerity to cite your record — like Tucker Carlson did to Max Boot — is held in violation of Washington’s Queensbury Rules.
The latest political narrative to go silently supernova is the notion that Donald Trump is somehow subservient to Vladimir Putin. This one has wormed deep into our public consciousness, with Trump appearing alongside a shirtless Putin on “Saturday Night Live” and Stephen Colbert labeling the president “Vladimir Putin’s c**k holster.” Then came last weekend’s announcement by Putin that 755 American diplomatic staff are being expelled from the Kremlin. The dismissal was a stunning rebuke to Washington and a peek at the oft-ignored reality: under Trump, Russian-American relations have cratered to their lowest point since the Berlin Wall fell.
Actually, ejecting 755 people is outstanding even by the suspicion-laden standards of the Cold War. The United States in 1986 threw out a group of Soviet diplomats — but only 55 of them, and many were suspected of engaging in espionage. The Soviet Union responded by blocking 265 American diplomatic employees from their jobs. It was regarded as a tense standoff at the time, yet it involved less than half the number of staff on the two sides combined than Putin dismissed last weekend alone. His expulsion was a geopolitical artillery shot, one intended to crystallize the Kremlin’s irritation with Washington and that necessitates a response of some sort — though what it will be, the White House hasn’t yet said.
In the meantime, we should ask: How could this happen? How could we have crashed into this diplomatic nadir when Trump is supposedly in thrall to Russia?
The most direct answer is that the Kremlin is furious over additional sanctions recently passed by Congress and endorsed only reluctantly by the president. But there’s more to it than that. As some of us have been pointing out for months, Trump has approved a long list of escalations with Russia since he was elected, including but not limited to continuing President Obama’s troop deployments to Eastern Europe; declaring that Crimea was “taken” by Russia; buffaloing European nations into stepping up their defense budgets; trashing the Soviet Union, Putin’s Brigadoon, in Poland; refusing to give back Russian compounds seized under Obama; and, most dangerously, attacking Russia’s Iranian and Assadist proxies in Syria, including a missile strike on an airbase where Russian forces had been stationed just hours before.
It’s that last one in particular that’s distinguished Trump from Obama, who at the end of his presidency mostly ignored Russian proxies to focus on ISIS. Trump appears to have madly bumbled into all this — he doesn’t seem to have any cogent strategy on Russia whatsoever — but the point is that surmising he’s a “modern Manchurian candidate” or dubbing the GOP the “Party of Putin” is vodka-sloshing nonsense, and this latest diplomatic brouhaha ought to settle that for good. There have been no fanciful “resets” under Trump, no sonnets about Vladimir Putin’s beautiful soul. Trump has complimented Putin and mused that relations with Russia might be improved — perish the thought! — but in practice, his policies have been something else entirely.
The expulsion of the American staff is one final Russian Hail Mary to appeal to Trump and get him serious about mending fences. It seems unlikely to work. Trump’s lizard brain prizes unilateral shows of strength above all: hence a foreign policy that’s been threatening to North Korea, swaggering toward NATO and, yes, tougher on Russia than anyone would have expected. We still need answers over the Trump campaign’s interactions with the Kremlin, starting with why the favorite son thought it would be a bright idea to meet with a Russian attorney about Hillary Clinton. But Trump a Putin patsy? A Moscow mule? Come on.