1. Manifestly Unfit
Yesterday we talked about Russia’s commitment to chaos as a strategy. Funnily enough, Fiona Hill just published a piece in Foreign Policy on how Putin is winning.
Hill’s strategic analysis is important—and we’ll get to it. But just as important is her eyewitness reporting on Trump as president:
I had spent just over a year serving in the Trump administration as deputy assistant to the president and senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council. Like everyone else who worked in the White House, I had, by then, learned a great deal about Trump’s idiosyncrasies. We all knew, for instance, that Trump rarely read the detailed briefing materials his staff prepared for him and that in meetings or calls with other leaders, he could never stick to an agreed-on script or his cabinet members’ recommendations. This had proved to be a major liability during those conversations, since it often seemed to his foreign counterparts as though Trump was hearing about the issues on the agenda for the first time.
When Trump was winging it, he could be persuaded of all kinds of things. If a foreign visitor or caller was one of his favored strongmen, Trump would always give the strongman’s views and version of events the benefit of the doubt over those of his own advisers. During a cabinet meeting with a visiting Hungarian delegation in May 2019, for example, Trump cut off acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, who was trying to make a point about a critical European security issue. In front of everyone, Trump told Shanahan that the autocratic Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, had already explained it all to him when they had met in the Oval Office moments earlier—and that Orban knew the issue better than Shanahan did, anyway. In Trump’s mind, the Hungarian strongman simply had more authority than the American officials who worked for Trump himself. The other leader was his equal, and his staff members were not.
The past is a foreign country, so you may have forgotten that in 2015, before Trump morphed into an aspiring authoritarian, the diagnosis from basically every person in America who was not a Republican primary voter was that Trump was “manifestly unfit” for office.
What did “manifestly unfit” mean? It’s a moral judgment, not a legal definition, so there’s no way to cite chapter and verse. But a quick sketch would give you something like this: A person who…
Could not have passed a background check for the job.
Did not have any requisite experience for the job.
Did not have the cognitive ability to learn the job.
Was borderline delusional and lacked the requisite attachment to reality.
Potentially suffered from a clinical personality disorder.
None of this was about “liking” or “disliking” Trump. You could name a whole host of unsavory figures whose politics you find abhorrent—Newt Gingrich, Ted Cruz, Andrew Cuomo, Julian Castro—and you could make the case that they would be terrible presidents. That it would be very bad for America if they were to reach the Oval Office. But none of them would have been manifestly unfit.
And here’s the thing: Everyone around Trump realized this about him. Mike Pompeo knew it. Mike Pence knew it. Jim Mattis and Betsy DeVos knew it. I’d bet a watch that Kellyanne knew it, too. It wasn’t like Trump’s mental deficiencies were hidden. He wasn’t one of those crazy people who passes as sane.
The only people in America who didn’t seem to understand that making Trump president was the equivalent of handing a gun to a chimpanzee were the people who voted for him.
And in our democracy, that’s all that matters. Yay people!
Brief aside: If you want to freebase The People this week, I have a challenge for you.
Now here’s the JVL Challenge: Time how long you can go into this episode listening to The People before you start vibrating with anger and yelling at your phone. I made it 8 minutes and 11 seconds before I actually said, out loud, “Put these motherforkers on a Falcon Heavy straight to the sun.”
So that’s your time to beat.
Back to Fiona Hill. She notes how in the post-Cold War era, Russia and America have converged—just not the way we’d hoped:
[Americans] predicted that once the Soviet Union and communism had fallen away, Russia would move toward a form of liberal democracy. . . . [I]n more recent years, quite the opposite has happened: the United States has begun to move closer to Russia, as populism, cronyism, and corruption have sapped the strength of American democracy. . . .
