Mined from the notebooks, Wednesday, July 18, 2018. Posted Friday morning, July 20.
“Isn’t that right, Vlad, old buddy?”: Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin at their press conference after the Helsinki summit, Monday, July 16, 2018. AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko via Newser.
Here’s how I understand Trump and Putin. I’m not saying how it is with them, because like I would know. And I’m not suggesting it’s how you should understand it. Besides its being the case that I don’t know and have no way of knowing, it’s the case with everything---you probably know more than me. Even if you don’t, it’s really the case I’m guessing and your guess is as good as mine. In any case, here’s my guess.
Say I own a business, and that business is about to go under. I’m about to lose the company, store, shop, firm, whatever and with it my house and everything I own. One thing I’m going to lose is any reputation I had for being a good businessman. Which makes it really hard to find anyone to bail me out. But then one seemingly friendly banker or rich acquaintance says, Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it. He would instantly become my best friend for life. I’d think the world of him. No matter what anyone said about him, I’d come to his defense. That may be so, I’d say, but to me he’s always been a great guy. From then on, I’d do just about anything for him. He wouldn’t have to ask me for any favors. I’d always be on the lookout for ways to show my gratitude and demonstrate my affection. Whenever I had the chance, whatever and however I could, I’d try to find ways to repay him in kind if I couldn’t muster the cash. And if he did ask me for a favor, I wouldn’t have to think twice. I’d do it, if I could, especially if it meant doing something I was already inclined to do and more especially if he didn’t make it seem like too much of a favor. He phrased it right, I might think it wasn’t much of a favor or any favor at all. Not enough of one, at any rate, to even begin to pay him back for what I felt I owe him, which, when you get right down to it, is everything. The guy saved my life, after all. If anything, then, instead of feeling I’d taken a step to make it up to him, I might feel more indebted, more grateful, and more beholden.
On top of this, imagine I know I’m going to need this guy’s help again. Soon. In fact, I already still need it. Imagine his generosity didn’t solve my problems. It just made them manageable for the time being. How likely is it then I’m going to refuse to do him any favors, let alone a small one, or what he’s convinced me is a small one? How likely is it I’m going to say or do anything that might offend him or make him think he made a mistake helping me out. How likely is it I’m going to say or do anything that might make him think I’m no longer worth his time or trouble. How likely is it I’m in fact going to go out of my way to do the opposite, buttering him up, flattering him, show him how I’m still worth his time, effort, friendship, and money every chance I get?
Now, one more thing to add. Imagine I suspect that I somehow did something wrong by accepting this guy’s help. That I’ve tangled myself up in his plots and schemes in ways I can’t see or understand if I did see. I have the feeling I’m in way over my head and I have no idea how I got myself here or how to get myself out. Imagine there’s no one I trust to explain it to me because it would mean making myself look like a fool or a crook in their eyes. They might feel obligated to call the cops on me, so to speak. In fact, the only person I trust not to rat me out and to understand how to get through the mess this guy has gotten me into is the guy himself! Maybe I’ll just let him string me along, hoping for the best, terrified there’s disaster ahead. More likely, though, for my own peace of mind, I’ll convince myself the guy knows what he’s doing. He’s a stand up guy. He wouldn’t put his friends at risk. He’s a smart guy. He’s an honest guy. He wouldn’t put himself at risk. He’s not the villain here. Everybody who says is, they’re the villains! They want to give me advice about how to deal with him? Fuck them! Who are they to give advice? He’s the only one whose advice is worth listening to because he’s the only one who knows what’s going on.
See, any other way of looking at it---that he conned me, that he played me for a sucker, that the reasons he picked me for his mark are I’m stupid and desperate and weak and crooked---makes me a loser, and there’s no way I’m that!
And I’ll go through all that because this guy saved me from losing a business that’s worth a few hundred thousand at most by fronting me a measly ten or twenty grand. Hell. I might go through all that if it was just three or four thousand. Or even just a few hundred.
Imagine, though, if it was millions and millions.
