Nothing better symbolizes the depressing foreign policy year of 2015 than the bromance between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump.
“Bromance,” in case you aren’t up on the latest lingo, means a close but nonsexual relationship between two men. 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” as leaders. For his part, Putin calls Trump “brilliant” and “an outstanding and talented personality.”
What draws these two men into a mutual admiration society, and what does this tell us about the state of the world?
For starters, there’s style – and ego. Putin’s show of macho aggressiveness – wrestling, shooting wild animals, swimming bare-chested – no doubt delights the Donald, who constantly extols “strong” men and sees himself as the prime example. The two men revel in using vulgarities about their opponents.
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 (he made very clear in public that he should have come in first).
Each man presents himself as the only one who can save his nation. Each denounces any 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. For his part, the Donald says he “hates” some journalists, although he “would never kill them.” However, he has egged on supporters who were beating up a protester at a rally.
But let’s get to the heart of the matter, the area where their similarities 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 his public than to fan its fear of Islamist terrorism – and blame that terrorism 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.” The Russian president senses the fears besetting Western democracies, as technology and globalization gobble up more and 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 – parties with an authoritarian bent similar to his.
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 he is in replacing America as the lead power in the region. Toward that end, he seeks to cement President Bashar Assad in place, even if that means the civil war and the refugee flows will continue. Russia planes are hardly bombing the Islamic State at all.
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 in times of chaos. He watches Putin operate without any institutional checks or balances and probably 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 men know exactly whom to scapegoat for every problem: immigrants, terrorists and minorities of color.
Fortunately, there is a crucial difference between Putin and Trump. The latter lives in a country where democratic institutions and a free press still function, despite their problems. 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 still 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 the political turbulence felt elsewhere. Baby boomers born since 1945 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.
Trudy Rubin’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.