It’s a funny word, appeasement. It’s the word prominent politicians and pundits are using to describe Donald Trump’s extraordinary decision to side with Vladimir Putin against U.S. intelligence agencies following the two leaders’ private “summit” in Helsinki. But these comparisons to Neville Chamberlain—who famously tried to mollify Adolf Hitler by letting him take parts of Czechoslovakia—are fundamentally misguided.* Chamberlain, at least, was trying to protect his country.
Trump’s lavish praise for Putin—who has repeatedly attacked American democracy—was protective in neither its execution nor its intent. It is now all but confirmed that Russian GRU officials under Putin targeted the 2016 election. American intelligence experts and an American grand jury have concluded that 12 Russian nationals hacked the Democrats prior to the 2016 election and that some Republicans, including some “in regular contact with senior members of the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump,” were in communication with them. There is no doubt that members of Donald Trump’s campaign were extremely interested in precisely this kind of arrangement, including his eldest son, his son-in-law, and his then–campaign manager, who is currently in jail. Trump mentor Roger Stone has, among other things, admitted to communicating with Guccifer 2.0, now known to have been a Russian-backed persona aimed at disrupting American elections. Just hours after Putin and Trump’s joint press conference on Monday, the Department of Justice revealed it had charged a Russian gun-rights activist named Mariia Butina, a woman who tried to arrange a secret 2016 meeting between Trump and Putin, with serving Russian interests to influence the U.S. election. She can now declare both of her missions successful.
Nor has Russia ceased its attacks on the United States: Per Trump’s Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, “the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, in coordination with international partners, have detected Russian government actors targeting government and businesses in the energy, nuclear, water, aviation and critical manufacturing sectors.” He described the threat as “blinking red,” making clear that these efforts aren’t just going to hit during the 2018 midterms, they’re happening now. “These actions are persistent.
They’re pervasive and they are meant to undermine America’s democracy on a daily basis.”
To wit: Trump has been told—by the very men he hired—that the United States has been and is currently under cyberattack by Russia. And his response was to praise Putin, defend his denials, and blame the United States for poor relations between the two countries. That is not appeasement toward another country; it is aggression against your own.
On one level it’s understandable why people have tended to use appeasement to describe Trump’s attitude: It’s readily available as a term for weakness. If you are accustomed to a framework that equates aggression with strength, then Trump’s debasing himself to Putin can easily call to mind the word (and world-historical event) that best describes geopolitically submissive behavior. There’s no question that Trump himself constantly obsesses over who is the “alpha” in international relations, which makes his abject behavior with Putin all the more remarkable. But you can’t appease someone if you’re both on the same side—as Trump and Putin seem to have demonstrated themselves to be. When Churchill condemned Chamberlain’s “long series of miscalculations, and misjudgments of men and facts,” he still admitted that Chamberlain’s “motives have never been impugned.” Trump’s have. And that distinction is crucial to understanding what’s happening. Calling Trump’s behavior appeasement, in other words, pre-emptively grants that Trump is trying to help his country rather than himself, even though those two interests are to his mind plainly opposed. Trump has made his loyalties clear, and they are not to the country he governs.
This should not be surprising. Trump has made no secret of the fact that he operates according to naked self-interest—many of his followers like that he is (I use the term loosely) “a businessman,” that he openly bragged that not paying taxes “makes me smart.” Nor is it news that Trump views America as a resource for his and his associates’ personal enrichment. The only time he spends with its people are when they are customers at his own properties or his fanatical base at rallies. His attitude toward Putin makes sense, then. Russia’s “election meddling” was done to help elect Trump. Trump benefited enormously from those efforts, and he is not in the habit of condemning those who personally benefit him until they stop. Putin—as Coats has been at pain to point out—hasn’t stopped.
Putin may, of course, have some other kind of power over the president, but Trump has consistently sympathized with strongmen over the democratic leaders he ought to see as his peers. He admires the strength that authoritarians draw by taking power from their own people, and so he himself is willingly and actively trading against his country, as its president. This is … unprecedented.
Eighteen months in, we still too easily default to treating this presidency as though basic political assumptions are still intact. It is reasonable to suppose that a president is always acting on his country’s behalf and representing its interests as he understands them. That is not the case with Donald Trump, whose White House has at this point utterly failed to function as a metonym for America. The split between the administration and the country it’s meant to govern is severe and undeniable. Trump’s behavior with Putin was indeed craven: He was nervous and submissive and deferential. But what he did was not appeasement. It was a great deal worse.
Correction, July 17, 2018: This article originally misspelled Czechoslovakia.