If elected, would Donald Trump be Vladimir Putin’s man in the White House? This should be a ludicrous, outrageous question. After all, he must be a patriot – he even wears hats promising to make America great again.
But we’re talking about a ludicrous, outrageous candidate. And the Trump campaign’s recent behavior has quite a few foreign policy experts wondering just what kind of hold Putin has over the Republican nominee and whether that influence will continue if he wins.
I’m not talking about merely admiring Putin’s performance – being impressed by the de facto dictator’s “strength,” and wanting to emulate his actions. I am, instead, talking about indications that Trump would, in office, actually follow a pro-Putin foreign policy, at the expense of America’s allies and her own self-interest.
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That’s not to deny that Trump does, indeed, admire Putin. On the contrary, he has repeatedly praised the Russian strongman, often in extravagant terms. For example, when Putin published an article attacking American exceptionalism, Trump called it a “masterpiece.”
But admiration for Putinism isn’t unusual in Trump’s party. Well before the Trump candidacy, Putin envy on the right was already widespread.
For one thing, Putin is someone who doesn’t worry about little things like international law when he decides to invade a country. He’s “what you call a leader,” declared Rudy Giuliani after Russia invaded Ukraine.
It’s also clear that the people who gleefully chanted “Lock her up” – not to mention the Trump adviser who called for Hillary Clinton’s execution – find much to admire in the way Putin deals with his political opponents and critics. By the way, while the Secret Service is investigating the comments about executing Clinton, all the Trump campaign had to say was that it “does not agree with those statements.”
And many on the right also seem to have a strange, rather creepy admiration for Putin’s personal style. Rush Limbaugh, for example, declared that while talking to President Barack Obama, “Putin probably had his shirt off practicing tai chi.”
All of this is, or should be, deeply disturbing; what would the news media be saying if major figures in the Democratic Party routinely praised leftist dictators? But what we’re now seeing from Trump and his associates goes beyond emulation and is starting to look like subservience.
First, there was the Ukraine issue – one on which Republican leaders have consistently taken a hard line and criticized Obama for insufficient action, with John McCain, for example, accusing the president of “weakness.” And the GOP platform was going to include a statement reaffirming this line, but it was watered down to blandness on the insistence of Trump representatives.
Then came Trump’s interview with The New York Times, in which, among other things, he declared that even if Russia attacked members of NATO he would come to their aid only if those allies – which we are bound by treaty to defend – had “fulfilled their obligations to us.”
Now, some of this is Trump’s deep ignorance of policy, his apparent inability to understand that you can’t run the U.S. government the way he has run his ramshackle business empire. We know from many reports about his stiffing of vendors, his history of profiting from enterprises even as they go bankrupt, that he sees contracts as suggestions, clear-cut financial obligations as starting points for negotiation. And we know that he sees fiscal policy as no different; he has already talked about renegotiating U.S. debt. So why should we be surprised that he sees diplomatic obligations the same way?
But is there more to the story? Is there some specific channel of influence?
We do know that Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, has worked as a consultant for various dictators and was for years on the payroll of Viktor Yanukovych, the former Ukrainian president and a Putin ally.
And there are reasons to wonder about Trump’s own financial interests. Remember, we know nothing about the true state of his business empire, and he has refused to release his taxes, which might tell us more. We do know that he has substantial if murky involvement with wealthy Russians and Russian businesses. You might say that these are private actors, not the government – but in Putin’s crony-capitalist paradise, this is a meaningless distinction.
At some level, Trump’s motives shouldn’t matter. We should be horrified at the spectacle of a major-party candidate casually suggesting that he might abandon American allies – just as we should be horrified when that same candidate suggests that he might welsh on American financial obligations. But there’s something very strange and disturbing going on here, and it should not be ignored.