A vacation on Ireland’s west coast should have provided relief from the depressing realities of the U.S. election season.
But it’s hard to escape when every Irishman or woman you meet asks the same question, differing only in the choice of adjective:
“You Americans aren’t really going to elect that awful (or dangerous or bigoted) Donald Trump, are you?”
My reply: “I still believe most Americans have the common sense to grasp that Trump presents the greatest threat to U.S. security and democracy since the end of the Cold War.”
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Anyone who doubts the threat need only observe Trump’s repeated praise for Russia’s Vladimir Putin, which he continued last week. “I’ve already said he is really very much of a leader,” Trump gushed to NBC’s Matt Lauer, “far more than our president has been a leader. The man has very strong control over a country.”
Take a close look at what the Donald finds so appealing about the ruthless Putin, and you see what we could expect from a President Trump.
Since 2000, Putin has systematically dismantled every check and balance that might have limited his power.
Regional governors, once freely elected, are now controlled by the Kremlin. Any serious political opposition at a national level has been crushed.
The dynamic and dedicated democrat Boris Nemtsov was assassinated near the Kremlin’s walls; oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky was sent to a Siberian jail for a decade; anticorruption fighter Alexei Navalny received a suspended prison sentence on trumped-up charges, while his brother was jailed as a hostage.
Trump claims he “doesn’t happen to like the (Russian) system, while praising the ex-KGB colonel who designed it. Perhaps the GOP nominee secretly dreams of the day when he can snap his fingers and muzzle pesky Democrats, while putting Hillary Clinton behind bars on Trumped-up charges.
Ah, but Putin has an 82 percent approval rating, Trump has crowed. Perhaps, if you trust Russian polls. What Trump didn’t mention is how Putin earns his popularity.
It isn’t through improving the Russian economy, which depends primarily on oil and has tanked as oil prices plummeted. Putin’s determination to maintain central state controls has thwarted efforts to diversify Russia’s exports.
Trump should (but doesn’t) pay attention to the means Putin uses to divert Russians’ attention from his economic sins.
First, the Kremlin seized control of all privately owned national television stations (most Russians still get their news from TV). Journalists critical of the regime have been beaten and murdered; the Kremlin, of course, denies any connection and Trump brushes off questions on the subject. That’s no surprise, given Trump’s open hostility to pesky journalists and calls for harsh (but unconstitutional) libel laws.
Yet you’d think the Donald would pause at other steps Putin has taken to distract the Russian public: stirring up Russian xenophobia and nationalism, and blaming all the country’s ills on conspiracies by Russia’s enemies – especially the United States.
Trump’s role model has invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea. Putin is trying to undermine NATO, the European Union, and Western democracy as a system, financing far-right parties in Europe, and an anti-Western information war. The Kremlin launched RT (Russia Today), a satellite network that broadcasts a global stream of ugly stories and conspiracy theories about the evils perpetrated by European countries and the United States.
None of this appears to bother the GOP candidate, who has his own enemies list, and has made clear he’s willing to junk NATO and America’s alliances in Asia.
Trump also seems indifferent to Putin’s anti-democracy efforts, which include hacking efforts to influence the U.S. election in his favor. Indeed, last week the Republican nominee gave an interview to the Kremlin’s mouthpiece, RT, in which he denounced U.S. media as “unbelievably dishonest.” Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, compared this on Twitter to Ronald Reagan “giving interviews to Pravda while campaigning to be our president.”
Which leads me to the most dangerous aspect of Trump’s Putin-ophilia. The GOP candidate appears totally oblivious to how he is letting himself be used.
Putin’s weakened Russia no longer poses the same threat the Soviet Union did during the Cold War. But the Russian strongman seeks to promote an alternative model of “managed democracy” (meaning authoritarianism with democratic trappings). He is working to weaken Western democracies, with money, propaganda and violence at the edges – at a time when those countries are under strain.
Any U.S. leader, when dealing with Russia, must keep Putin’s machinations in mind. Yet Trump is so narcissistic he thinks he can easily outmaneuver Putin. The Donald keeps repeating that Putin called him “brilliant” (a claim Putin says is a mistranslation). “If he says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him,” Trump told Lauer.
In other words, if Putin flatters him, Trump is willing to ignore or even facilitate the Russian leader’s global misbehavior (and domestic crackdowns), even if this undermines U.S. interests.
Here’s the Trump mindset, as South Carolina’s Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham succinctly put it: “Other than destroying every instrument of democracy in his own country, having opposition people killed, dismembering neighbors through military force, and being the benefactor of the butcher of Damascus, (Putin’s) a good guy.”
In Ireland, they joke that Trump is “Putin’s poodle.” Should Trump reach the White House, that line won’t be funny at all.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Readers may email her at email@example.com.