Indeed, over time, the United States and Russia have become subject to the same economic and social forces. Their populations have proved equally susceptible to political manipulation. Prior to the 2016 U.S. election, Putin recognized that the United States was on a path similar to the one that Russia took in the 1990s, when economic dislocation and political upheaval after the collapse of the Soviet Union had left the Russian state weak and insolvent. In the United States, decades of fast-paced social and demographic changes and the Great Recession of 2008–9 had weakened the country and increased its vulnerability to subversion. Putin realized that despite the lofty rhetoric that flowed from Washington about democratic values and liberal norms, beneath the surface, the United States was beginning to resemble his own country: a place where self-dealing elites had hollowed out vital institutions and where alienated, frustrated people were increasingly open to populist and authoritarian appeals.
There are other similarities. As Hill notes, America now resembles Russia in that both have recently failed to achieve peaceful transitions of power:
The event that most clearly revealed the convergence of politics in the United States and Russia during Trump’s term was his disorganized but deadly serious attempt to stage a self-coup and halt the peaceful transfer of executive power after he lost the 2020 election to Biden. Russia, after all, has a long history of coups and succession crises, dating back to the tsarist era, including three during the past 30 years. In August 1991, hard-liners opposed to Gorbachev’s reforms staged a brief putsch, declaring a state of emergency and placing Gorbachev under house arrest at his vacation home. The effort fizzled, and the coup was a debacle, but it helped bring down the Soviet Union. Two years later, violence erupted from a bitter dispute between the Russian parliament and Yeltsin over the respective powers of the legislature and the president in competing drafts of a new constitution. Yeltsin moved to dissolve parliament after it refused to confirm his choice for prime minister. His vice president and the Speaker of the parliament, in response, sought to impeach him. In the end, Yeltsin invoked “extraordinary powers” and called out the Russian army to shell the parliament building, thus settling the argument with brute force.
The next coup was a legal one and came in 2020, when Putin wanted to amend Yeltsin’s version of the constitution to beef up his presidential powers—and, more important, to remove the existing term limits so that he could potentially stay on as president until 2036. As a proxy to propose the necessary constitutional amendments, Putin tapped Valentina Tereshkova, a loyal supporter in parliament and, as a cosmonaut and the first woman to travel to outer space, an iconic figure in Russian society. Putin’s means were subtler than Yeltsin’s in 1993, but his methods were no less effective.
Now we get to Putin’s chaos strategy. Why does he care so much about the United States? The great-power competition has been over for a generation. Well, as Hill says,
That is because, as a populist leader, Putin sees the United States not just as a geopolitical threat to Russia but also as a personal threat to himself. For Putin, foreign policy and domestic policy have fused. His attempt to . . . reassert Moscow’s influence in other global arenas is inseparable from his effort to consolidate and expand his authority at home. . . .
If Putin wants to retain the presidency until 2036—by which time he will be 84 years old and will have become the longest-serving modern Russian ruler—he will have to maintain this level of control or even increase it, since any slippage might be perceived as weakness. To do so, Putin has to deter or defeat any opponents, foreign or domestic, who have the capacity to undermine his regime. His hope is that leaders in the United States will get so bogged down with problems at home that they will cease criticizing his personalization of power and will eschew any efforts to transform Russia similar to those the U.S. government carried out in the 1990s.
The good news is that Hill has a prescription for how America can fight back against manufactured chaos. The bad news is that this prescription relies on the intelligence, good will, and common sense of the American people.
The United States will never change Putin and his threat perceptions, because they are deeply personal. Americans will have to change themselves to blunt the effects of Russian political interference campaigns for the foreseeable future. Achieving that goal will require Biden and his team to integrate their approach to Russia with their efforts to shore up American democracy, tackle inequality and racism, and lead the country out of a period of intense division.
The polarization of American society has become a national security threat . . .
