How Conservatives Are Dealing With the Cloud Over the Trump Administration

The bombshell FBI Director Comey dropped in the House Intelligence Committee hearing about an ongoing counter-intelligence investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians has been described as a cloud hovering over the administration. It’s worth taking a look at how conservatives are dealing with that cloud.

If you get your news from Fox and Friends, you wouldn’t even know that the cloud existed.

With that on one end of the continuum, the interview Tucker Carlson conducted with Mark Steyn would land on the other end. They certainly didn’t ignore what happened. But their rationale for excusing it was a mixture of lies and distortions. So it’s worth taking some time to deconstruct.

Carlson begins the interview with a clip from the Committee hearing in which NSA Director Rogers rejects the idea that the Russians changed vote tallies in any of the battleground states. That is certainly something that was a concern prior to the election, but this one was put to rest a long time ago when intelligence sources released their report on how Russia interfered in the election. In other words, it had nothing to do with the questions raised at the hearing.

Initially both Carlson and Steyn suggest that the entire investigation into these matters is political – with Steyn saying that the Democrats are mad at Russia simply as a way to assert that the election was stolen rather than lost. He then makes a claim that we heard during the hearings – that an investigation into these questions is more damaging than whether or not a sitting president colluded with an adversary to influence the election.

It is at this point that the whole conversation goes completely off the rails. Carlson says he’s agnostic and asks Steyn what we should think about Russia. Here are a few of the things Steyn says in response:

  • That Russia is the country that produced, Chekhov, Pushkin, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff. That is not a commentary on their political position in the world, but simply a recognition of their cultural contributions.
  • That Erdogan in Turkey is a much bigger threat than Putin. There is a case that could be made for that statement. But it doesn’t in any way suggest that Putin is absolved.
  • That Crimea is a legitimate sphere of Russian influence. Perhaps Steyn actually thinks that countries with large militaries are justified in going around invading countries they wish to bring into their “sphere of influence.” But not many people around the globe would agree with him.
  • He has no idea why Democrats seem prepared to launch World War III over Crimea. This is ridiculous. No one has expressed any interest in launching WWIII over Crimea. Global sanctions were imposed on Russia. Whether or not those sanctions should be left alone, increased or eliminated are the only options on the table.

At that point, Carlson weighs in by suggesting that it’s weird to hear people who have lionized Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro complain about a strongman, i.e., Putin. This (along with the suggestion that Democrats want to launch WWIII over Crimea) are great examples of a technique often used by commentators who discuss issues like this within an epistemically closed bubble of like-minded people: exaggerate the position of your opponent in order to make them sound ridiculous. You have to go out pretty far on the left extreme to find anyone who lionized Chavez or Castro. Without launching into a deep discussion about the politics of Latin America during the Cold War, I’ll simply say that the situations in those countries became proxy battles between the United States and the former Soviet Union, with democracy the loser regardless of who prevailed.

The discussion then turns to framing Trump’s position as one in which the United States and Russia share a common enemy in “radical Islam” and can therefore join together to defeat them. This is where an article by Peter Beinart, in which he describes the difference between “ideological” and “civilizational” conservatism, becomes instructive. Here is how that broke down during the Cold War.

Civilizational conservatives like Jerry Falwell and Pat Buchanan saw the cold war as a struggle between two countries defined primarily by their view of God: The Judeo-Christian United States versus the atheistic Soviet Union. Ideological conservatives like Paul Wolfowitz and Elliot Abrams, by contrast, saw the cold war as a conflict between two countries defined primarily by their view of government: the liberty-loving United States versus the totalitarian USSR.

At this point, the ideological conservatives have pretty much been silenced and the civilizational conservatives have found a white nationalist Christian ally in Putin to combat the threat posed by Islam. As someone who was an Islamophobe long before Trump made that acceptable, it is clear that Steyn is one of those civilizational conservatives. Here is something he wrote in 2006 – suggesting that Muslim population growth has already contributed to a modern European genocide:

Why did Bosnia collapse into the worst slaughter in Europe since the second World War? In the thirty years before the meltdown, Bosnian Serbs had declined from 43 percent to 31 percent of the population, while Bosnian Muslims had increased from 26 percent to 44 percent. In a democratic age, you can’t buck demography—except through civil war. The Serbs figured that out, as other Continentals will in the years ahead: if you cannot outbreed the enemy, cull ’em. The problem that Europe faces is that Bosnia’s demographic profile is now the model for the entire continent.

That provides some context for the most incendiary thing Steyn said during this exchange. He ended the interview by suggesting that the United States could actually learn something about dealing with the Middle East from Russia. He said that Putin had a much better track record in Syria than we have in Afghanistan. If one is willing to suggest that committing war crimes by bombing the civilians of Allepo is a great track record, I don’t suppose there is any limit to what one is willing to consider.

These are the kind of people who are rising to defend the president as he maneuvers under a cloud of suspicion for possible collusion with Russia. Someone who is ignorant of actual history or the concerns of the present might have seen this interview as dispositive in its defense of the president. Personally, I found it to be not only filled with lies, but extremely abhorrent.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.