The secret plot to control America, launched from abroad, is an old theme in American pop culture. “The Manchurian Candidate,” a film made in 1962, imagined a Chinese scheme to engineer a coup d’etat. Aficionados of paranoid thrillers may also recall “Lucky Bastard,” a 1998 Charles McCarry novel, which featured a U.S. president controlled by a Soviet case officer who happens to be his wife.
But now it is 2016, truth is stranger than fiction, and we finally have a presidential candidate, Donald Trump, with direct and indirect links to a foreign dictator, Vladimir Putin, whose policies he promotes. And yet it is not secret, it is not a plot, there is no conspiracy. No one has been hypnotized or recruited by foreign intelligence. Just as Marine Le Pen, leader of the French National Front, openly accepts Russian money, the Trump campaign advertises its Russian links and pays no real political price.
The extent of the Trump-Russia business connection has already been laid out, by Franklin Foer at Slate, among others. Trump has made multiple forays into the post-Soviet world, investing with oligarchs in Russia and Azerbaijan, staging a Miss Universe contest in Moscow, angling to attract Russian money to his projects in North America. He has also surrounded himself with people whose deep links to the corrupt world of Russian business would normally disqualify them from U.S. politics. He brought in a foreign policy aide, Carter Page, who has long-standing connections to Russian companies, including Gazprom, and has supported the Russian invasion of Ukraine. His campaign manager, Paul Manafort, worked for many years in Ukraine on behalf of Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian president ousted in 2014. While living in Kiev, Manafort had plenty of time to absorb the disinformation tactics perfected by the Kremlin, all of which are now being put to use: the thugs at meetings, the appeal to extreme emotions — those bereaved mothers at the convention — and, of course, fake websites and Internet trolls.
Russia is clearly participating in the Trump campaign. The theft of material from the Democratic National Committee a few weeks ago was the work of Russian hackers. Russian state media and social media, together with a host of fake websites and Twitter accounts with Russian origins, actively support Trump and are contributing to some of the hysteria on the Internet. I’m not arguing that any of this has been decisive. But whatever resources Putin wagered on Trump, they are paying off.
For even if Trump never becomes president, his candidacy has already achieved two extremely important Russian foreign policy goals: to weaken the moral influence of the United States by undermining its reputation as a stable democracy, and to destroy its power by wrecking its relationships with its allies. Toward these ends, Trump has begun repeating arguments identical to those used on Russian state television. These range from doubts about the sovereignty of Ukraine — earlier this week, Trump’s campaign team helped alter the Republican party platform to remove support for Ukraine — to doubts about U.S. leadership of the democratic world. The United States has its own “mess” to worry about, Trump told the New York Times on Wednesday: It shouldn’t stand up for democracy abroad. In the same interview, he also cast doubt on the fundamental basis of transatlantic stability, NATO’s Article 5 guarantee: If Russia invades, he said, he’d have to think first before defending U.S. allies.
Because such language undermines the deterrence value of the alliance, the reaction was instant. The NATO secretary general, as apolitical a figure as you can imagine, issued a statement declaring that “solidarity among allies is a key value for NATO.” The president of Estonia instantly pointed out that his country is a NATO member in good standing that invests more than 2 percent of its gross domestic product in the military and sent troops to Afghanistan.
It’s hard to explain just how remarkable Trump’s words sound to Europeans who have believed in American values and the security guarantee that backed them. It’s also difficult to overstate how dangerous they are. If NATO is no longer a deterrent, then there is nothing to stop Russia from using military or political tools to destabilize European states, as it has already proved it is willing to do. If the United States is no longer a voice for democracy, but rather a country focused on its own “mess,” then it can’t serve as an example or an inspiration, either, and dictators such Putin, among many others, sleep easier.
And the reaction at home, in the Republican Party that once stood for democratic internationalism and American power? Newt Gingrich, who once pushed for the expansion of NATO, made light of Trump’s comments, dismissing Estonia as “some place which is in the suburbs of St. Petersburg.” Everyone moved on to other things. I know, I realize that Ted Cruz’s speech and Melania Trump’s plagiarism matter more, to the U.S. electorate, than the security guarantee that has kept Europe safe for seven decades. But maybe that’s how a Manchurian candidate really wins an election, and maybe that’s how an era of U.S. global influence comes to an end: not with a bang but a shrug and a whimper.