WASHINGTON – Before Donald Trump won the election in November we were warned: He is a Russian stooge. He is a fascist. He will upend the protocols and traditions that make governing possible. This is not normal.
Now that we are approaching the 100-day mark, it’s worth noting that the president is defying the expectations of his resistance. And while there is plenty to oppose in Trump’s young presidency, he is neither the Siberian Candidate nor the second coming of Mussolini.
Let’s start with Russia. The FBI is still investigating whether and how his campaign may have colluded with Moscow’s efforts to influence the presidential election. And yet in terms of actual policy, Trump has settled on a much tougher line with Russia than how he campaigned or in his first few weeks.
In the first month of Trump’s presidency, there were legitimate concerns he would attempt a grand bargain with Russia. He boasted that it was an asset that Russian President Vladimir Putin liked him. And he went out of his way to spare Putin from the harsh criticism he reserved for just about everyone else.
But there has been no reset. In fact it’s fair to say that Trump has been much kinder to China, Russia’s traditional Asian rival. Trump ended any chance for the multilateral trade deal with China’s neighbors known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He dropped his threat to revisit the “One China” policy that requires the U.S. not to recognize Taiwan’s sovereignty. More recently, he has said he won’t pursue China for currency manipulation and told us he is pleased by China’s cooperation against North Korea during the current nuclear crisis.
Instead, Trump is treating Russia in practice the way he promised in the campaign to deal with China. His government has supported Montenegro’s membership into NATO. Russia not only opposed this, but in October Russian agents were involved in a failed coup against the country’s prime minister who supported Montenegro’s accession to the treaty organization, according to a Montenegrin prosecutor.
The Trump administration last week rejected a request from Exxon-Mobil to get a waiver to explore energy exploration in the Black Sea with a Russia concern, despite the fact that he chose Exxon-Mobil’s chief executive officer, Rex Tillerson, as his secretary of state. You may remember him as the guy who won the Russian Order of Friendship in 2013.
Then there was the decision this month to fire 59 tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base, following the Syrian gas attack on rebel populations. Those strikes against Russia’s only real client state in the Middle East caught Moscow by surprise, and further unraveled the relationship the Kremlin had hoped to reset with Trump. A few days after the missile strike, Trump’s White House released a dossier calling out Russia’s own fake news about the Syrian gas attack.
Now, U.S.-Russian relations are cratering. Both sides say they are at a historic low point. Russian bombers have been flying into Alaskan airspace, testing Trump’s resolve. Meanwhile, one of America’s top generals just suggested Russia was arming the Taliban in Afghanistan. If Trump is a Russian mole, it looks like a very long con.
This gets to the second resistance narrative about Trump, that he is an authoritarian or fascist in waiting. To be sure, Trump during the campaign gave his critics something to work with on this front. He at times encouraged his supporters at rallies to do violence to protesters. He promised to bring back waterboarding “and much worse,” for terrorists captured on the battlefield. He campaigned on banning Muslims from entering the country and he promised to build a wall on the Mexican border. More recently, Trump has cozied up to the strongmen ruling Egypt and Turkey. His semi-endorsement of the far-right French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen is part of this theme as well.
All of that is alarming. That said, real fascists are much better at consolidating power and implementing an agenda. On this score, Trump has been no Caesar. The courts have rebuked him twice on the much-modified travel ban that would apply to Muslim-majority countries. His first effort to repeal and replace Obamacare failed miserably. He has yet to offer an infrastructure spending bill or a plan to build the wall.
An added irony is that the bete noir of the anti-Trumpists, senior strategist and former Breitbart publisher Steve Bannon, is currently out of favor. Trump’s new inner circle is comprised of people like investment banker Gary Cohn, the kind of globalists the president campaigned against. The other set of advisers are retired generals like national security adviser H.R. McMaster, who is seen as a check on the nationalist ideologues who so worry most of Trump’s opposition.
Traditionally, fascism is the marriage of corporate and military elites with an authoritarian leader. For Trump’s White House, however, his corporate and military advisers are steering Trump to a more traditional presidential agenda.
None of this is to say Trump is doing a great job. He has shown himself to be entirely unfamiliar with the intricacies of policy. His hostility to the press is dangerous and counterproductive. Trump continues to say outrageous falsehoods and is prone to extreme hyperbole. He has failed to address in a meaningful way the many conflicts of interest posed by hid business empire.
But these flaws have not yet posed an existential threat to the republic. Trump has obeyed the courts, even as he has derided their decisions on twitter. He has reversed himself on Russia. And slowly but surely he has begun to resemble something less menacing and more normal than his foes predicted.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security for the Washington Times.
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