Trump’s Helsinki press conference is sign of ‘textbook treason,’ Russia expert argues

Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump shook hands in Helsinki this week. A UC Berkeley professor says Trump's relationship with Putin is cause for alarm. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump shook hands in Helsinki this week. A UC Berkeley professor says Trump’s relationship with Putin is cause for alarm. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

A long-time analyst of Russian politics said President Donald Trump’s deference to Russian President Vladimir Putin has done more to destabilize the western world order than any other effort by Russian or Soviet agents since the start of the Cold War.

“Russia’s goal is undermining the West and NATO and undermining democracy around the world,” said M. Steven Fish, a professor of political science at UC Berkeley. “Russian leaders have dreamed of doing this for a century and Soviet leaders weren’t able to even make a nick in our alliances, or in the struggle against the United States. But in the last 18 months Russia made more progress toward that end than any time in the previous century.”

Fish, the author of numerous books about Russia, including Democracy Derailed in Russia: The Failure of Open Politics and Postcommunism and the Theory of Democracy, said Trump’s abdication of support for liberal values was “textbook treason” that, if left unchecked, could undermine key democratic values across the world: fair voting, a free press and political dissent.

“We cannot just sweep this under the rug and go on to the next outrage, because Trump is a master at doing that,” Fish said. “This matter is immeasurably more important to the future of the country than any other.”

Fish spoke to Berkeley News about Putin’s strategy, Trump’s motivations and how he thinks American politicians should respond. His responses have been edited for clarity.

Let’s start with some context. What does Russia want in all of this?

Russia always wanted to be leader of something great in the world. In the 20th century it posed as the leader of all countries that sought to stand up to Western liberalism and democracy. In the 21st century, under Putin, Russia again strives to unite all who despise liberal democracy and resist the West, but now it does so from the far right rather than the far left. Russians want above all to lead a great cause and matter in the world; what that cause is and how the country matters is of secondary importance. What matters is that Russia is a sovereign power and is leading something.

What’s new here is that for the first time, Russia’s rulers have found an ally in their struggle against liberal democracy in the American president.

M. Steven Fish, a UC Berkeley expert on Russian politics, stands in front of St. Basil's cathedral during a recent trip to Moscow. (Courtesy)

M. Steven Fish, a UC Berkeley expert on Russian politics, stands in front of St. Basil’s cathedral during a recent trip to Moscow. (Courtesy)

Whether it is Brexit or American elections, why does Russia seem to be so good at using tools like social media or our own ideological fault lines to destabilize our institutions or politics?

It’s not that the Russians are especially skilled, it’s just that they’re the one country with both the intelligence assets and the will to engage in this kind of behavior.

China and the United States are adversaries in some ways, but China doesn’t try to sabotage American institutions; it doesn’t prioritize wrecking Western alliances or American democracy. It’s a rising power that realizes that it is already involved in making the rules of the international system. Russian leaders realize their country will never, ever have that kind of authority in the world so they seek to be a spoiler, a kind of vandal that raids rival powers.

The United States has more than enough capability to stop Russia from engaging in these kinds of actions. We can sabotage them more surely than they can sabotage us. The question is whether the executive branch and congressional Republicans will use that power. Shockingly, that willingness is not there at this time.

If Russia has been trying to do this for years, why have they been so successful with Trump and his administration?

The Russians, and Putin especially, have been able to convince Trump that they’re on his side. They see things his way. They have the same enemies he does. Putin never tells Trump, “We’ve got the pee tape and you better obey or else.” That’s not the way he works.

What Putin has told Trump all along is a message like: “Look, you and I both know there are bad forces in this world: the liberal media that smears us, our political opponents who seek to depose us, and all these conspiracies that we can’t even fully understand that are out to get us. You and I are on the same side against all these forces. You and I are going to cover for each other, brother. We’re going to take this global conservatism to the next level. To hell with our liberals, to hell with yours. We are now allies in this fight.”

This is not hard for a master spy like Putin to do. He just never dreamed he’d have it this easy with an American president.

What did you make of the press conference on Monday in Helsinki? The former director of National Intelligence called it treasonous, and Republican members of Congress have expressed concern.

This is textbook treason. This is what treason looks like. The fact that it’s been so brazenly committed, and on an ongoing basis over a two-year period, is blinding. If this were a little bit less public and we dug what Trump is saying out of some secret documents we’d be exclaiming it: “Oh wow, this is treason!” But this is so brazen and it’s been so obvious for so long, that we have become accustomed to just keep shaking our heads and turning away, denying that this can be happening.

I think after the Helsinki summit people who’ve been turning away from this, above all liberals whose sense of fair play, respect for procedures, and assumptions that no one can be that bad, now have to see the light of day. We now have to realize and call this what it is. This is treason.

Inexplicably, Democratic aspirants for office in 2018 have largely neglected to make patriotism an issue. Whether justifiable or not, since the 1960s the Republican Party has held advantage in public perceptions on the overriding matter of love of country and devotion to its core values. Now the Republicans have flung down the flag. There it lies, on the ground. But the Democratic Party, at least so far, has not seized it. Democrats need to quit debating whether to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance. Stand up for the pledge, pick up the flag, and win the next elections doing so.

Look, Putin’s approval rating in the United States is 11 percent versus 72 percent of Americans who despise him. A large majority of Americans supports NATO and wishes to see it continue to play the role that it has traditionally, or an even greater role in international affairs than it does now. Only a very small minority opposes NATO or is skeptical about its mission.

Yet most Democratic politicians continue to treat the American voter as exclusively concerned with government benefits, distribution of the tax burden, personal identity, and reproductive rights. The president’s opponents are missing a once-in-a-century opportunity to realign the electorate to their own advantage. It’s possible that the summit in Helsinki and the congressional Republicans’ continued support for Trump even in the face of his treason will change that. It’s also possible that Republicans will turn out to be patriots after all.

I don’t think most of the 46 percent of Americans who voted for Trump were really voting to erase America’s values and to sell America out to its main foreign foe.

Based on your understanding of how democracy ended in Russia, what concerns you? What happens if this keeps playing out?

I suppose the worst-case scenario would be for a majority of Americans simply not to care about the betrayal of their country and to be okay with what Trump is doing to the United States right now.  Anything to curtail the voting rights of Americans is what illiberalism looks like. Any movement against the media is as well, although I can’t imagine that actually working in the United States.

But if Democrats or some Republicans play this right, any worries that we might have about illiberalism triumphing in America will be set back. If the system cannot correct itself right now, it’s then that we’re in trouble.

What’s that mean?

The Democrats or the president’s opponents from either party have to now realize that it is an electoral imperative — as well as a moral responsibility — to treat this rolling treason as issue number one. We cannot just sweep this under the rug and go on to the next outrage, because Trump is a master at doing that. There will be some new outrage. This matter is more immediate and it’s more important to the future of the country than any other issue. Now we’ll see if America has leaders.

Reporters interested in interviewing Fish should contact Will Kane at willkane@berkeley.edu