Is Donald Trump carrying Vladimir Putin's baby?
This is not a headline from The National Enquirer (a newspaper that Trump himself has deemed worthy of respect), but if recent chatter on The Daily Beast, Slate, The New York Times, and The Washington Post suggest, there must be some "experts" out there who could assure me that a Trump/Putin lovechild is a clear and present danger.
Buzzfeed reminds us of connections between Trump's advisers and some of the shadier figures in Putin's inner circle. Franklin Foer and Anne Applebaum are (appropriately) distressed about Trump's typically half-baked ideas about NATO and Russia. Ever since Putin's rather ambiguous statements about Trump ("iarkii" ("bright" or "flamboyant") is as much a diss as it is a compliment), commentators can't get enough of the Trump-Putin bromance. Even Paul Krugman (say it ain't so, Paul!) has gotten into the game, calling Trump the "Siberian candidate"). And now Hilary's people are accusing Russia of working with Wikileaks to get Trump elected.
In the words of the Donald: what the hell is going on?
The Trump/Putin axis was the inevitable merger of two popular franchises, like King Kong vs. Godzilla, or Reece's Peanut Butter Cups: Two Bad Tastes that Taste Bad Together. The media are obsessed with both Trump and Putin, so what could be better than imagining their bromance?
Are you Listening, Chuck Tingle?
This is not to say that Trump has not added fuel to the fire, with his repeated expressions of admiration for Putin and his dismissal of concerns about human rights and freedom of the press in Russia, America, and Turkey. Throw in his kinky description of his connection to Russia ("The Russian market is very attracted to me") and the slash fiction practically writes itself.
But if this is slash fiction, it is far less erotic than the classic pairing of Kirk and Spock (though the general physical resemblance is a bit startling). Instead, the thrill here is ideological. Anne Applebaum manages to out-neocon herself by starting her piece with an entire paragraph about Trump as a Manchurian Candidate, before she is sadly forced to admit that "it is not a plot, there is no conspiracy." Here she is following in the footsteps of Franklin Foer, whose headline says it all: "If the Russian president could design a candidate to undermine American interests--and advance his own--he'd look a lot like Donald Trump."
The Trump-Putin connection is clearly supposed to make Trump look bad, but at least for those of us who haven't completely lost our minds, Trump has already covered that ground well enough on his own. But it also reminds me of Andrei Sinyavsky's definition of anti-Semitism as the "alienation of evil": we don't want to admit that we ourselves are responsible for something bad, so we project the guilt onto someone else.
The real problem with the constant Trump/Putin comparisons is that they are profoundly unfair... to Putin.
Certainly, Putin must be responsible for more deaths than Donald Trump (and that is without even accounting for the many murdered journalists and opposition leaders whose trail leads, if not to him personally, than in his direction). He is, after all, a head of state. That seems to be part of the job.
But after loathing Putin for more than fifteen years, after watching in horror as the relatively relaxed approach of his first two terms has been replaced by the increased authoritarianism of his third, I have to say, I'd prefer him to Trump.
Because when the constant comparisons of Putin and Trump betray a profound misunderstanding of Putin, not to mention a gross underestimation of the danger of Trump.
Yes, Putin is an authoritarian strongman who projects a ludicrously macho image. But there is no evidence to suggest anything like the poisonous narcissism of Donald Trump. There is a cult of personality around Putin, but "around" seems to be the operative word. Certainly, we see that he is adored, but, unlike under Stalin, we are not constantly bombarded with images of Putin basking in the adoration of the crowd.
In fact, when Putin first came to power, he seemed like a gray nonentity. (The title of Masha Gessen's Putin biography, The Man without a Face, is particularly apt). Any narcissism Putin may have is likely the result of years of uninterrupted power rather than the precondition for it.
The obsession with Putin as a personality is a Western problem. The media insist on personalizing everything that happens in Russia as the product of Putin's will, as if not a single sparrow could fall to the ground without Putin knowing it. Our preoccupation with Putin is primarily our own projection, our insistence on his personal centrality to an extent that doesn't quite match his own style. Putin is both the creator and product of an entire system; the best thing we could say when invoking "Putin" as an explanation is that it is a shorthand, not a proper name.
Trump is, of course, the opposite: he is, first and foremost, the name Trump, the brand. Trump's ego and narcissism combine with our obsessive attention to make a perfect feedback loop. When we watch the news, we want more Trump. When Trump watches the news, he wants the same.
Calling Dr. Strangelove
Even more important is the fact that Putin is much, much smarter than Trump. Where Trump can only repeat the same generalities and lies over and over again, Putin, perhaps thanks to the Soviet legacy of endless speechifying, and the Russian educational system's emphasis on oral exams rather than written papers, can hold forth for hours while going into incredible detail. This does not make Putin a genius, but it does put him in an entirely different league.
When it comes to demagoguery, however, Trump is clearly the superior. As a narcissist, he relies on the adoration of the masses (24 minutes of applause!), making him an ideal candidate for fascist leadership. Putin certainly flirts with demagoguery, relying more and more on reflexive nationalism since the outbreak of war in Ukraine. But Putin's approach to nationalism and nationalist extremists has always been cautious and pragmatic: he harnesses the sentiment, but pulls back before the situation gets out of control. Putin is not a fascist, because he does not need to be one in order to remain in power.
This is because, despite the increased conservatism and bellicosity of Russian politics, the essence of Putinism has not changed: the people should leave politics to the professionals and mind their own business. Patriotism must be mobilized, but only within set limits, and only for the needs of the moment. What Putinism fears most of all is the uncontrolled masses. Hence the unwritten rule that guides Russian foreign policy: no government anywhere should be overthrown by the people.
Putin and Trump are not twins separated by birth. In many crucial ways, they are opposites. Putin's watchword is stability. Trump's...do I even have to continue this sentence?
I'm terrified of Trump getting his stubby little paws on the launch button. And Putin? He's had his finger on that button for over fifteen years (well, technically, for a few years, it was Medvedev's finger on the button, but Putin had his finger on Medvedev). He hasn't launched a nuke yet.