Ed already blogged the NATO comments from Trump’s interview yesterday with the Times but this is amazing too. If the White House had reacted to Erdogan jailing thousands of his political enemies by blubbering about how a country as bad as ours is in no position to criticize Muslim strongmen, righty media would have had an aneurysm over how much our president hates America. “Obama Apology Tour 2016!” — you know how it goes. Newt Gingrich probably would have thrown in a riff for good measure about how O’s “Kenyan anti-colonialist” mindset naturally leads him to admire crude shows of strength, the more brutal the better.
Wherever there’s an authoritarian regime cracking down on people challenging their power — which in Turkey now includes schoolteachers — Trump can’t help but publicly marvel at their strength and ruthless resolve. This is the same guy who boasted at a debate a few months ago that the U.S. military would obey his orders as president even if they’re illegal. We chose this guy among a field of 16 to nominate for president. And Ted Cruz is the villain for asking people to examine their conscience.
SANGER: Erdogan put nearly 50,000 people in jail or suspend them, suspended thousands of teachers, he imprisoned many in the military and the police, he dismissed a lot of the judiciary. Does this worry you? And would you rather deal with a strongman who’s also been a strong ally, or with somebody that’s got a greater appreciation of civil liberties than Mr. Erdogan has? Would you press him to make sure the rule of law applies?
TRUMP: I think right now when it comes to civil liberties, our country has a lot of problems, and I think it’s very hard for us to get involved in other countries when we don’t know what we are doing and we can’t see straight in our own country. We have tremendous problems when you have policemen being shot in the streets, when you have riots, when you have Ferguson. When you have Baltimore. When you have all of the things that are happening in this country — we have other problems, and I think we have to focus on those problems. When the world looks at how bad the United States is, and then we go and talk about civil liberties, I don’t think we’re a very good messenger.
SANGER: So that suggests that you would not, as, say, President Bush did, the last President Bush, make the spread of democracy and liberty sort of a core of your foreign policy. You would say, “We need allies, we’re not going to lecture them about what they do inside their borders.”
TRUMP: We need allies.
SANGER: And lecture inside their borders?
TRUMP: I don’t know that we have a right to lecture. Just look about what’s happening with our country. How are we going to lecture when people are shooting our policemen in cold blood. How are we going to lecture when you see the riots and the horror going on in our own country. We have so many difficulties in our country right now that I don’t think we should be, and there may be a time when we can get much more aggressive on that subject, and it will be a wonderful thing to be more aggressive. We’re not in a position to be more aggressive. We have to fix our own mess.
A chronic problem with Trump interviews is that reporters don’t ask follow-up questions designed to make him get specific. The Times should have asked for examples of civil liberties in America being threatened to such a degree that the U.S. lacks the moral authority to even disapprove of a NATO ally conducting mass purges. Trump doesn’t offer any. The examples he gives all have to do with civil disorder, not civil liberties — lunatics shooting at cops, race riots, and so on. What he’s giving you here, in other words, is a defense of massive government crackdowns in the name of restoring law and order. How can we judge Erdogan when we might benefit from a firmer hand too? Think about that. As for the world looking at “how bad the United States is,” Trump seems to mean “what bad shape the United States is in,” not how immoral the country is, but conservatives would be projectile vomiting if Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton had tried to make the same point using the same words. “How bad the United States is” is actually a fine distillation of the core nationalist message. Patriotism distilled is “my country is great.” Nationalism distilled is “my country sucks but can be great if you hand me power.” The guy is who he is. Vote your conscience.
Ed dealt ably with the NATO part of what Trump said yesterday but let me add that, simply as a negotiating strategy, it’s insane to say publicly that you might abandon eastern Europe if they don’t start meeting their obligations under the treaty, whatever Trump might mean by that. (What does he mean by that?) It’s fine to tell them privately that they need to uphold their end of a bargain. Signaling publicly to your enemy that there’s not a unified front on the other side of the table is an invitation to him to press hard and be aggressive; as Ross Douthat said this morning, Trump’s NATO comments are actually a form of escalation insofar as they invite Putin to test America’s will in Europe. But then, I’m treating Putin as an “enemy” here when maybe Trump doesn’t see him that way at all. Maybe Trump sees Putin as his partner and eastern Europe on the other side of the table. His own campaign manager was a paid stooge of Ukraine’s Putinist leader. There are other Kremlin ties to the campaign. Go figure that the new pro-Putin GOP would see NATO as more of a nuisance than a comparatively cheap deterrent to war in Europe.
Here’s a sneak preview of what’s ahead.
Update: Follow the leader, Newt.
— David Rhodes (@davidgrayrhodes) July 21, 2016