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Putin and Trump: The Not-So-Odd Couple

12/27/2015 08:51 pm ET
  • Jonathan Adelman Professor, Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver
NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA via Getty Images

As if the Republican Presidential race wasn't strange enough already, we recently witnessed Russian President Vladimir Putin praising, of all people, Donald Trump. Putin called Trump a brilliant and talented leader who is colorful and "the absolute front-runner in the presidential race." Trump already in an earlier remark said that he would "probably get along very well" with Putin.

At first blush, Putin and Trump seem to be a very odd couple. While Trump was born to great wealth in New York and grew up in democratic capitalist America, Putin was born in a poor working class section of Saint Petersburg and grew up in the Communist Soviet Union. Putin was such an unknown that when he displaced Boris Yeltsin as President of Russia at the end of 1999, many journalists and scholars raced to look at books that might tell them who he was and where he came from. By contrast, Donald Trump was well known to a large segment of the American public before running for President.

Still, they have a good deal in common. Both share a strong dislike for President Obama and want a sea change in American foreign policy. Both are loners who like to be the only man on stage. Both are strong egocentric people whose self-worth, as Angela Merkel once said about Putin, seems to have no bounds. Both love personality cults and see themselves as saving their country from disaster caused by their predecessor (Yeltsin and Obama). Putin and Trump both hate ISIS and Islamic fundamentalism and are willing to take extreme steps to abolish it. And, last but not least, both see themselves as hard-nosed realists who revere the art of the deal.

Neither have any significant political background, but both chose to make a dash for the presidency of their country as their first entry into politics. Putin had a strong secret police background while Trump had a strong business background. Both are pragmatic conservative nationalists seeking to restore significant elements of the lost past as a major priority. Putin and Trump, with their strong political base among less educated and smaller town people, loathe progressives and sophisticated leftists. As national chauvinists, they are flaming Russian and American patriots.

They have some unusual characteristics as well. They are both authoritarians but not dictators. They rely on their silent aides for advice, but never acknowledge them. Both have an unusual relationship with a group whose origins and orientation is quite different than theirs: Jews. Putin, whose relationship with Jews evidently goes back to childhood, has visited Israel twice. Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu has visited Russia at least six times. Putin is the first leader of Russia since Lenin (1917-1924) who is not anti-Semitic. Trump's daughter Ivanka has converted to Judaism after marrying a successful Jewish businessman and many of Trump's business deals involved working with New York Jews.

And, finally both have become mega rich. Trump has between $4-10 billion while Putin is rumored, but not proven, to have amassed large sums of money in his presidency.

Both Trump and Putin are showmen and seemingly macho men of the first order. Both love to stage shows, whether it is Putin's Winter Olympics in the semi-tropical Crimea or Trump's television series. Vladimir Putin loves to publicly practice judo, shoot trapped tigers, play ice hockey, pilot amphibious planes to fight fire fires, play the piano for charity, and fly supersonic heavy bombers for the fun of it all. Donald Trump is famous for owning the Miss Universe, Miss USA and Miss Teen contests, producing and hosting The Apprentice television show and making outrageous comments no one else would dare to make.

In short, these two men, though coming from different worlds, share enough common traits as to make an unusual Odd Couple rarely seen in international politics. Only time will tell if Trump wins the Presidency and they will ever have a chance to create an unusually warm Russian-American relationship. But, in the meantime, it is fun to watch them go through the motions of endorsing a relationship that probably will never become reality.

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