Before November, though, one might have used a similar term to describe the central falsehood of Trump’s presidency to that point: his insistence that the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election was a hoax or that it was a partisan attack predicated on trumped-up accusations or that his campaign had been exonerated of any wrongdoing. None of those things was true, but it was very important for Trump to argue that they were.
And in that effort he had help: members of the right-wing media like Fox News’s Sean Hannity were invested both in Trump’s success and in detracting his opponents, so they built an entire latticework of rationalizations in assistance. Voluminous probes from the special counsel and bipartisan congressional committees were set aside in favor of a simple, loosely tied narrative that centered on one warrant obtained against a low-level campaign official after he’d already left the campaign.
On Monday evening, Hannity assumed the aesthetic of a serious news interviewer to join Trump for a conversation at the former president’s private club in Florida. Nothing about it was new, but, for Trump supporters, it probably had the comfortable familiarity of hearing a once-popular song suddenly played on the car radio. There was Trump and there was Hannity and there were the refrains with which everyone at home could sing along.
The ramp at West Point was slippery, la la la. My relationship with Kim Jong Un was a good thing, doo da doo. And then the big, emotional center of the tune: No one was tougher on Russia than meeeeee!
Russia was the through line of the conversation. Trump hyped the Biden administration’s stated uncertainty on whether that country paid bounties to Taliban fighters for killing U.S. soldiers as “a hoax, just like everything else.” That’s not accurate, but since when are pop tunes known for their sophisticated nuance?
All of this was in service to Trump’s uncomplicated assessment of his relationship with the country and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Russia probe into 2016 election interference was a function of “corrupt Democrat-inspired investigations” and “very, very bad for the relationship that we would have with Russia.” The United States “should be getting along with Russia instead of forcing Russia to go into the hands of China,” which is the “worst thing you could do.”
See the line there? The Democrats … yada yada yada … the worst thing you could do.
“I got along great with President Putin. I liked him. He liked me,” Trump said toward the end of the conversation. “That’s a good thing, not a bad thing.”
We tend to look at Trump’s relationship with Russia through the narrow lens of Trump himself. But Trump’s ascent to the presidency was born in large part of his embrace and amplification of conservative media rhetoric that emerged in 2014 and 2015 before he announced his bid. And in 2014, there was a sizable portion of rhetoric dedicated to celebrating how Putin, by annexing Crimea, had shown President Barack Obama to be weak. In the wake of that action, polling repeatedly showed an odd affinity for the Russian leader on the right, something that Trump picked up on or agreed with. By the time Trump took office after pushing away criticism about his approach to Russia by arguing (as he did to Hannity) that he should be friends with the murderous autocrat, Republican approval of Putin had jumped from 12 percent in 2015 to 32 percent in 2017.
This overlapped with the Republican Party’s shift away from democratic norms and its embrace of populist rhetoric. In February, we lifted up analysis showing how various political parties around the world had evolved on these two metrics: how much they adhere to the precepts of free and fair elections and how much their argumentation relies on populism. The GOP has increased on both metrics in recent years, now occupying a space somewhere between France’s National Rally (formerly National Front) and Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party in Hungary. Orban and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the Justice and Development party received warm welcomes at Trump’s White House.
Putin’s United Russia is more proudly illiberal, but less populist.
We’re by now used to Trump’s embrace of Putin. To extend the pop-song analogy, it’s like singing along until you suddenly realize what you’re singing and how it sounds in the moment. It’s the “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” of geopolitics: Oh, actually, it’s unusual that a sitting or former president should say he “likes” an anti-democratic autocrat who’s actively trying to undermine the country. “Getting along with Russia is a good thing,” Trump says, which is true in the narrow “better than being at war” sense. But in the broader “appeasing a sworn opponent of the American experiment” sense, it’s a little more dubious.
During their conversation Trump and Hannity did not have a chance to cover the other new evolution of the Russia story, that the government for the first time was asserting that internal Trump campaign material had passed from his senior team to a Russian agent and then to Russian intelligence agencies. This was one of several contacts between Russia and the campaign, some of which were reciprocated, and one that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III made clear was a question mark even as his probe concluded. It, by itself, makes clear that there was fire under the cloud of smoke about which Trump so often complained.
But neither Hannity nor his audience believed the interview was meant to probe such issues. It was, instead, a chance to hear Trump do his thing, and so he did. None of that new “big lie” stuff. Just the classics.