Donald Trump’s bromance with Vladimir Putin underscores an unsettling truth about the two leaders

Hey buddy, can you hear me?
Hey buddy, can you hear me?
Image: Reuters
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In Feb. 2014, Donald Trump appeared on Fox News to defend Putin from mockery over Russia’s Sochi Olympics, which was a breathtakingly expensive spectacle marred by numerous infrastructural failures.

“They spent all of this money, and I think we should not be knocking them at this point. You know, then we wonder why they don’t like us—and why they’re eating our lunch,” Trump explained. “And I will tell you something: If I’m Putin, I’m not happy about it. And I know for a fact he’s not happy about it. When I went to Russia for the Miss Universe Pageant, he contacted me. And was so nice… I mean, their leaders are, whether you call them smarter, or more cunning, or whatever. But they’re outsmarting us, if you look at Syria or other places. They’re outsmarting us. I really think we should not be knocking that country with all of the money and all of the guts they put into it.”

The future Republican presidential nominee concludes by stating the US should give Russia a pass, because: “[The US is] going to win something important later on, and they won’t be opposed to what we’re doing.” Trump never specifies what exactly this future “win” will be, but it’s an interesting comment in the context of his ascendancy to the GOP candidacy.

While some members of the US media have dismissed attempts to examine Trump’s ties with Russia as “McCarthyism,” Trump’s long-standing public approval of Russia—and Russia’s equally enthusiastic response to Trump—merits scrutiny. Throughout his campaign, Trump has vacillated on nearly every position, with the notable exception of his consistent praise for Putin. The genesis of this relationship is not as important as its consequences. Though Trump’s odds of winning the presidency have decreased, his campaign has empowered white-nationalist movements, many of which embrace Putin. In July, US white-supremacist leader Matthew Heimbach proclaimed, “Putin is the leader, really, of the anti-globalist forces around the world.”

In other words, Trump and Putin are two of a kind: xenophobic, bigoted demagogues with dual histories of corruption, aggression, and celebration of white supremacy repackaged as patriotic nationalism. Their radical American and Russian followers, now linked by the internet, share similar goals and are part of a larger revival of white-supremacist movements happening across the West.

After the USSR collapsed twenty-five years ago, Russia is no longer the center of the communist Soviet Union but rather a hyper-capitalist, authoritarian state. Dominated by oligarchs, modern Russia has retained the worst trappings of the Soviet system—such as mass surveillance and personality cults—while cracking down on political dissidents, gays and lesbians, Muslims, Jews, migrant laborers, and others who do not fit with Putin’s nationalist vision. In other words, he engages in many of the same practices Trump proposes.

Critics of this relationship are therefore not merely reacting to outdated Cold War stereotypes—in fact, many are not even old enough to remember this era. Rather, they are rightfully wary of a mutually beneficial relationship between a Russian dictator and an American demagogue that could ultimately harm citizens of Russia, citizens of the US, and citizens of the many other states most directly affected by this alliance, starting with Ukraine and the Baltic members of NATO.

As for comparisons to McCarthyism, the former senator’s paranoid proclamations and resolution to round up dissenting parties bears more far similarity to Trump’s behavior than to analysts who examine Trump’s Russian connections.

Through Trump has had dealings with Russia going back years—he met with Trump-like, conspiracy-mongering mogul Vladimir Zhirinovsky in 2002 and has pursued business deals in Moscow since the Soviet era—he did not appear to become a popular subject of Russian media until 2014, which was around the time of his Fox interview where he supported Putin’s Sochi disaster.

Trump’s comments, which occurred shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine, went essentially unnoticed by the US press. This makes sense in context: Why would anyone care what the host of The Apprentice thought about Russian geopolitics? But Trump’s comments were covered extensively by Russian media, with outlets praising Trump for encouraging Russia to “breathe freely” and running headlines such as “Donald Trump: ‘Stop picking on Russia.’” Some of these stories ran in Russia Today, the dual-language website whose annual celebration dinner was attended by Trump’s advisor, Michael Flynn, who is a professed fan of the network.

For over a year, the flattering Russian coverage of Trump continued, a trend which baffled Russia experts. “Obama fatigue alone can hardly explain the Kremlin’s haste to heap praise on this eccentric candidate, who despite his unexpectedly high ratings at the early stage of the race, has little chance of becoming the Grand Old Party’s actual nominee, according to no-nonsense US analysts,” wrote Eugene Bai in Russia Direct in Aug. 2015, sorely overestimating the acumen of no-nonsense US analysts.

Russian enthusiasm for Trump still remains somewhat mysterious, though recent reports of Russian connections may help clarify the dynamic. And yet, even with Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort currently under investigation for allegedly taking millions of dollars in Russian money, multiple members of Trump’s team facing scrutiny for their own ties to Russia, and Kremlin officials referring press inquiries to Trump’s son (who admitted to heavy Russian investment in 2008), Trump has firmly denied any connection himself, stating, “I have nothing to do with Russia.”

As shown in the examples above, this statement is patently false. But in Trump’s rewriting of history, his July 27 plea that Russia obtain Hillary Clinton’s emails—“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing”—was simply aspirational. (Or, as he dubiously claimed later, “sarcastic.”) The Wikileaks release of emails from the Democratic National Committee, which were allegedly supplied by a Russian hacker, is supposed to be viewed as simply coincidental as well.

There are numerous troubling layers to the Trump-Russia connection, including the geopolitical consequences should Trump win and follow through on his proposal to pull the US out of NATO, as well as possible legal consequences for Manafort, who may have illegally taken Russian money. (While shocking, Trump’s call for Russia to acquire Clinton’s emails is unlikely to result in criminal charges.)

But the most long-lasting consequence—one which will linger whether Trump wins or not—is the multinational embrace of white supremacy. Much as US white supremacists have embraced Putin, Russian white supremacists have greeted Trump’s rise with approval, creating Russian versions of Trump campaign sites and memes applauding Trump’s cheerleading of Russian imperialism. (“Crimea is yours,” a cartoon Trump proclaims, a play on the Russian slogan, “Crimea is ours.”)

Over the past decade, both the US and Russia have seen a rise in white-supremacist movements, often violent, that target non-white and non-Christian citizens. In Russia, many of these movements are already incorporated into Putin’s base. In the US, these movements have shifted from the fringes to the center due to Trump’s campaign team elevating them, retweeting them, and repositioning their bigoted dogma as GOP gospel.

In the end, Russia may not to need to do much to transform the US: The US and Russia are, in some of their worst ways, already very much alike.