Two powerful men sit in a room and make trouble for everybody else. It’s a situation that plays out a million times a day. Trump and Putin are merely a new verse of an ordinary song.
Being outwardly interesting and inwardly boring is a special kind of sin. Certain events create a perverse ratio between expected excitement and realized dullness. The Trump-Putin meetings is one such moment. “Wouldn’t you want to eavesdrop on that conversation?” In this case, no. If I wanted to hear a pair of wealthy guys complain about their problems, I’d eat dinner in Buckhead.
Two hours and fifteen minutes. That’s what it took for Trump and Putin to hash out the details. Longer than everyone thought, but too short to deal with everything. Most of their time was spent on Syria. But like the O.J. trial, the meat of the day was a single question: Did he do it?
Trump being Trump, he just shouted out the question. Right at the beginning of the meeting, The President raised the issue of the involvement. Had the Kremlin put its hand to the wheel?
The Orangeman had been skeptical of it before—at least in public. But this is Trump, who is a windmill for the cable news. The weathervane of the moment turned, and he went with it. The rest of the G-20 world go on to talk of cabbages and kings: the problems of North Korea, Ukraine, and climate change. Outside, the German Polizei were practicing politics with water cannons. But for the moment, in a chamber in Lower Saxony, the Russian autocrat and the American blowhard did the business. The results were as underwhelming as expected.
Of course Trump brought up the issue. Who could have stopped him? When has he ever been able to control his impulses? Who knows what that brought it to the front of his mind? Perhaps an adviser whispered in his ear. Perhaps FOX raised the issue. The Internet may have thrown in. Who can fathom the resentful, burger-eating mind of Brand Trump?
He asked Putin. Putin said there had been no interference, and asked for evidence. Evidence. Putin, I take it, is not a Twitter user.
More to the point, why did Trump feel the need to ask?
I suspect Trump adheres to the Dramatic Confrontation school of political thought. Most Americans do. The theory of Dramatic Confrontation goes like this: the powerful just need to be asked the right questions. If you ask Putin the right query, the perfect interrogative phrase, he will be forced to give you a true answer.
Because that’s the way it happens in movies. Eventually, the mighty are asked an armor-piercing puzzler. They gape. They verbally fumble. They search around for an answer. They seem foolish, and everyone else is made aware of their folly, and by extension their emotional discomfort at being called to task. When conservatives write fan fiction about being face-to-face with Hillary or Obama or any other bogeyman of the conservative world, it doesn’t take the author too long to get the upper hand. In these narratives, the protagonist usually has to ask one question, and the politician falls apart. Sorkin is full of such moments.
A significant part of Trump’s appeal came from the illusion that here, at last, was a man who would use the word “radical Islam” in speeches. He would say the Forbidden Words You Were Not Allowed to Say. Speaking dopey, offensive terms is the conservative version of liberal performance magic. Trump using the term “The West” is the right’s version of the Fearless Girl statue … and just as unlikely to achieve anything of note or value. But the story remains the same: if you ask the right question in the right meeting then the wheels will finally start moving. Alex Jones has built an entire shirtless career on this idea.
Putin denied involvement, as you would expect. Apparently, Trump was satisfied with this rhetorical masterstroke and said the next day it was “time to move forward.” According to Neil MacFarquhar in the Times:
There was a certain degree of exulting in the Russian capital on Saturday in the wake of the first meeting between President Vladimir V. Putin and President Trump, with Mr. Putin himself saying that the American president seemed satisfied with his answers on the hacking issue and that the talks had set the stage for improved relations. ... “When possible, I answered his questions in detail,” Mr. Putin said, noting that he had reviewed previous exchanges that he had had with former President Barack Obama on the topic. “I got the impression that my answers satisfied him.”
Consider Putin in the meeting. He sits across from President Donald Trump, listening to his translator officially unweave Trump’s syntax. If you accept Putin for what he is—a vanilla strongman—then much of the mystification woven around him is shredded. He is simply the chief of a system of interlaced power, much like Russian strongmen before him. He symbolizes and bolsters that system. Putin is a net with hundreds of radiations spreading out from him. As my colleague Jacob Weindling has said, Putin is not just Putin. Putin is a network.
Such a question would not flatter one such as Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. It is like claiming a weightlifter would be boggled if you gave him a heavy rock to lift, instead of the manufactured industrial-looking barbells and weight plates that he is used to. But this is what Putin and competent politicians do all day: they massage expectations, receive questions; under-promise and over-deliver. They plan ahead and comprehend the possible angles of a situation. They do this at a level which is so far beyond what the ordinary person deals with day to day that it might as well be astronomy. I would expect that inordinate amounts of policy papers and strategy session memos have been drafted by Putin—I mean the Putin system—to respond to just this question.
Which raises the question, why does it matter so much to the assembled mass of punditry that Trump and Putin met face-to-face? I understand all the truisms about salesmanship, see-the-white-of-their-eyes, getting to know the other guy. These elements matter. Charisma is a real factor in interpersonal relations. Facing the other party solves many problems. But power works in an odd way. Trump is not actually Trump, and Putin is not actually Putin.
We use shorthand like “Trump” and “Putin.” We say “Obama” did this, that “Corbyn” did this. This is metonymy, the trick of language, where we let one thing stand for many things, like how we use “suit” to refer to “business executive,” or how “The Pentagon” stands for “the military of the United States.”
Obama was not just Obama, but all the people around Obama. “Obama” meant Barack Obama and Michelle Obama and David Axelrod and David Plouffe and Robert Gibbs and Anita Dunn and Steve Hildebrand and Joel Benenson. “Obama” implied Betsy Myers, and it implied Penny Pritzker and Joe Biden as well. And “Obama” was all the staffs that supported these people.
Trump is not just Trump; he is everything associated with Trump and the power of the Presidency. Putin is not just Putin; he is the system of Putin and the oligarchs, and the wide net which extends out from the political heart of Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Power makes these face-to-face flirtations irrelevant. In relations between states, we operate according to systems that were invented in a time when men sailed on ships made from trees. But even then, it was not really the kings who ruled, but the planets in his orbit: his honor the Lord Chancellor and his honor the Secretary of the Rolls and his honor the Lord High Steward. Monarchs and emperors did not usually meet face to face. But their advisors did, ambassadoring and trading favors. Power is not two men in a room, just as marriage is not a single wedding. It is a thosuand small negotiations and understandings conducted over the course of time.
There is a reason these two single men, Trump and Putin, are powerful. They sit atop systems of power, root clumps of influence and money and fame which spread into the Earth. Two pyramids. And though the peaks touch in a single room, the bulk of two masses extends out from Hamburg, and into the world. Trump and Putin have been in contact since Trump was elected. Not because they are in collusion, but because that is how power works. These systems brush against each other, test each other’s boundaries, and reinforce each other. That is the nature of all power, and particularly state power. The story goes beyond two men, and the world is wider than a room.