In an interview that aired on Sunday, Bill O’Reilly alleged that Vladimir “Putin is a killer.” Donald Trump replied, “We have a lot of killers. Well, you think our country is so innocent?”
Journalists reacted with disbelief. During the Obama administration, conservatives sometimes suggested that, in his heart, President Obama didn’t consider the United States to be morally exceptional. Now Trump is saying so baldly. “I’m trying to imagine your response if President Obama defended the murderous reign of Vladimir Putin by saying ‘You think our country is so innocent?’” CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell.
But a flawed premise underlies the question. For Obama, declaring that America has “a lot of killers” would have constituted a criticism. That’s because Obama, like most American politicians, justifies America’s global role in moral terms. Like George W. Bush, John McCain, Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio and just about everyone else who has either served as president or campaigned seriously for the job in recent times, Obama describes the United States as the champion of universal principles like liberty, democracy and peace. Thus, had Obama declared that America was no better at upholding those ideals than Putin’s Russia, his comments would have represented a severe condemnation of his own nation.
But when Trump says America is not “innocent” because it contains a “lot of killers,” he’s not being critical. There’s no evidence that he thinks innocence, or non-violence, are principles to which the United States should aspire. That’s because Trump, almost uniquely among modern presidents and presidential candidates, doesn’t justify America’s actions overseas in moral terms.
Take his views on torture. Trump’s support for it is not unique. The Bush administration practiced torture. The Obama administration may have too. But even Dick Cheney never admitted it out loud. To the contrary, he denied that America’s “enhanced interrogation” techniques constituted torture so he could continue to portray the United States a moral force in the world. What distinguishes Trump is less policies than his refusal to cloak them in moral garb. Trump boasts about supporting torture. He’s not interested in upholding the notion that America is morally superior to its foes. To the contrary, he wants to show that America can be just as tough and ruthless as everyone else.
It’s the same with Trump’s statements about stealing Iraq’s oil. After toppling Saddam Hussein, the Bush administration pushed Iraq’s new government to change the country’s oil law in ways that benefitted American and other international companies. But Bush adamantly denied that economic considerations influenced his decision to invade. Trump, by contrast, has attacked the US for not being predatory enough. “To the victor belong the spoils,” he said last month in remarks at the CIA. “Keep the oil.”
Most presidents deny America’s imperial history. Even Obama, who angered conservatives for supposedly apologizing for America’s past misdeeds, insisted in his Cairo speech that, “America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire.”
Trump, by contrast, is so proud of America’s history of imperialist brutality that he conjures up episodes that never even occurred, like General Pershing supposedly dipping bullets in pigs’ blood before massacring Muslim rebels in the Philippines.
In Walter Russell Mead’s terminology, Trump is the most nakedly “Jacksonian” president in recent American history. Ronald Reagan appealed to Jacksonians who wanted Rambo-esque revenge for America’s defeat in Vietnam. George W. Bush appealed to their hunger for payback after 9/11. But both men cloaked those visceral impulses in Wilsonian and Hamiltonian rhetoric about spreading freedom and prosperity across the world. Trump doesn’t bother.
His unwillingness to claim any larger moral mission for American power is threatening to mainstream Democrats and Republicans, both of whom see reconciling universal morality and national interest as the core work of US foreign policy. But Trump’s baldly amoral language empowers Breitbart-style nationalists, who deny that Muslims harbor the same moral instinct as Christians and Jews, and see themselves as combatants in a great tribal struggle between the West and Islam. It’s also liberating to left-wing anti-imperialists who see American hegemony as the great enemy of universal ideals like freedom, democracy, equality and peace. For them, it’s useful that Trump has ripped off America’s moral mask.
Trump’s comments to O’Reilly illustrate, yet again, the ways in which he is destabilizing America’s political establishment and empowering “insurrectionists” across the ideological map. Steve Bannon and Vladimir Putin must both be pleased.