Trump and 'The Manchurian Candidate' Are Too Similar for Comfort

In Cold War-era Hollywood, the good guys won. "Trump the Movie" is unlikely to end so well.
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Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey in "The Manchurian Candidate" in 1962.
Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey in "The Manchurian Candidate" in 1962.
Silver Screen Collection via Getty Images

MOSCOW (Project Syndicate) ― Donald Trump’s transition from U.S. President-elect to taking power recalls nothing so much as a forgotten Hollywood genre: the paranoid melodrama. Perhaps the greatest film of this type, “The Manchurian Candidate,” concerns a communist plot to use the brainwashed son of a leading right-wing family to upend the American political system. Given the fondness that Trump and so many of his appointees seem to have for Russian President Vladimir Putin, life may be about to imitate – if not exceed – art.

To be sure, the attraction for Putin that Trump and his picks for secretary of state and national security adviser ― Rex Tillerson and Michael Flynn ― share is not the result of brainwashing, unless you consider the love of money (and of the people who can funnel it to you) a form of brainwashing. Nonetheless, such Kremlinophilia is ― to resurrect a word redolent of Cold War paranoia ― decidedly un-American.

Consider the derision shown by Trump and his posse for Central Intelligence Agency reports that Kremlin-directed hackers intervened in last month’s election to benefit Trump. In typical fashion, Trump let loose a barrage of tweets blasting the CIA as somehow under the thumb of his defeated opponent, Hillary Clinton. His potential nominee for deputy secretary of state, John Bolton, went even further, suggesting that the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, was a “false flag” operation designed to smear an innocent Kremlin.

“Life may be about to imitate art.”

The idea that a U.S. president-elect would take the word of the Kremlin over that of the CIA, and even the most senior members of his own party, is already bizarre and dangerous. But the simultaneous nomination of Tillerson ― the long-time CEO of ExxonMobil, America’s most powerful energy company, which has tens of billions of dollars invested in Russia ― to be America’s top diplomat takes this love affair with a major adversary to a level unprecedented in U.S. history.

For Tillerson, taking Russia’s side against the U.S. is nothing new. Consider the sanctions that the U.S. and Europe imposed on Russia in response to the country’s annexation of Crimea ― a blatantly illegal act ― in 2014. Instead of supporting U.S. policy, Tillerson belittled it. Instead of fully honoring President Barack Obama’s call for ExxonMobil not to send a representative to the annual Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum after the annexation, Tillerson cynically sent the head of one of ExxonMobil’s international operations. And instead of returning the Order of Friendship that he received from Putin months before the invasion of Crimea, Tillerson continues to celebrate his status as a “friend of Vladimir.”

Flynn, like Tillerson, has also been feasting at the Kremlin trough. After being fired by Obama for his incompetent management of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Flynn immediately began to cultivate Russian business contacts. And Putin seems to have been more than happy to see that commercial doors were opened to Flynn. There is a now-infamous photograph of Flynn seated next to Putin at a banquet for Russia Today, the Kremlin-backed cable news network that was a prime source of the slanted and even fake news that inundated the U.S. during the recent election campaign.

“The idea that a U.S. president-elect would take the word of the Kremlin over that of the CIA is bizarre and dangerous.”

As for Trump, statements made by his sons suggest that, if the American public ever got a look at his tax returns and business loans, they would find that he has also been feathering his nest with Kremlin gold for some time. He has undoubtedly taken money from countless Russian oligarchs. In 2008, he unloaded one of his Palm Beach mansions on Dmitry Rybolovlev, a fertilizer oligarch, for $95 million. Sergei Millian, who heads the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce, is said to have facilitated countless investments from Russians into Trump projects. For Trump, no money is too tainted to pocket.

Trump’s adoration of Russia ― or, more accurately, Russian riches ― was apparent well before Americans went to the polls, as was his habit of surrounding himself with like-minded advisers. For months, Trump’s presidential campaign was run by Paul Manafort, a political operative who had worked to secure the disgraced President Viktor Yanukovych’s victory in Ukraine’s 2010 presidential election. Trump severed public ties with Manafort only after Ukraine’s current democratic government revealed documents that hinted at the millions of dollars that Yanukovych had paid Manafort, in cash.

As Trump’s inauguration draws near, Americans must confront three big questions. One, in a sense, is a take on a question that Trump raised about Clinton during the campaign: what happens if the Federal Bureau of Investigation finds evidence of criminal conduct by the president? Or, perhaps more likely in Trump’s case, what happens if the president tries to shut down FBI investigations into his commercial activities involving Russia, or into the actions of cronies like Manafort?

“'Trump the Movie' is unlikely to end well.”

The second question, which the U.S. Senate should ask before confirming Tillerson as secretary of state, concerns the extent of his and ExxonMobil’s financial interests in Russia. The Senate should also probe how closely Tillerson has cooperated with Igor Sechin, the chairman of Rosneft and a notorious ex-KGB operative, particularly in renationalizing much of the Russian oil industry and placing it under Sechin’s personal control. Similar questions should be asked about Flynn but because the national security adviser doesn’t need to be confirmed by the Senate, little can be done about his appointment.

The biggest question of all concerns the American people. Are they really willing to accept a president who denounces men and women who risk their lives to defend the U.S., and who is equally quick to praise and defend Putin and his cronies when their reckless, even criminal, conduct is exposed?

At the end of “The Manchurian Candidate,” another brainwashed character – Frank Sinatra’s Marco – escapes his programming to foil the communist plot. But that was Cold War Hollywood: of course the good guys won. “Trump the Movie” is unlikely to end so well.

© Project Syndicate 2016

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