“No puppet, no puppet; you’re the puppet,” decried the disturbingly thinned-skinned Donald Trump. It was a typically revengeful response to Hillary Clinton during the last of the 2016 presidential debates. When Trump noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin liked him and not Clinton, she retorted Putin preferred a puppet. Clinton was referencing widely discussed claims that Trump was the intended beneficiary of Russian hacking into Democratic Party emails. Now, more than a month after the election, the putative President-Elect airily dismissed the latest reports about Russian hacking. It has been reported that intelligence agencies had evidence that the Russians had also hacked the Republican Party. But then why were those emails not leaked? There is speculation that they wanted to save them for possible future use against Trump. President Obama had supposedly asked congressional leaders to support a bi-partisan release of the evidence. Yet, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell resisted claiming the evidence was not definitive. He threatened to protest any Obama release as trying to taint Trump’s candidacy. In retrospect, you can see why Trump was sensitive about being called a puppet.
Obama has called for a full investigation, so has a bi-partisan group of senators who belatedly admit to knowing about all this but said nothing until the recent leak. People definitely want to know what the spy agencies knew, but they also want to know why the most powerful people in the government, the President and senators, did not feel they were in a position to alert the voting public. A number of questions come to the fore. Was McConnell’s threat enough to get Obama to back down? Who really has the power here? How does power operate in the current political climate? What does this say about Trump’s impending ascension to what is often called the most powerful office in the land?
I could see Obama being intimidated by McConnell’s threat and genuinely fearful of a public backlash. Nonetheless, McConnell’s protest could also be interpreted itself as a blindly partisan act on behalf of his Party’s candidate at the expense of the integrity of the election system. McConnell was having his partisan strings pulled as much as the other way around. These sorts of conundrums suggest that power is relational; it is not simply something one person uses to dominate another. Instead, any use of power involves invoking, anticipating, and reacting to relationships to others, whether they are other political officials or the public.
Trump’s relationship to power is no different. Trump has been cozying up to the Russians for years, for loans, business opportunities, political connections, and more. But whatever he gained, it also made him indebted to whoever enabled him. He pulled strings that others could pull back. The U.S. government, it has been reported, had been investigating these ties even during the election. The question persists: Who’s the puppet and who is the puppeteer?
Trump’s indebtedness extends far beyond Russia and raises all kinds of red flags about how he is vulnerable to foreign influence. These concerns undoubtedly inform the demand by many that Trump must sell his businesses before he becomes President; but Trump refuses. Trump insists on winning, on not being told what to do. He wants to dominate not be dominated. But his financial indebtedness suggests a more complicated story.
Trump wants to use people, not be used by them. Trump used Chris Christie, Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani, Sarah Palin and others to get to the White House, only to drop them when they were no longer needed. He even told voters at a Michigan victory rally that he did not need their votes anymore. (They had chanted “lock her up” but now Trump’s campaign promise to indict Hillary Clinton was something he’s now conveniently choosing not to pursue). Trump likes to be seen as loyal but he’s not. He uses people for his own gain. But after a certain point, those who have been summarily dismissed can become troublesome enemies. On television, in the Celebrity Apprentice, when Trump says “you’re fired” that’s the end of it; but in real life power operates differently — there, power creates its own resistance.
Trump’s most problematic power play has been with his top advisor Steve Bannon and his white nationalist alt-right followers. Trump has pandered for the support of a large basket of deplorable racists, xenophobes, misogynists and others with less than impeccable principles. In return they have gained entry to the inner sanctum of power to an extent unsurpassed in presidential history. This deplorable situation points again to the relational nature of power. Trump gets to be president, but he is beholden to the worst of the worst the U.S. has to offer. Now, he must use his power, at least to some extent, to placate his base and satisfy their base instincts. While Trump himself may have no principles other than his pathologically narcissistic desire to be seen as great, his presidency risks becoming one that enables and enacts hatred against the groups he demonized in his quest for alt-right votes: Mexican immigrants, Muslim refugees, African-American citizens, women, among others.
Trump’s shallowness makes his acquisition of power all the more volatile. He lacks principles that can discipline how far he will go to placate his base. He is vulnerable to having his strings pulled by the white nationalists as well as the Russians and others. This problem intensifies with his desire to ingratiate himself with the wealthy elites, to whom he has always compared himself. He is stacking his administration with people from Wall Street, which he railed against in his populist appeals. His base will likely push back if they feel they are being dropped in favor of the wealthy. Trump may then feel the need to compensate by going forward with the most retrogressive policies he promised during the campaign.
Trump may be more of a puppet than he realizes. The more he seeks approval, adulation and acclaim as great, rich and powerful, the more others get to pull the domestic and international strings that have got him where he is.