Commentary: Donald Trump playing "president" continues to seem comical yet be dangerous. Trump in Lincoln's chair is a ten-year-old wearing his father's shoes, several sizes too large.
In Japan for G-20, Mr. Trump laughs with Vladimir Putin, as if they were two emperors. He kids Putin about Russian interference in the world's elections, and says the two have "a great relationship." Is Trump trying to bait the House into impeaching him? Even some Republicans think elections should be secure.
Trump is so desperate for respect that his tongue hangs out with envy when he's with a man with some real toughness. Despite Putin's efforts to influence our elections, Trump behaves like a first-grader trying to convince a bigger, smarter, more athletic boy to be friends with him. (By contrast, Theresa May told Putin his election-meddling precludes normal relations. Without grinning.)
At first, you assume Trump is too stupid to know he's being taken. Putin laughs, while Trump does Putin's work by weakening our alliances, making light of election interference, and weakening Russia sanctions while exiting the deal delaying (or preventing) Iran's development of nuclear weapons.
But watching Trump's conduct in Washington, and reading Putin's remarks just before leaving for G-20, you realize that's not so. Trump recognizes that he and Putin are allies against their own people. Their own subjects.
In an extensive Financial Times interview, Putin called liberalism "obsolete." It has "outlived its purpose," and such ideas as multiculturalism are "no longer tenable." Liberals "simply cannot dictate anything to anyone.” Putin criticized German Chancellor Angela Merkel for her tolerant immigration policy, saying, "Migrants can kill, plunder, and rape with impunity because their rights as migrants have to be protected." (Who's he sound like?)
Why wouldn't Trump fawn over him? Putin can intelligently articulate what Trump and his enablers can't: that democracy is soft and inefficient, that "leaders" who can dictate to their populations while robbing 'em blind might as well do so, and that all those non-European types, with different colors, customs, and faiths, just don't belong.
Putin can get away with it. He has ample power, in a country without strong democratic traditions or a Statue of Liberty. Russia never stood for freedom and tolerance, its czars or commissars have always suppressed free speech, and it is not a nation of immigrants.
Can Trump? Ultimately I think not; he's not nearly as canny or purposeful as Putin; we have more deeply democratic habits, a freer press, and a more diverse population.
But we can't rest easy. Trump's a clown, but he's surrounded by people far more resolute than he. Republicans are shackling democracy with extreme gerrymandering and other limits on voting by poor or minority people. With the declines of an independent Supreme Court, the power of the press, and senators with backbone and some commitment to the public good, Washington ain't pretty these days.
European President Donald Tusk disputed Putin's attack on liberalism, saying that, "Whoever claims that liberal democracy is obsolete also claims that freedoms are obsolete, and that the rule of law is obsolete and that human rights are obsolete.”
Tusk added that what's "really obsolete are authoritarianism, personality cults, and the rule of oligarchs, even if sometimes they may seem effective.”
You can imagine Washington, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, saying that. Or Jack Kennedy, Eisenhower, even Ronald Reagan. Probably George Bush.
Around the world, the seas of authoritarianism are rising. Rising seas can't be ignored.