Making the United States and its society more resilient and less vulnerable to manipulation by tackling inequality, corruption, and polarization will require innovative policies across a huge range of issues. Perhaps the highest priority should be given to investing in people where they reside, particularly through education. Education can lower the barriers to opportunity and accurate information in a way that nothing else can. It can help people recognize the difference between fact and fiction. And it offers all people the chance not only to develop knowledge and learn skills but also to continue to transform themselves and their communities.
Look, I love Fiona Hill. Slay Queen and all that. But relying on The People to get smart is a sucker’s bet.
Instead, I’d ask why so many of the elites who knew that Trump was manifestly unfit for office—who worked for him, even, who saw it close up—stayed quiet for so long.
Why so many of them didn’t publicly testify to what they were seeing.
Why so many of them went into witness protection around the 2020 election.
I’m not really talking about Hill here, so much as figures like John Bolton and Mick Mulvaney and Chris Christie and Rob Portman and John Kelly and the dozens upon dozens of serious people who worked in and around the Trump administration and saw what was happening, but kept their mouths shut publicly.
They didn’t resign in protest. They didn’t jump out front and do everything in their power to warn the country.2
Fiona Hill expects The People to intuit that we have a Putin-like authoritarian threat while the Good Republican elites all act as if the real danger to America is cancel culture and radical college professors? When most of the Good Republican elites won’t say what they know to be true out loud? Even now, during the moment when Trump is out of power and vulnerable?
This is a persistent problem in modern American politics: Most of the country seems to understand that we are in the middle of an authoritarian moment. And yet, both Republicans and Democrats continue to act as if it’s 2010 or 2000 or 1990. The Republicans won’t say what they know to be true. And the Democrats are fighting pitched internal battles over spending bills. Spending bills.
If America is in crisis—if we are converging with Russia while grappling with a home-grown Putin—then we—all of us—ought to be acting like it.
And that means not waiting for The People to figure things out on their own. It means leadership from the elites who know better. It means speaking the truth, out loud, as often as possible without regard to professional ambitions or social consequences, in an attempt to break the populist’s connection to the masses and to help forge the new political coalitions necessary to stop him.
Saying the truth out loud is what we do. It’s literally why we founded The Bulwark.
Stand with us. Speak the truth. Join Bulwark+.
3. Free Diving
Maybe the most extreme of all extreme sports:
For all the complex techniques required to succeed, the objective is remarkably simple: Go as deep as you can go on one breath and return to the surface without passing out or dying.
This is the point of freediving. At least the competitive point. And here in the Bahamas, 42 divers from around the world have gathered, like filings to a magnet, at a geological marvel called a blue hole, in this case a 660-foot elevator shaft of ocean water, to see how many stories they can plunge themselves down.
The competition, Vertical Blue, is the Wimbledon of freediving, summoning the planet's best to battle in perhaps the most amenable freediving waters in the world. As the event's founder, William Trubridge, who's spent a lifetime scouring the earth's surface for conducive spots to go deep, put it to me: “You could not design a better place for freediving if you sat down with pen and paper.”
But this is more than the pinnacle competition of a sport. Yes, the divers here devote their lives to the pursuit of record depths, but they also dedicate themselves to a novel way of interacting with this world and its oceans—and of being alive, of breathing. They come from Italy and Japan and New Zealand and Peru. They live and train in Sardinia and Okinawa and Cyprus and Tulum. They compete in the glorious depths off of Egypt and Turkey and Honduras and Greece. They prepare together, rent group houses on the road, often fall into bed with one another, and occasionally marry. They are specialized professionals but don't really make any money; their sport hasn't yet hit the big time. But no matter: To spend time in their midst is to begin to comprehend that they are after something greater, something sublime.
It’s true. The more ratings you have, the more aggressively Apple pushes the show in discovery.
Obviously some of these folks behaved more honorably than others. Fiona Hill testified candidly and Jim Mattis wrote a public resignation letter. John Bolton, on the other hand, wasn’t willing to speak out until he was selling a book. And Mike Pompeo is still Team MAGA so that he can run for office. It’s a sliding scale.