The foreign leader who President-elect Donald Trump has done most to befriend and defend, both during the Presidential election and afterwards, is Russian dictator Vladamir Putin. This, like so much of what Trump has done, is unprecedented for a senior American politician. However it’s never been in his short-term interest to do so. Trump has been prepared to associate himself with Putin despite the hostility of the mainstream Republican Party, the American security establishment and the majority of the American people. This indicates that to Trump, this relationship matters, and matters enough to be worth taking a political hit for. In short Trump is allying with Putin not because it makes strategic sense, or is a geopolitical necessity, but because he sees in Putin a kindred spirit who shares his world view. This tells us a great deal, little of it comforting, about Trump’s likely foreign policy and attitude to governing.
Trump’s admiration for Putin goes back a long way. In October 2007 he told CNN’s Larry King that Putin was ‘doing a great job rebuilding the image of Russia and also rebuilding Russia period’. In June 2013, ahead of a ‘Miss Universe Pagent” he organised in Moscow, Trump asked his followers on Twitter whether they thought Putin would be attending, and ‘if so, will he become my new best friend?’ The relationship developed after Trump became a serious contender for the Republican Presidential nomination, blossoming into one of mutual public praise. In December 2015 Putin described Trump as the ‘absolute leader in the Presidential race’ and ‘talented without doubt’. Trump swiftly showed his appreciation, stating that it was ‘a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond’ and later in the month defending Putin from accusations he had murdered political opponents.
During this time evidence that Russia was giving practical assistance to Trump’s campaign mounted. In particular security sources began suggesting that Russia was behind the hacking of internal Democratic National Committee emails, which were subsequently released by Wikileaks. Trump responded not by voicing concerns about a foreign power potentially interfering in the American electoral process, but by calling on Russia to hack and release Hillary Clinton’s emails as well. Even after his election, when it became clear that both the FBI and CIA believed Russia was behind the hacking, with the explicit intention of helping Trump, the President-elect continued to deny Russian involvement. When President Obama responded to the hacking allegations by expelling Russian diplomats, Trump praised Putin for the ‘Great move’ of not responding in kind, stating ‘I always knew he was very smart!’
Trump’s warm relationship with the Russian leader becomes starker still when we compare it to his attitude towards the leaders of a number of America’s closest allies, leaders who clearly adhere to liberal-democratic values. In December 2015 he accused German Chancellor Angela Merkel of ‘ruining Germany’, and Trump went on to tell Piers Morgan that he was unlikely to have a good relationship with then British Prime Minister David Cameron after he criticised Trump’s plan to ban Muslims from entering America. Trump’s rows with American allies show that his warmness towards Putin can’t be attributed to his unusually diplomatic nature, nor to some friendly and personable nature.
Trump’s friendly relationship with Putin has undoubtedly been politically damaging to him, showing how determined he has been to maintain it. It is one of the issues which has most strained his relationship with traditional Republican leaders, and especially the party’s foreign policy hawks. Indeed until recently Trump was virtually the only significant Republican advocating a closer relationship with Putin, whilst most of the party, and especially its right-wing, criticised Obama for being too weak in response to Russian aggression.
Putin is also unpopular amongst the American public, and until quite recently this overwhelmingly included supporters of the Republican Party. Trump has pretty much single-handedly affected a major change in attitudes to Putin amongst Republican support. Until recently he had a met approval amongst Republican voters of -66. Now it’s down to just -10, whilst the proportion of Republicans with a positive view of Trump has increased from 10% in 2014 to 37% this December. What’s clear is that it’s never really been in Trump’s interest to be so friendly towards Putin, showing that he’s done so for reasons of ideological conviction rather than self-interest. Trump’s relationships with the Republican leadership, and the American media and security establishment, have all been damaged by his affection towards Putin. Moreover it remains an unpopular position amongst the public, and despite a dramatic improvement in his ratings even a majority of Republican voters continue to hold negative views of Putin.
Trump has gone out of his way to praise Putin, despite the political damage this has caused him, because they see the world in the same way and share a similar value system. They both, in summary, subscribe to broadly the same ideology. Trump and Putin are both anti-liberal authoritarian nationalists. Both men believe that the culture and power of their respective countries is threatened by a combination of social liberalism and foreign influences (linked in America to immigration and in both countries to Islamic fundamentalism). Both wish to restore their nation to match an era of past-greatness, reflecting some combination of the Russian Empire and the USSR for Putin and the post-WWII period for Trump. In addition Trump and Putin both share an innate authoritarianism, a belief in their own indispensability to their respective nations and a questionable or hostile attitude towards democratic institutions and norms.
Putin and his allies have undermined Russia’s democratic institutions, which were admittedly already weak, to the point where democracy in Russia is clearly no more than a sham. Similarly during the Presidential election campaign Trump attacked or disregarded many of the norms of American democracy. He stated that his opponent should be imprisoned, argued that the election was rigged against him when it appeared he might lose and launched aggressive and continuous attacks on the media. His rhetoric was that of the standard demagogue, and if you change a few key words his speeches could have been delivered by a Latin American strongman or Central Asian dictator.
In summary Trump’s friendly attitude towards Putin isn’t the result of shared interests, or real politic, but because they share similar values. The two men have a very similar understanding of how power works, and how the world ought to be run, and as a result Trump has been prepared to associate himself with Putin despite the political damage this has caused him. This doesn’t necessarily mean Trump and Putin will always get on.
Authoritarian nationalists have a tendency to fall out badly when their interests become incompatible. But it does mean we should be wary of Trump’s intentions and sceptical of his interest in defending liberal-democratic values or America’s constitutional principles. I’ve advise American defenders of democracy to spend the next four years sleeping with one eye open.
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