“I went in yesterday and there was a television screen, and I said, ‘This is genius.’ Putin declares a big portion of the Ukraine, of Ukraine, Putin declares it as independent. Oh, that’s wonderful,” Donald Trump explained on a radio show the day after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
“So Putin is now saying, ‘It’s independent,’ a large section of Ukraine. I said, ‘How smart is that?’ And he’s going to go in and be a peacekeeper. That’s the strongest peace force,” Trump added. “We could use that on our southern border. That’s the strongest peace force I’ve ever seen. … Here’s a guy who’s very savvy. … I know him very well. Very, very well.”
In the days that followed, Trump’s comments generated a lot of justified condemnation. But it bothered me that most of the criticism seemed to center on Trump’s use of the terms “savvy” and “genius,” and not “wonderful.” The former are descriptive terms while the latter is normative. After all, one can believe that Putin is brilliant while also being evil. But saying that the initiation of lawless slaughter is “wonderful” is morally grotesque. It’s all the more repugnant when you realize that Trump was celebrating Putin’s propaganda that he was merely sending in “peacekeepers” while suggesting there’s nothing wrong with Russia falsely declaring conquered territory is “independent.”
Eventually it dawned on Trump that he misread the moment. At the Conservative Political Action Conference he offered a real condemnation. “The Russian attack on the Ukraine is appalling. It’s an outrage and an atrocity that should never have been allowed to occur.” Reasonable people can debate the depth of his sincerity. Though it seems to me that if your first reaction to lawless slaughter is to marvel at the wonderful brilliance of it, you’ve told us who you are.
But we already knew who Trump is. From his respect for the Chinese government’s slaughter of pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square to the invasion of Ukraine, Trump has long demonstrated his instinctual attraction to brutality and “strength.” Just last Saturday, he praised the authority shown by North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and “joked” that he wished his generals had been as terrified of him as Kim’s are of their supreme leader.
Overlooked in the bloody days since his initial celebration is how utterly wrong Trump was about the man he claims to know “very, very well.” Trump’s problem is the problem with all power worship. It clouds the mind and corrupts the soul, rewriting not just objectivity but moral calculus too. As Orwell observed, power worship leads us to believe that “whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible” so any moral objections are seen as not just folly, but the whining of suckers and losers.
Trump and his die-hard defenders insist Putin wouldn’t have invaded Ukraine if he were president. Given that Putin continued his conquest of eastern Ukraine throughout Trump’s presidency and that Putin had a reasonable hope that Trump would try to pull out of NATO if reelected, not to mention his reluctance to impose sanctions and his abiding strongman-sycophancy, it doesn’t seem Putin was intimidated by Trump’s strength.
The more interesting question is, why would Trump object to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine if he were president? He didn’t seem to see anything particularly wrong with Putin’s initial attack. He claims he would have stopped Putin, and yet once the invasion happened on President Biden’s watch, he deemed it “wonderful.”
Normal former presidents tend to think our national interests extend beyond their time in office. But not Trump.
Indeed, a few days ago, Trump told Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo that China will invade Taiwan “because they’re seeing how stupid the United States is run.” He added, “They’re seeing that our leaders are incompetent. And of course they’re going to do it. This is their time.”
Earlier on, as Russia massed more than 100,000 troops at the Ukrainian border, Biden was castigated for seeming to suggest that a “minor incursion” into Ukraine by Putin might not invite as forceful a response from the U.S. and the international community as a full invasion might. Many on the right correctly condemned Biden for sending a provocative message of weakness. It’s hard to fathom how Trump—the putative 2024 GOP nominee—peddling idiocy about Putin and China wouldn’t invite similar or greater outrage.
But that’s what power worship does. And, like Trump himself, his worshipers can see the world around them only through a prism of us-against-them, in which principles simply don’t count.