CNN’s military town hall with President Barack Obama, which aired Wednesday night from Fort Lee, Virginia, was that rare news event that teaches and reveals so much without breaking news in a traditional sense. And it could not have come at a more vital moment for the American voter.
The U.S. military is disproportionately conservative compared to the civilian population, and it stands to reason that in the midst of a presidential election in which Donald Trump continually denigrates Obama’s stewardship of the military, skepticism of his presidency within military ranks is high. The CNN audience’s questions, while appropriately respectful of the president, were pointed, aggressive, and at times heart-wrenching.
Obama is nothing if not unflappable, though, and after eight years as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, he displayed a mastery of defense policy and an ability to convey empathy and appreciation without pandering. Asked to explain how the U.S. will respond to “a substantial increase in terror attacks around the world,” he first rebutted the premise: “It’s important to recognize that if you look worldwide, the number of terrorist incidents has not substantially increased.” But he didn’t lose the plot, adding, “The work that this military has done and the work that our law enforcement has done has made us significantly safer today than we were when 9/11 happened.”
Obama comported himself similarly through several such exchanges with service members over the course of an hour, perhaps determined to present a more realistic depiction of the state of the military, American security, and his leadership than the ongoing presidential campaign reflects.
Meanwhile, two nights earlier, Donald Trump lost his composure about 15 minutes into the first presidential debate.
There are many obvious differences between a town hall and a debate. But it’s worth watching the CNN forum beginning to end, and then imagining Trump facing hostile or skeptical questioning for an hour from any disaffected constituency. It is impossible. And the fact that it is impossible explains to a significant degree why political actors who stand to benefit from American instability are happy to help Trump win this election.
In a fascinating exploration of foreign meddling in the U.S. election, Time’s Massimo Calabresi lays out multiple lines of official thinking about why Russian President Vladimir Putin would want to inject himself into the race between Trump and Hillary Clinton. The through line connecting all hypotheses is that authoritarian regimes benefit, domestically and internationally, when democratic ones are weakened or discredited. “More than any attempt to get one candidate or another elected, this [Russian influence operation] is about discrediting the entire idea of a free and fair election,” Dmitri Alperovitch, the co-founder the cybersecurity company CrowdStrike, told Calabresi.
Whether Russian meddling makes you paranoid, or strikes you as evidence of Putin’s weakness, the motivation, in Calabresi’s words, is “the more chaos the better.”
In the face of these efforts to sow chaos, Trump is happily, though perhaps unwittingly, playing along. He routinely suggests that if he loses in November, it will be because the election was stolen from him. Every few weeks he lapses into innuendo about the thought of violence befalling Clinton. He calls treaty obligations into question, and suggests he would ignite wars with hostile powers if confronted with the most childish indignities. When Mexico’s finance minister was forced to resign amid a political firestorm for facilitating a meeting between Trump and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, Trump cited it as evidence of a successful trip.
If you’re wondering why these influence operations all point in one partisan direction—why Russian propaganda networks and data hacks are all tailored to benefit Trump—it may be this:
Trump won’t stop at being the chaos candidate. He’d be a chaos president as well.
Trump’s volatility is so predictable, it can be summoned at will by third parties. Clinton proved this Monday by needling Trump into losing composure in front of a TV audience of nearly 100 million people. She set a trap for him near the end of the debate by surfacing the case of Alicia Machado, the former Miss Universe whom Trump attacked and demeaned 20 years ago for gaining weight. By mentioning her on stage, then introducing her as a campaign surrogate immediately afterward, Clinton lured Trump into spending several days re-litigating all the sexist, racist tropes he’d directed at the Latina beauty pageant winner. Trump is never wrong, always right, and when confronted with any suggestion otherwise, he will sooner self-destruct than admit error.
You may not have to be as composed and error-free as Obama to be president, but you can’t be what Trump is: a useful idiot to anyone trying to sow American instability.