Nothing better symbolizes 2015’s depressing foreign policy than the bromance between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump.
Trump has been fulsome in his praise for Putin. He refers to the Russian leader as “a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond” that they “would get along very well”. Putin calls Trump “brilliant” and “an outstanding and talented personality.”
What draws these two into a mutual admiration society? What does this say about the state of the world?
For starters, Putin’s show of macho aggressiveness — wrestling, shooting wild animals — no doubt delights the Donald, who constantly extols “strong” men and sees himself as the prime example. Both revel in using vulgarities about their opponents.
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Putin was Time magazine’s runner-up for Man of the Year in 2014 after invading Ukraine and outsmarting NATO. Trump was runner-up, in 2015, for his meteoric rise on a tide of verbal demagoguery.
Each man presents himself as the only one who can save his nation. Each denounces critics, especially in the media. Of course, Putin has more leeway to shut them up. On his watch, the Kremlin seized control of all major media outlets in Russia, while around two dozen Russian journalists were murdered; leading Russian opposition figures have been shot dead or sent to prison.
That Russian repression doesn’t bother Trump, who blithely insists there’s no proof Putin is a killer. The Donald says he “hates” some journalists, although he “would never kill them.” He has egged on supporters who beat up a protester at a rally.
But let’s get to their similarities that are most disturbing. Both men are masters at whipping up xenophobic nationalism based on fear.
Putin uses this tactic to distract domestic attention from his economic failures. Oil prices are sinking in an economy still shamefully dependent on energy exports and massive state corruption continues unchallenged. What better way to distract than to fan fears of Islamist terrorism — and blame it on the United States?
Putin has bigger goals in mind, however, than demagoguery — goals that seem to elude The Donald in his eagerness to identify with a Russian “winner.” Putin senses the fears besetting Western democracies, as technology and globalization gobble up more jobs that pay a middle-class salary. He watches Western publics losing faith in their leaders and in liberal democratic institutions.
The Russian leader sees his chance to promote an alternative model to the system of liberal democracy championed by the United States — an ideology of managed democracy where real power rests in the hands of an authoritarian leader. Of course, he would be the leader of this new global movement. Toward that end, Putin is funding right-wing parties in Europe that are gaining traction by stoking fears of Muslim immigration.
It’s not clear whether Trump fully agrees with Putin’s governing philosophy. Yet the Donald’s suggestion that we “let Russia … get rid of (the Islamic State)” suggests how little he understands his new pal.
In Syria, Putin is less interested in fighting the Islamic State than in replacing America as the region’s lead power. He seeks to cement President Bashar al-Assad in place, even if that means the civil war and the refugee flows will continue.
Indeed, what is most striking about the Trump-Putin bromance, is Trump’s willful blindness. The Donald has succumbed to the temptations that breed political “strongmen” in so much of the world. He watches Putin operate without institutional checks or balances and wishes he could be just like him.
Meantime, Putin smells a compatriot, someone who scorns the niceties of democratic behavior in favor of whipping up the masses. Both know whom to scapegoat: immigrants, terrorists and minorities.
Fortunately, there is a crucial difference. Trump lives in a country where democratic institutions and a free press still function. I don’t believe Trump will get the GOP nomination, or if he does, that the voters will choose him. In the unlikely event he should reach the White House, I believe America’s democratic institutions would be strong enough to check his authoritarian tendencies.
At least, I hope.
However, Trump’s bromance with Putin should serve as a warning that America is not immune to political turbulence. Baby boomers have come to take liberal democracy too much for granted, even as ugly partisan politics shakes it. If Americans grow careless about defending their democracy, Putinism could happen here.