Russia past and present, from a historian in Cambridge
On holiday, keen to avoid anything to do with my day job, I came across a copy of The President is Missing, a thriller authored by Bill Clinton and James Patterson. Combining political bloodsport with relentless storytelling, it’s impossible to put down. By the time I discovered that the plot offers perfect evidence for my new book, The Russia Anxiety, I lacked the will to stop reading and accepted, again, that historians seldom get a day off from their historical imaginations.
Portrait from Twitter
I was trapped by the gifts of Clinton and Patterson. Right from the start of their book, America is under attack from an imminent and total threat. Russia is only one of the possible master villains, and this blog will not give the ending away by saying whether it is guilty as charged. But it doesn’t spoil the plot to reveal that while all the possible sources of America’s destruction are external ones, they only become existential threats because of the self-harm committed by national politics. The message is that it needs a better American politics and a wise man in the White House to save the world. The plotting is pure Patterson, but the political vision is vintage Clinton.
Not quite a vision — more a projection. The president is Bill for a new generation. Not William Jefferson Clinton, but Jonathan Lincoln Duncan. The updated Bill is a veteran of the first Gulf War, a survivor of imprisonment and torture. And it’s possible, though not quite clear, that it’s Bill II who is responsible for the Affordable Care Act.
And what about Russia, one of the potential villains in the story? Readers might be terrified at the implications of Clinton’s insider knowledge. But while the 2016 election is one thing, and cyber tensions another, the possibility that Russia might want completely to destroy the United States is a fantasy, an ongoing projection of Democratic anger about the election of Donald Trump. It’s the familiar tendency to magnify Russia, to exaggerate and overestimate it, to see it as aiming at the worst possible outcome — and even to project onto it one’s inner demons.
Scary as all this might be for anyone with an interest in Russia, the book contains a more sobering assumption for the British reader. This is the scene in the book that’s most immediately plausible. When it comes to the greatest danger that America has ever faced, its allies of choice are Germany and Israel. Apart from a stray reference to Winston Churchill, the United Kingdom is irrelevant to the United States in Clinton / Patterson’s world of Russia-danger, imminent apocalypse, and, presumably, Brexit.