In 1992, James Carvill, the chief strategist for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, told Democratic Party activists that they should never forget that “it’s the economy, stupid!” It is time to update that appeal by pointing out that in today’s world it is ultimately the policies that matter.
Far too many Americans, appalled by the personality and style of US President Donald Trump, are focusing on the details of his team’s involvement with Russia and ignoring the consequences of the policies that he is already carrying out. The former merits the closest attention and if proved prosecution, but the latter requires an immediate reaction.
This focus on the criminal rather than the political is the result of a dangerous trend that might be called “politics by criminalization,” in which political parties and activists seek to defeat their opponents by suggesting or even proving criminal activities rather than challenging them on their policies and offering alternatives.
But such an approach both subverts the democratic process and means that many truly horrific policies are ignored or at least given far less media time than the latest twist and turns of a scandal. Yes, the involvement of Trump’s team with the Russians is a scandal; but Trump’s policies are a far greater one, in many areas but perhaps especially in foreign affairs.
Whatever are found to be the facts in the case about Trump’s links with the Russians and Russian activities in the US, the most profound fact of the last week is that Trump by his statements in Europe has given Moscow its greatest geopolitical victory in many years, something Europeans understand if Americans do not.
By failing to reaffirm Article 5 of the NATO charter, by acting as if US support for its allies is contingent on how much they spend on defense, and by failing to reaffirm the Atlantic Alliance, Trump sent a signal which Moscow welcomes and which Europeans clearly fear: the Atlantic Alliance is breaking down within and especially between Europe and the US.
Since NATO was organized to resist Soviet aggression in Europe, Moscow has had two fundamental goals — disordering the alliance by leading its members to question whether NATO will come to their defense and especially dividing Europe and the US – in order that Moscow can pressure the Europeans one by one without the interference of the United States.
Earlier this week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel signaled European recognition of this new reality when she said that “the times when we could completely rely on others are to an extent over” and that Europeans must rely “on their own forces.”
Whether Trump took these steps because he is under some kind of Russian influence or because he simply wants to pursue an isolationist policy is in many ways far less important than the fact that he is taking them. After all, a defense alliance in which people have doubts is like a religion in which people have ceased to believe: It doesn’t really exist anymore.
The investigation of certainly inappropriate and possibly illegal actions by members of Trump’s team needs to go forward, but at the same time, those who care about maintaining the alliance that has kept the peace in Europe for 70 years need to fight these policies vigorously regardless of where they come from.
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