First, there is nostalgia. The sentimental longing for a past that never quite was has always been a central motive of Putin’s politics–he consolidated his power by mongering in nostalgia for the Soviet Union. But Putin’s personal nostalgia is for a time when he was one of the boys on the world’s stage. Back in 2001, then, George W. Bush famously looked Putin in the eye and saw his soul. No one has replicated the feat since, but Donald Trump, it seems, would treasure the opportunity. “I think I would probably get along with him very well,” he said in October. He referred to Putin and himself as “stable mates” because their interviews had been broadcast by “60 Minutes” one after the other.
The two men do share an approach to politics. It is probably best described as principled dumbness. Back then, Russia had just started bombing Syria, and while president Obama appeared to be formulating a response, Trump had his ready: he was fine with Putin bombing Syria–or, it would seem, with bombing any place where Trump isn’t. As he said later, “there is a lot of stupidity going on in the world right now…. A lot of killing.” This was on Friday, when an MSNBC host asked Trump about his position on Putin’s habit of killing journalists and opposition activists. There is a lot of stupidity, that is, and Trump is happy to let Putin have his stupidity outside of America, while Trump has his stupidity inside America.
Which brings us to the second reason Putin loves Trump. The two men do share an approach to politics. It is probably best described as principled dumbness. Both men love making inappropriate jokes–often inappropriate not just in the sense that they are obscene or offensive or both, but in the sense that they are non sequiturs. Putin’s favorite inappropriate joke is, “If grandpa had balls, he’d be grandma.” He has used it to answer questions in public at least twice (remember, Putin doesn’t answer a lot of questions in public). Last year, for example, he used it during a press conference in Milan, when a journalist asked him about the effect of Western sanctions on the Russian economy.
Both men are agents of a revolution of our worst selves. As logical leaps go, this is comparable to a stand-up routine performed by Trump at a rally in Georgia a few weeks ago, where he segued from the size of his rallies to the size of Bernie Sanders’ and then wished that the Democratic contender should “rest in peace” following his hernia operation. In conspiracy-minded Russia, many people believe that Putin is not as stupid as he usually sounds – that it is an act. What would be the point of such an act? It would be to give the finger to the world, snub all politics at once. Getting up on stage, or in the president’s chair, and refusing to even try to understand what all the fuss is about, from ISIL to climate change to democratic elections, is a revolutionary act.
Both men are agents of a revolution of our worst selves, and this is the third reason Putin loves Trump: they share a fundamental world view. Their common planet is rotten to the core, inhabited by corrupt and craven beings most of whom hide their true nature out of cowardice. But both Putin and Trump know that everything and everyone is for sale. Trump has proudly talked about paying off politicians, and even apparently enticing one to attend his wedding. Putin’s entire system of governing is based on payoffs when things are going well and expropriations when things get rough, because, what else is there to the world? The winner takes it all. That is how Trump explained to Bill O’Reilly why America should stay in Iraq “and keep the oil.”
Which gets us to the two men’s fourth shared value: virility. This is where they start sounding like identical twins. At the same Georgia rally, Trump said, “If somebody hits me, I’m going to hit them back so hard. I’m going to hit them back ten times as hard, which is what we should be doing with ISIS.” He could have been quoting Putin, whose entire personal narrative is based on hitting back ten times as hard and then hitting again just when everyone thought it was over. Lately, though, he has advocated hitting first. In addition to hitting first and hard, virility rests on denigrating women. Here, again, the two men say some of the same things, sometimes even about the same women.
Which brings us to the fifth reason Putin loves Trump: he is not Hillary Clinton. The Democratic frontrunner has, famously, said that Putin does not have a soul. According to Putin, she personally inspired the 2011-2012 protests against his rigged elections. Also, she is a woman. A world in which she becomes president of the United States is not just a frightening world and a depressing world for Putin but a world he simply cannot imagine. This gives his love for Trump a slightly desperate, last-chance, it-has-to-be-you quality.