A short but provocative sneak preview of today’s Super Bowl interview with Bill O’Reilly. Maybe … Fox took him out of context? Hopefully?
One thing that’s striking about this is how consistent it is with what Trump said in December 2015 when Joe Scarborough asked him how it felt to be praised by Putin, a guy who kills his political opponents. Trump hit the same notes then as he does below — “At least he’s a leader,” he noted, adding “I think our country does plenty of killing, also.” During the campaign, reluctant Trump backers on the right liked to toy with the theory that President Trump would differ in important ways from candidate Trump. Candidate Trump liked to provoke, knowing that it served his anti-establishment “disruptive” brand, although sometimes he went too far. President Trump would leave that behind and take a (somewhat) more sober approach once the burden of statesmanship and the realities of dealing with Russia were upon him. Trump himself liked to feed that theory occasionally in his public statements on the campaign trail. And now here we are. When Trump said he’d be more “presidential,” was running down his own country by comparing it to Russian fascism what he had in mind?
What’s most striking about this, though, is how gratuitous it is. What he says is wholly unnecessary to achieve his purpose, which is simply making the public comfortable with the idea of detente with Russia. When O’Reilly says “Putin’s a killer,” Trump has an easy comeback available to him: “I know he is, but Mao was much more of a killer and Nixon had the good sense to build a relationship with him. Why? Because it was in the interests of Americans to do so. That’s my goal too, in all things. I’m a realist. I deal with the world as it is, not how I’d like it to be.” Engaging with Putin diplomatically is a defensible strategy; absolving him of his crimes by suggesting that his fascist norms are really no worse than American norms is another thing entirely. Maybe this type of Chomskyite whataboutism would feel less sinister coming from another politician, but from a self-styled strongman like Trump who effuses about Putin’s “leadership” and who’s been known to marvel at the ruthlessness of the Chinese in crushing the Tiananmen Square protests, it does feel sinister. Even if you accept his false premise, that, say, drone strikes on suspected terrorists are indistinguishable morally from assassinating journalists, you should at least want him to follow what he says with, “We need to do less killing ourselves. We need to be less like Putin.” Maybe he did say something like that — we’ll find out today when the full interview airs — but if he didn’t, then his absolution of Putin also operates to absolve America of its worst deeds, which is also bad. Essentially he’s arguing that Putin is no worse than the United States (wrong) and, by implication, that the United States needn’t strive to be better than Putin because this is how all governments operate (wrong wrong wrong).
The O’Reilly interview airs at 4 p.m. ET today on Fox. Here’s the clip of Trump, followed by one of Ben Sasse responding. Every Republican in the Senate had better be prepared to play another round of “What do you think of what Trump said?” with the national media this week. Exit quotation from Charles Cooke, reflecting on the peculiarity of Trump’s brand of nationalism: “The United States is an exceptional, extraordinary, unusual place. I wish the president understood that.”