Former CIA Director John Brennan rages that, "Donald Trump's press conference performance in Helsinki … was … treasonous. … He is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???"
Well, as Patrick Henry said long ago, "If this be treason, make the most of it!" [Patrick Buchanan, in The American Conservative]
In 2003, during the run-up to the Iraq War, David Frum penned a cover story for National Review entitled "Unpatriotic Conservatives." Now justly infamous, it was an excommunication of so-called paleo-conservatives like Pat Buchanan, claiming their opposition to that war was not driven merely by a profound difference of opinion about the best way to protect American interests, but by a deep-seated disgust for the America that actually existed, and a desire to see their country defeated.
That catastrophic and mendaciously-conceived war was perhaps the worst possible conflict for which to command fealty from all patriots, and it's impossible now not to see just how prescient the most fervid critics of the Iraq War were. Frum himself earned a poetically just anathematization by his fellow conservatives years later for giving them excellent but unwelcome advice on how to modernize their party, and with the rise of Donald Trump, Frum's vision of the Republican Party's future has been as thoroughly repudiated as it is possible to imagine. Those he had sought to excommunicate now control the church.
Which is precisely why his essay needs to be rehabilitated today. Just as the most furiously anti-war critics were vindicated by subsequent events, Frum's own accusations against the paleo-cons and the Republican Party they are in the process of remaking are being vindicated as we speak by their and their party's reaction to the events in Helsinki.
That reaction is frankly more important than the events themselves, which in their own right are mostly optical rather than substantive. We don't as yet know why President Trump behaves the way he does around the subject of Russia — whether, as The New York Times' Ross Douthat enumerates, he's just Trump being Trump, or did in fact conspire with Russian agents to win the presidency by underhanded means, or, worst of all, is subject to some kind of Russian influence or control. But while we wait to find out, America still has a foreign policy to conduct. And while the foreign policy Trump campaigned on and is finally implementing is a radical departure from prior norms, there's nothing treasonous about the duly-elected president forsaking one set of alliances in favor of another, or even conducting a policy of outright appeasement.
But for any such momentous change in American foreign policy to take effect, the American people must believe that it is being conducted in good faith. So long as there is even the suspicion that it is not, that it is at best the product of an unhealthy attachment to a foreign flatterer and at worst the result of undue influence, every action will produce an opposite but unequal and escalating reaction that cannot possibly serve American interests.
From the perspective of someone who believes in the policy, that outcome is nothing less than catastrophic, costing all the benefits of the old order but achieving none of the promised gains of the new. That's why the advocates of a policy of American withdrawal from NATO and rapprochement with Russia are the ones who should be the most forthright defenders of Mueller's investigation, because only he could possibly dispel the smoke which otherwise poisons the air around everything Russia-related that the Trump administration does. That's why the supporters of Trump's foreign policy should be the ones most upset that the president met privately with Putin, and that our own foreign policy bureaucracy apparently has no idea what they talked about, and hence no ability to rebut Russian assertions about agreements purportedly reached of unknown scope and import.
That some have instead preferred to mock the authentic horror of so many observers speaks volumes about the state of their own allegiance. As with Trump himself, it doesn't much matter whether that allegiance has faltered due to authentic admiration for a foreign power's ideology or baser motives. The manifest dysfunction of an American government at war with itself — the spectacle of a president who, even if he is not beholden to a foreign power, has been so unable to persuade his own administration of the rightness of his strategy that he must resort to a private conference with the leader of that foreign power to pursue his agenda, and must eat his own words publicly the day after he speaks them — that apparently is of less import than the fact that the real enemy of the mainstream media has once again been successfully trolled. This is not merely party over country, but party as country.
Trump's doughty defenders would surely protest that they are the real patriots because their party is the real country. The fact that Trump himself talks this way, they might say, is the best proof that he alone can be trusted, no matter what, to defend that real country's true interests. If Trump thinks the enemy within is more dangerous than the adversary without, and chooses to ally with that internal enemy's external adversaries, then doing so must be the prudent course, however "unorthodox" it looks.
But this is no defense, but rather a restatement of the terms of the indictment. It is the diseased mentality of Shakespeare's Coriolanus, who, exiled for his arrogance by the Rome he had fought for so bravely, joined forces with Rome's great enemy and waged a war of exterminating vengeance on the country that, though it had once turned his back on him, he should surely have remembered was still his.
As for Patrick Henry's quip in favor of treason that came so readily to Buchanan's lips, the original context was a debate in the Virginia House of Burgesses about who had the proper authority to tax the colonies. Calling Parliament's taxes tyrannical, and the king complicit therein, Henry prophesied: "Caesar had his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell, and George the Third may profit by their example."
But if there is someone in our scenario who may similarly profit by Charles the First's example, it is Trump himself, who relentlessly personalizes the power of his office, labors to restore the old religion in the face of mounting resistance, and incites the wildest fears in his opponents without regard for the possible consequences — consequences which, in Charles' case, ultimately included a civil war of party against party and a constitutional interregnum under a military dictator.
Let the 71 percent of Republicans who still approve of how Trump is handling Russia make the most of that.