It's almost proverbial to say that every bully is a coward at heart. But that's wishful thinking. In politics, many strongmen are like Vladimir Putin: ruthless, cunning and sadistic. As the world witnessed in Helsinki, a posturing blowhard like Donald Trump is simply no match for the Russian dictator.
Faced with a real thug, the trust-fund poser cowered.
Thankfully, Putin is also a bloody-minded realist. Because the disgraceful spectacle of Trump belittling America's NATO allies, lying about it, and then cringing before the Russian dictator might otherwise tempt him to do something reckless. If the U.S. president is weak, the Western democracies are still far stronger than Russia. But events are definitely moving in Putin's direction.
Breaking up NATO and the European Union has been the goal of Russian foreign policy as long as those alliances have existed. Trump has done everything he can to help. If he's ever done one single thing to make Putin unhappy, it'd be hard to say what it was.
Protesters in London took pains to say they marched not because they dislike America, but because they love it. Trump's visit to Britain began with a classic demonstration of his intellectual sloth and dishonesty.
First Trump gave an interview to the Sun — a London tabloid owned, like Fox News, by Rupert Murdoch — trashing Prime Minister Theresa May as weak and stupid. After that backfired, he praised her leadership and denounced the Sun as "fake news." The newspaper then published the entire audio recording of its interview with Trump, proving that its original story was completely accurate.
In the U.S., Trump followers routinely swallow such lies whole. Remember when candidate Trump mocked a disabled New York Times reporter on national TV, and then denied that it ever happened? Disbelieving the plain evidence of one's senses is essential to political cults.
Brits, however, definitely noticed. Polls there show disapproval of Trump at 77 percent, rivaling even Putin himself, whose operatives are believed to have poisoned English citizens with nerve gas. Many thousands marched in London, Glasgow and elsewhere, protesting Trump's visit. A balloon float depicting Trump as an angry, diapered toddler was everywhere.
The Washington Post's invaluable foreign affairs columnist Anne Applebaum worries that "eventually, this dislike may coalesce into a more generalized anti-Americanism."
Such misgivings are common among America's democratic allies. Most would like to think that Trump's presidency is a freakish political accident, but they're beginning to wonder. Asked by CBS News to list American foes, Trump's first choice was "the European Union."
As for the farce in Finland, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) put it succinctly: "Today's press conference in #Helsinki was one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory. The damage inflicted by President Trump's naivete, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate. But it is clear that the summit in Helsinki was a tragic mistake."
Former CIA Director John O. Brennan tweeted: "Donald Trump's press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of 'high crimes & misdemeanors.' It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump's comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???"
Hiding in the face of Trump's high poll numbers among the GOP base is where. Even the normally sycophantic Newt Gingrich, however, said Trump had made "the most serious mistake of his presidency." Other Republicans made similarly cautious noises. Alas, it's safe to say they'll be back on Team Trump within days. Judging by my emails, Trump supporters remain fiercely resistant to reality.
Asked how he could take the Russian dictator's word over his own intelligence director, Dan Coats, Trump said, "I don't see any reason why it would be" Russia. In short, he hasn't read the actual intelligence assessments. That's probably because he can't. The president appears semiliterate at best, unable to parse detailed evidence. So he falls back on bluffing and play-acting.
So now he says he misspoke. Yeah, right. Sure he did.
But why Russia? Why Putin, the head of a gangster state that invades its neighbors, shoots down domestic airliners, murders journalists and political rivals and assassinates people in foreign countries with radiation and nerve gas?
New York's Magazine's Jonathan Chait makes an exhaustive and quite plausible case that Trump's a kind of Manchurian Candidate whose suspect ties with Russia date back to 1987. Given his vanity, his sexual recklessness and his greed, it would be surprising if Russian intelligence hadn't compromised him years ago.
Chait: " 'Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,' said Donald Jr. in 2008. 'We don't rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia,' boasted Eric Trump in 2014."
Case closed? Not yet.
But Putin's clearly got something on Trump. And Trump's obviously terrified that Robert Mueller will find it.