OPINION: Switching Sides, on U.S.-Russia Relations

Once upon a time in the US you could fairly predict what Americans believed about Russia, based on their political party affiliation. Their beliefs would parallel their views of the USSR during the Cold War, with Democrats being relatively more optimistic and uncritical of Russia than their Republican counterparts. As one example, take the spring 2015 poll by Pew Research. It shows that the liberal-conservative divide on Russia held firm, with Republicans far more hawkish than Democrats on the Russian threat, arms to Ukraine, support of NATO, and sanctions on Russia.

But switch to the present and all bets are off. The two camps have changed places. Thanks to Trump’s embrace of Putin, grassroots Republicans have about the same regard for Russia as the Russians themselves. Republicans join with Trump in doubting Russian hacking and the Russian threat to the US; on the other hand, they hope for friendly relations with Russia. Now it’s the Democrats who want to go after Russia with sanctions and a stronger NATO—one reason Vladimir Putin was evidently so anxious that a hawkish Hillary Clinton not win the election and continue Barack Obama’s confrontational policies.

If, as one writer suggests, Trump is the “Manchurian candidate” who has been duped by the Russians into serving as their unknowing agent in Washington, the Republican rank-and-file don’t seem to know or care. They have become America’s “whatevers”: whatever Donald says or does is fine with them. Assessing the relevance of the 1962 movie, Neal Gabler writes that “an admittedly paranoid movie may actually be insufficiently paranoid when it comes to our new reality. It isn’t just the possibility that we had a Manchurian candidate for the presidency. It is the possibility that we now have a Manchurian president, a Manchurian Congress and a Manchurian government.”

As in the movie, it’s up to the liberals to save the country — not from the communists but from the Bannons, Millers, and other ‘conspiratorialists’ under Trump who, like Putin, want to make the world safe for white Christians, for big business (and oligarchs), and of course for Russia’s ambitions.

Liberals will have a tough time undermining a soft line on Russia. Barring some new revelation by the various investigating committees and the FBI of collusion between Trump’s surrogates and Russian officials last year, the administration will be free to pursue a pro-Russia policy.

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Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, and blogs at https://mgurtov.wordpress.com/