Trump and Putin: the ideological angle

I think my working theory of Trump and the Russians (from June 2017) remains pretty consistent with what we now know. But the part of the story that has been mostly submerged concerns the ideological affinities between Trump and Putin and whether certain shared values have influenced their behavior.

Ideological affinities should not be legally investigated, litigated, or prosecuted. If Bernie Sanders wanted some assistance (other than cash) from European Social Democrats, he would be welcome to it. To view endorsements, exchanges of information, introductions, etc. as illegal campaign contributions would violate free speech rights. In reality, Sanders would be unlikely to seek European help, because American voters wouldn’t like that. But George W. Bush calculated that American voters would appreciate Tony Blair’s support for him. In all such cases, voters should observe, debate, and judge.

Regarding Trump and Putin, voters face two questions. One is whether these men have a real affinity and any kind of significant political alliance–not because that would be prosecutable, but because it would be important to understand and assess. The second question is the nature of their affinity. What values (if any) does it reflect, and what should we make of those values? (I leave aside financial ties, which might still be under investigation in the Southern District of New York and elsewhere. We should leave those matters to investigators with subpoena powers.)

One view would be that Trump and Putin share a white nationalist agenda. Casey Michel reports that “Richard Spencer, the current face (and haircut) of US’s alt-right, believes Russia is the ‘sole white power in the world.’ David Duke, meanwhile, believes Russia holds the ‘key to white survival.’ And as Matthew Heimbach, head of the white nationalist Traditionalist Worker Party, recently said, Russian president Vladimir Putin is the ‘leader of the free world’—one who has helped morph Russia into an ‘axis for nationalists.'”

This belief may not track reality. Stephen F. Cohen emphasizes that Putin “endlessly appeals for harmony in ‘our entire multi-ethnic nation’ with its ‘multi-ethnic culture.'” Those statements are arguably better than anything Trump has uttered about America. Russian nationalism of the Putin variety is probably better explained as a reaction to understandable grievances rather than a form of white supremacy. But the question is not whether Putin is a racist. The question is whether an American white supremacist would see him as an ally. The actual alt-right does, and Trump may have similar instincts. Both of Trump’s wives have been Slavic women, and I strongly suspect that he sees ethnic Russians as part of his own in-group, defined in contrast to Muslims and peoples of color.

Another view (mine, for what it’s worth) would be that Putin exemplifies a global tendency to concentrate power in charismatic macho male leaders who work closely with their security services and local billionaires, and who maintain popularity by demonstrating “strength” versus enemies, foreign and domestic. Then Putin is an example of a category that now covers more than half of the world’s population, starting with India’s Narendra Modi and China’s Xi Jinping. In this context, Trump is a wannabe. He has all the same instincts for crony capitalism, militant policing, resentment of outsiders, etc., but he’s not as smart, and he faces more domestic opposition.

A third view is that the real problem is global capitalism, undergirded by US hegemony. In that view, Putin is not high on the list of villains. In fact, he is a bit of a thorn in the side of US/NATO/EU power. The international partnerships that should evoke the most resistance are those within the G8 or Davos. Instead of being angry when Trump meets Putin privately, we should have objected to the bromance of Barack Obama and James Cameron.

These positions are separated by wide and deep gaps in values and worldviews. Ideally, the American people would consider them all and form a majority view. But I don’t expect this to happen, because it is in no one’s political interest to focus on the ideological questions concerning Trump and Russia. Democrats know that this is not a winning political issue for 2020, even if more people happen to agree than disagree with them about Putin. The issue also threatens inter-party harmony a bit. Republicans have principled reasons to oppose Putin but would then find themselves battling a Republican president on difficult terrain.

Lots of liberals have been hoping that the Trump/Putin relationship was felonious, which would shift the issue from politics to law. I suppose I was hoping that, but with some misgivings. For the record, I also opposed prosecuting Bush Administration figures like Scooter Libby, because I thought that was a way of criminalizing what should have been a political question. In a true democracy, we address even the most serious questions–matters of life and death at a mass scale–through open debate and elections, not by turning them over to lawyers. The end of the Mueller investigation is an opportunity for us to perform our civic responsibilities. Even if political leaders don’t especially want to discuss whether Trump and Putin share a worldview, that is the topic that deserves our attention.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.