The idea of irascible Donald Trump as a compliant tool of the Kremlin in Moscow—some sort of clandestine agent or asset, in spy parlance—has always seemed off-center. Who has ever been able to control him, this volcano of a man? Does Trump seem capable of keeping secrets, following orders, or maintaining the strict discipline required of a double agent? So, to sober minds, it should come as no surprise that the final report of Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III supports no such conclusion. The report, as summarized by Attorney General William P. Barr in a letter to congressional leaders on Sunday, found no conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia to fix the 2016 election in Trump’s favor. And that’s exactly what Trump has been saying, in his mantra of “no collusion,” from the start of this nearly two-year-old investigation.
Surely, then, it’s time for a reckoning—starting with, say, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. In “Donald Trump, the Siberian Candidate,” in July 2016, he suggested that “there’s something very strange and disturbing going on here, and it should not be ignored.” On Twitter, Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum chimed in that Trump was “the real-life Manchurian candidate.” The Krugman-Applebaum references were to Richard Condon’s classic Cold War novel, published in 1959, and the subsequent film, The Manchurian Candidate, about an American prisoner of war brainwashed into becoming a Communist sleeper agent. That, America was told, was Donald Trump.
With Trump’s election, this argument only intensified. The Intercept found that in a six-week period starting in late February of 2017, shortly after Trump’s inauguration, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow homed in on “The Russia Connection,” as she called it, with Russia-related fare accounting for more than half of her broadcasts. “If the American presidency right now is the product of collusion between the Russian intelligence services and an American campaign, I mean that is so profoundly big,” Maddow declared. Time rendered the thought balloon as a cover illustration, showing the red walls of the Kremlin and the candy-striped domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral sprouting from the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue.
The apex of such coverage was attained by Jonathan Chait, in his July 2018 New York opus, on the eve of a meeting between “Prump” and “Tutin” in Helsinki. The headline: “Will Trump Be Meeting With His Counterpart—Or His Handler? A plausible theory of mind-boggling collusion.” The mind-boggling part was Chait’s hypothesis that Trump possibly became a Kremlin asset back in 1987, when the real-estate mogul had visited Moscow.
These are just samples of the Trump-as-Putin’s-tool theory, now discredited by Mueller’s report. The idea was advanced not only by liberal media types but also by anti-Trump conservatives, and it became a talking point in Democratic Party and U.S. foreign-policy establishment circles. John Brennan, Barack Obama’s former CIA director, all but called Trump a traitor to America, for being in Putin’s pocket. Of course, not all Trump opponents swallowed this improbable if seductive line—but many did.
Partisan politics are one factor at work in efforts to show Trump as being in cahoots with the Russians. But mere partisanship seems insufficient to explain an abiding belief in Trump as Moscow’s pawn. After all, contrary evidence, before the Mueller Report was submitted, was not hard to find. In April 2018, Trump met with German chancellor Angela Merkel in the White House, and gave her a difficult time, according to a story that later ran on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, about her backing of a pipeline to ship natural gas from Russia to Germany. “Angela,” Trump said, according to the Journal, “you’ve got to stop buying gas from Putin.” Do those sound like the words of a Kremlin agent?
The root explanation for the belief in a compromised Trump lies elsewhere than partisan politics, and a good place to look is the classic essay by historian Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” published in the November 1964 issue of Harper’s. Hofstadter was speaking, in the first instance, of the “Radical Right” of his day and its cherished conviction that Communists had infiltrated the highest echelons of the U.S. government. But the main point of his essay was to identify a recurrent pattern in our political life, going back to the republic’s early days. “I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing,” he wrote in his opening paragraph. “I call it the paranoid style,” he explained, “simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.” In using this expression, he took pains to say, he was not speaking in a clinical sense of “men with profoundly disturbed minds.” Rather, it was “the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.” Red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s was one example; another was leaders of the Populist Party in the 1890s believing in “secret cabals” of “gold gamblers” to ruin America.
“Trump as Kremlin man” now can be added to these dubious annals. Hofstadter, who died in 1970, surely would be surprised. Though he did not see the “paranoid style” as the sole province of the Right, he tended to view most exhibitors of this style as figures and movements closer to the margins of American politics than to its center. A New York Times columnist, say, was not the sort of person he had in mind. Yet his insight into the “modern right wing” as feeling “dispossessed,” as living in an America that “has been largely taken away from them and their kind,” and therefore liable to the paranoid style, also applies in the current instance. For at least some of his critics, Trump’s election was so perplexing and disorienting that it was as if they were living in a foreign country. How could this be happening in “their” America?
They still feel this way. The paranoid style, which can include an inability to live with complexity and ambiguity and an intolerance for adverse outcomes, is characteristic for its resilience. Mueller, the decorated former Marine and former FBI director, is apt to be attacked, in some disbelieving quarters, as a sellout: What isn’t he telling us? Even the publication of his full report—as many Americans, rightly, are demanding—will not satisfy critics, who will insist that the absence of evidence of collusion is simply an element of the vast conspiracy to cover it up.
A vindicated Trump, for his part, can be expected only to heighten the conspiratorial mood of our times. An irony of this episode is that he, too, is the sort of person apt to believe in intrigues, only in his view of the matter, the dark plot is a scheme by the “Deep State” to keep him from getting elected and, once elected, to stay in power. He may well be loathed by more than a few Washington bureaucrats, but that idea looks like another rabbit hole. In any event, Democrats in Congress are apt to pursue ongoing investigations into the “Russia connection” with even more intensity, in hopes of uncovering some nugget that eluded Mueller. The goal, as Hofstadter might have described it, is to repossess the country—and that can’t be achieved until Donald Trump leaves the White House.
(Photos: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images(left) and Win McNamee/Getty Images (right))