You hear it constantly: President Trump is a “Russian dupe.” Republicans spreading lies about Ukrainian interference in 2016 are Vladimir Putin’s “useful idiots.” By getting Trump to adopt those lies rather than admit to Russian interference, the Russian leader has skillfully played on Trump’s “ego.”

As the impeachment inquiry heads into its next phase, such phrases will be everywhere. In a New York Times editorial that excoriates Trump and Republicans over the Ukraine lie, we get this: “In Mr. Trump, Mr. Putin found the perfect dupe to promote even the most crackpot of theories.”

It’s time for a reconsideration of this concept. We need to be much clearer on why Trump himself is doing these things — that is, on his true purpose in employing these lies to serve his own corrupt interests.

And we need to grapple with the implications of this alliance with what you might call “Putinism” in a way that doesn’t treat it as a fleetingly useful political tactic, but rather as something with serious real-world consequences.

The problem with the ‘dupe’ formulation

The occasion for this reevaluation is the devastating new House Intelligence Committee report detailing Trump’s extortion plot toward Ukraine and the Judiciary Committee’s consideration this week of whether Trump committed impeachable offenses.

On one level, the problem with the “Trump as Russian dupe” formulation is that it implicitly but dramatically downplays the severity of Trump’s corruption and the threat it poses to the country.

The new House report vividly dramatizes why Trump undertook his corrupt plot to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to do his political bidding and what that says about Trump’s intentions toward our government and democracy going forward.

For Trump, the utility of getting Zelensky to announce an investigation validating the lie that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in 2016 wasn’t simply that it would salve his bruised ego over his need for Russian help to win.

This false narrative would also help Trump confuse the U.S. electorate with disinformation obscuring his own corrupt efforts to coordinate with and benefit from that sabotage of our political system. This in turn could facilitate benefiting from the next round of such sabotage, which he has openly invited.

In short, the report demonstrates that Trump’s profiting off Russian sabotage last time, and his efforts to extort Ukraine into helping him again, are the same story — one that will continue.

Trump was emboldened by getting away with the first installment, and when the second installment was unmasked, Trump blithely said in reporters’ faces that Ukraine — and China — absolutely should launch an investigation of potential 2020 opponent Joe Biden, his other extortive demand.

President Trump's attempt to extort Ukraine for personal gain signals a dangerous turn for American foreign policy, says Global Opinions editor Christian Caryl. (The Washington Post)

On top of this, the report demonstrates how numerous cabinet officials and extensive government resources — and the conditioning of multiple official acts — were placed at the disposal of the whole corrupt scheme.

Taken together, the report concludes, this “presents a clear and present danger that the President will continue to use the power of his office” to corrupt the next election on his own behalf, and that in so doing, Trump recognizes no legitimate “limitation."

We now know that the lie about Ukrainian interference has been a mainstay of self-absolving Russian propaganda for years. But Trump hasn’t been duped into spreading it. He explicitly recognizes an alliance of his own interests with those of Russia in doing so (and in procuring whatever other outside help he can) in corrupting U.S. liberal democracy for his own malevolent self-interested purposes.

This has implications for impeachment. As Harvard Law School professor Noah Feldman will argue to the Judiciary Committee, impeachment binds the president to the rule of law, as a remedy against abuses of power to advance nakedly corrupt self interest.

Which leads to the bigger point.

This has broader consequences

The Post reports that much of the GOP has now adopted the false narrative about Ukraine, in league with Trump. But many quoted ask too narrow a question: Whether this means the GOP is dropping its previously “hawkish” posture toward Russia.

It’s worth asking whether something more consequential is happening.

A broader approach was suggested to me by foreign policy scholar David Rothkopf, who argues that we should think about “Putinism” as a “worldwide movement” that allies various ethno-nationalist and illiberal authoritarian leaders against Western liberal democracy, the rule of law, international institutions and the commitment to empiricism in the face of disinformation.

“Trump, his administration and the GOP have made a conscious choice to align themselves with Putinism,” Rothkopf told me. “It is not unwitting.”

It’s not easy to say how committed Trump is to these tendencies. He yearns to operate more fully as other illiberal authoritarians do. But for all his bluster about our current alliances, it’s unclear how much damage he will do to them in the long run.

Still, it’s obvious that Trump — and, increasingly, many of his GOP defenders — are to some untold degree operating in sync with Putinism and are acting against the interests of our liberal democracy.

This also has ramifications for Democrats. The Post piece reports that some strategists “see a possible opening” for the eventual nominee to win over “hawkish Republicans and independents who are wary of the Republican drift on Russia.”

But Democrats need to go bigger. As Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg suggested to me, party leaders must argue that the GOP’s “embrace of the Ukraine fiction” is not merely a matter of domestic political expediency. Rather, it’s time to ask whether we’re seeing the beginnings of a “realignment” with this global right wing movement against the values and even the interests of “the United States and the West.”

“Democrats must step up here and explain to the country the gravity of the moment,” Rosenberg says.

Trump’s degradations have forced us to grapple with the correct language to describe the moment in all kinds of ways. It’s time to do away with the “dupe” formulation as well.

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