It’s hard to keep in mind that Fitzgerald was wrong and Hemingway was right, that the rich, famous, and powerful aren’t different from you and me. They just have more money---which buys them more freedom and scope to be themselves and with that more come more temptations to behave badly. They may look like monsters of greed, vanity, ambition, and desire, but what they really are is more human.
Donald Trump is probably the worst human being ever elected President. (Andrew Johnson wasn’t elected and, as I’ve often mentioned, Richard Nixon had to be President in order to be worse.) But if he’d not been elected, if he’d not been nominated, if he’d not run, if he’d not acquired the money and the celebrity that made it possible for him to run, if his father hadn’t staked him a fortune to squander, he’d still have been a rotten human being. He’d still have cheated on his wives, they just wouldn’t have been supermodels, maybe not even department store models, but whoever and whatever they were, they’d have still just been toys and trophies to him. He’d have neglected his kids, begrudged them their child support, used them to make himself money. He’d still have scammed his way through life, reneged on contracts, shaken hands on deals he never intended to follow through on, broken promises, bullied everyone he thought was weaker than himself, lied about everything, boasted and bragged only while sitting on a barstool instead of going on stage before thousands of adoring creeps like himself to do it. I think Kelly Anne Conway once said Trump’s strength as a public speaker was his ability to sound like a random guy in bowling alley bar in Wisconsin. If he hadn’t had that sack of his father’s money he carried over his shoulder to Manhattan, he’d have been some random guy in a bowling alley bar in Queens. And if he’d managed to start a little business on his own, a contracting business or gone into real estate development on a small scale and was on the brink of failing at that and a local banker or deep-pocketed friend bailed him out, he wouldn’t have felt unduly grateful or obligated---Donald Trump doesn’t do gratitude or recognize obligations---unless he knew he still needed the help.
President Trump---the random guy in the White House we wish was a random guy in a bowling alley bar---knows he still needs the help.
He know he’s in trouble. He knows he did something wrong, but he’s not sure what it was. And it’s driving him crazy there’s no one he can trust to ask to explain it. Not that he’d really understand it if there was. He doesn’t have the moral intelligence. Or the regular intelligence. He doesn’t care he did something wrong. He just cares he’s in trouble over it. And the only one who seems to care, the only one who seems to understand, the only one who seems to know what to do is his new best friend Vlad.
And that’s how I understand Donald Trump and Putin. Trump is human. All too human. And that makes him a monster.
But it’s like I said.
Like I would know.
I don’t know if the New Yorker’s Adam Davidson knows better than me. He probably does. And his guess seems better than mine. Much better sourced, at any rate. Much, much better sourced, as in based on actual reporting as opposed to based on stuff he just read online:
Kompromat can be a single, glaring example of wrongdoing, recorded by someone close to the Kremlin and then used to control the bad actor. It can be proof of an embarrassing sex act. [Keith Darden, an international-relations professor at American University] believes it is unlikely that sexual kompromat would be effective on Trump. Allegations of sexual harassment, extramarital affairs, and the payment of hush money to hide indiscretions have failed to significantly diminish the enthusiasm of Trump’s core supporters. But another common form of kompromat—proof of financial crimes—could be more politically and personally damaging.
Trump has made a lot of money doing deals with businesspeople from the former Soviet Union, and at least some of these deals bear many of the warning signs of money laundering and other financial crimes. Deals in Toronto, Panama, New York, and Miami involved money from sources in the former Soviet Union who hid their identities through shell companies and exhibited other indications of money laundering. In the years before he became a political figure, Trump acted with impunity, conducting minimal corporate due diligence and working with people whom few other American businesspeople would consider fit partners. During that period, he may have felt protected by the fact that U.S. law-enforcement officials rarely investigate or prosecute Americans who engage in financial crimes overseas. Such cases are also maddeningly difficult to prove, and the F.B.I. has no subpoena power in other countries. If, however, someone had evidence that proved financial crimes and shared it with, say, the special counsel, Robert Mueller, other American law-enforcement officials, or the press, it could significantly damage Trump’s business, his family, and his Presidency.
Follow the link to Davidson’s post, A Theory of Trump Kompromat, at the New Yorker.