In 1855, an Illinois railroad lawyer named Abraham Lincoln wrote to his longtime friend, Joshua Speed, who had moved back to their native Kentucky. Lincoln focused on the slavery question, already tearing the country apart.
“As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.'” the future president wrote. “We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”
Russia, “where despotism can be taken pure.” Long before the Communist revolution roiled Russia, that nation was notorious for its repression, its medieval cruelty, the misery of its serfs, and its backward ways. In Lincoln’s time, the thinking was: Americans might hold slaves, but Russians are slaves.
That scorn hardened over the 20th century into fear of deep intensity, as Russia’s repressive nature became married to the philosophy of communism. Yes, there were periods of reduced tension. While supporting the Russian Revolution was enough to get an American deported in 1919, by the 1930s romanticizing Stalin was a common fault of the liberal left — turning a blind eye to Russian menace certainly wasn’t invented by Donald Trump. We were allies for a few awkward years, after Stalin’s pal Adolf Hitler turned against him.
But by 1947 the Iron Curtain was drawn across Europe and half a century of Cold War had set in. Kind words for Russia would cost you your career in the 1950s, and by the 1960s, we feared the Commies would kill us all. The notion of our government being in collusion with them was the stuff of John Birch paranoid delusions and Hollywood thrillers.
Since communism collapsed, what Ronald Reagan dubbed an “evil empire” has contracted, losing its Eastern European vassals and large swaths of territory. It flirted with democracy, then became a vast criminal enterprise headed by a dictator, the former KGB colonel Vladimir Putin.
As historians pick through the train wreck of the Trump years, our president’s admiration for and compliance with Russia will fascinate and boggle them beyond all else, and rightly so. It fascinates and boggles now.
James Comey, the former FBI director, testified Thursday that he is certain the Russians meddled in the 2016 election, by trying to undermine Hillary Clinton and boost their preferred candidate, Donald Trump. Various members of the Trump administration met with Russian officers. And the president, whose financial ties to Russia are unknown since he is refusing to release his tax returns, himself put pressure on Comey to abandon the investigation.
This would be unacceptable if the country in question were Belgium. That it is Russia is off-the-charts, or should be. Yet Republican leaders like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell defend behavior that veers between treachery and treason. How can they do it?
That isn’t a rhetorical question. There is an answer, one that came to me when I was reading about former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura — sort of the Alpha version of Donald Trump, right-wingnut-TV-personality-turned-politician — now appearing in a show on Russian TV. Asked to rationalize producing anti-American propaganda, Ventura said, “I am working for the enemies of the mainstream media now.”
To Republicans, the media — the newspapers, TV, though not Fox News — is a greater threat to the well-being of the United States than its traditional enemy. That belief did not develop in a vacuum. Newt Gingrich taught the GOP to view Democrats as traitors. Now, just as an activist judge is a judge who makes a ruling you don’t like, so the media is “fake news” when it reports a fact you find uncomfortable. Trump is the scab that formed over America’s self-inflicted wound.
In that light, the Russians have already taken us over, partially. Our government is already led by the same fact-averse, power-addled, cult of personality that Putin built around himself. The only difference is that Americans still have a chance to do something about it. Russians do not.