Can we get past the “we have to understand the discontent that gave rise to Trump” stage of the Republican primary and move on to the “this dangerous buffoon can’t be allowed anywhere near the White House” stage?
I ask because Vladimir Putin just weighed in on the US election and basically endorsed Trump, calling him “a really brilliant and talented person, without any doubt.” But what is really disturbing is that Trump endorsed Putin right back: “It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond.” And Trump went way beyond endorsing Putin. He continued: “I have always felt that Russia and the United States should be able to work well with each other towards defeating terrorism and restoring world peace, not to mention trade and all of the other benefits derived from mutual respect.”
Let that sink in. Putin is an ally and sponsor of Iran, one of the world’s leading sponsors of terrorism. And Putin has already started a couple of different wars, including a smoldering conflict in eastern Ukraine. But Trump just endorsed him as an ally and strategic partner, in a way that even the Obama administration—in all its deluded hopes for a “reset” with Russia—would never have dared to do.
It’s clear that all of the reasons Trump and his supporters admire Putin as a “strong leader” are also the reasons we shouldn’t take his praise for Trump at face value. Putin is a calculating man who knows how to look out for the interests of his regime. (Not Russia’s interests, which he has trashed, but the interests of the corrupt power structure of which Putin is the head.) So Putin is not actually praising Trump because he thinks he would be a good leader. He is praising him because he thinks he is a leader who would be convenient for Putin’s purposes.
Specifically, he sees Trump as his mini-me.
Putin has spent the past few years building up European-style “conservative” movements. In America, the Right has a long tradition—going directly back to the Founding Fathers—of standing for universal ideas about freedom and limited government. In Europe, by contrast, the “far right” is typically the party of mere reactionary traditionalism: the party of nationalism, xenophobia, and longing for a strongman who will, by sheer force of personality, restore the faded glory of the past. As Ben Domenech has pointed out, this is pretty much what the Trump campaign has brought to American politics. So Putin clearly sees Trump as a like-minded figure who will not be a real ideological rival.
Or any kind of rival. If Trump is Putin’s mini-me, the emphasis is on the “mini.” The two men certainly have some similarities in personality and approach. There are the boastful, chest-beating claims of superior manliness—though Trump has, fortunately, shown no inclination to be photographed with his shirt off. Both have a sense of self-aggrandizement and seem to thrive on constant praise and adulation. But Putin has a record of being able to pursue a long-term agenda with fixed intensity, while Trump is mercurial and tends to go off on wild tangents only to abandon them a few days later.
Trump certainly doesn’t come off as the dominant personality in this exchange. Instead, he comes across as the wannabe who is so thrilled that Big Vlad might let him join the International Club of Tough Guys that he’s willing to let Putin direct the course of US policy in the Middle East. I suspect Putin has taken Trump’s measure and realized that, far from being a tough-minded negotiator, he is a shallow personality who can be easily manipulated with a little flattery. And boy did it work.
Of course Putin enjoys the prospect of an American president who is a shallow, preening narcissist with no enduring goals in foreign policy and an obsession with his own celebrity. Because that’s been working really well, from Putin’s perspective, for the past seven years
I still get some people telling me, even in response to this Putin news, that we have to recognize how the fecklessness of the GOP establishment gave rise to Trump as a protest candidate. But we knew that at the beginning of the summer. In fact, there are a lot of us who have been talking about the discontent of the GOP base for a decade or more, so it’s not exactly a revelation. Now that the point has been made and the protest registered, isn’t it time to move on to the next stage, which is to ask whether Trump would be any better, and whether he would really protect American interests as president? Because his bromance with Putin suggests he wouldn’t.
Golda Meir famously said there would be peace in the Middle East when “the Palestinians decide that they love their children more than they hate us.” Similarly, Trump will fade when the Republican base decides that it loves freedom more than it hates “the establishment.” Now would be a good time to make that choice.