Donald Trump’s Washington is a city of many secrets, but no mysteries. So much about the Trump-Putin story remains unknown, and possibly will never be known. But the fundamentals have never been concealed. In order
to help elect Trump as US president, Russian operatives engaged in a huge and risky espionage and dirty tricks operation. Trump and his team publicly welcomed and gratefully accepted help from WikiLeaks, widely regarded as
a front for Russian intelligence. Trump surrounded himself with associates and aides, including a campaign chairman and a national security adviser, who had in the past received pay from Russian state TV and pro-Putin oligarchs.
In the wake of the election, US foreign policy has radically deviated from its post-1945 norms — and aligned itself instead with Putin’s preferences on a troubling range of issues. Trump’s fundamental political idea is that the best defence is a thumb-in-the-eyeball offence. His team argues (and powerful pro-Trump media have taken up the argument) that the real scandal is not anything they did, but that the outgoing Obama administration spied on them. It’s a bold update of the old joke about the man who kills his parents and pleads for mercy because he is an orphan: Americans are entitled to privacy when they communicate with hostile foreign espionage organisations.
It’s a defence that raises another set of troubling questions. Team Trump’s self-defence seems to be built on yet another impropriety — or worse. It looks as if one of the Trump political appointees to the National Security Council used his access to state secrets to spy in his turn on the FBI investigation of Team Trump’s communications with Russia. If true, a new abuse-of-power scandal may overtop the pre-existing espionage scandal. What one can say definitively is there is no near-term prospect of the administration settling into normality. Washington for the visible future will be consumed by a John le Carré-style ‘mole hunt’, in which the hunters are also the hunted — and amid thickening suspicion that the chief mole occupies the Oval Office.
The Trump administration is having abnormal effects on Washington social life too, especially among Republicans. During the campaign Trump was almost unanimously opposed by the conservative elites in Congress, media, and think tanks. But since his nomination and — especially — election, most have made one form or another of individual peace with the new regime. Some reserve some kind of private interior space for dissent from this or that corruption or abuse. Others not only drink the Kool-Aid, but positively bathe in it. For those few who remain utterly unreconciled, it is painful to watch formerly independent-minded friends submit one by one. Some of this can be explained cynically: people’s livelihoods here depend not just on access, but on the perception of access. Conservative journalists who criticise Trump can expect to forfeit their Fox News appearances and the lucrative speaking engagements that follow. But that explains only so much. Conservatism has ceased to be a coherent or compelling set of ideas — it has evolved instead into an identity defined by its animosities and oppositions. People defined that way cannot long sustain isolation from the group. They fear they will have nowhere to go. They risk not merely careers, but friendships, family relationships, their very self-definition. So they rationalise: maybe Trump isn’t that bad? Surely the Democrats — sorry, one is supposed to say ‘the left’ — are worse? And even if none of that is true, isn’t it easier and safer and more comfortable to think so?
I followed the latest Trump scandals from California. My youngest daughter’s spring break fell over the last week of March so we drove with her from San Francisco to LA, where our elder two children now live. Daughter Miranda is writing a book about her experiences in the modelling world; son Nathaniel has just won a film-festival prize for a darkly funny short about his drug-infested block in West Hollywood. In her first week here, Miranda was amazed to hear from a photographer friend that he had quit a job because it had ‘bad vibes’. ‘You can do that?’ ‘You have to.’ Now both children have acclimatised. As Miranda now (only very slightly ironically) puts it: ‘I’ve learned that vibes are important!’ I’ve been working on a film too — a documentary. And I’m realising … Miranda’s right. Where’s my Fiji water?