Trump and Putin: Populists of a Feather?

March 2014 address by Vladimir Putin. Kremlin.ru

Putin is taking a gamble on sowing the seeds of populism in the West.

To what extent does the rise of populist forces around the world benefit Russian president Vladimir Putin? Many right-wing and nationalist parties sweeping across Europe have proven more pro-Russian than their mainstream counterparts. They see Putin as an ad hoc ally in their rebellion against the liberal and globalized world order, while Putin sees them as an opportunity.

Contrary to popular belief, the Russian president is no fan of populism. His support for populist parties in Europe and the United States is simply opportunistic: he will seek to bolster their chances, if they can fracture support for mainstream parties that tend to view Russia as a threat and the transatlantic bond as vital for countering it. His support is a pure calculation in order to survive.

Nowhere is the rise of populism more consequential for Russia than in the United States. But will Trump’s populist flair and desire to shake up the Washington establishment benefit Putin in the long run?

Putin and Populism

Despite Putin’s support for antiestablishment forces abroad, he stands as a bulwark against populism at home. For Putin, populism is the “headless chicken” that destroyed the Soviet Union, unleashing unprecedented and uncontrollable political and economic forces for which no one was prepared.

“There is this myth that Putin is a populist,” says Greg Yudin, Professor of Political Philosophy at Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences. “Populist leaders adore connecting with people and can spend hours talking to them. . . . Putin’s regime is the opposite: he famously avoids public politics and refuses to take part in the debates.” Furthermore, populism typically encourages political activism and mobilization among its supporters, whereas Putin’s regime relies on a total lack of mobilization and does not encourage activism.

Putin is also portrayed as a leftist populist and Robin Hood figure, because of his alleged desire to make life better for Russia’s poor. But the facts say the opposite: Russia has staggering inequality, where 7 percent of the population owns 71 percent of the wealth. “Putin built a system that has super rich elites on top who cautiously look down the masses. Their biggest fear is a popular revolt,” concludes Yudin.

Last but not least, populists target the power of elite establishments. In Russia, Putin is the establishment. This February, prominent Russian think tank Minchenko Consulting hosted a two-day seminar for politicians and spin doctors, titled “Elections, Victory and Big Data: Win Like Trump and Putin.” One of the topics was “How to Neutralize the Populist Wave: Strategies of Protection for the ‘Ruling Party.’” This is an indicator that current Russian elites are not applauding the spread of populism. Rather, they are studying it, in case it creeps into Mother Russia.

America’s Populist Moment

Trump differs greatly from Putin on the populism scorecard. Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump identified himself as a man of the people by challenging political elites—even those in his own Republican party. When reflecting on the campaign, Democratic senator Charles Schumer said, “Donald Trump ran as an anti-establishment populist—against both the Democratic and Republican establishments.” His election represented the first time since Andrew Jackson that a populist-leaning candidate has reached the White House.

According to Leon Wieseltier, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, in a recent interview, “Populism maintains a radical preference for direct democracy, and for removing mediating institutions that stand between a leader and his people.” In this sense, Trump’s “I alone can fix it” dogma aligns closely with populist doctrine. Wieseltier adds that Trump’s rhetoric posits a “direct relationship between the people, as if there exists such a uniform entity, and the leader—a relationship is thwarted by all the mediating structures of politics and government.” In other words, the state itself is the obstacle to the people.

Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon is also a clarion voice for populism within the administration. Bannon’s February speech at CPAC, in which he stated Trump’s desire to “deconstruct the administrative state,” echoes the populist disdain for institutions of government.

While there are many examples of President Trump’s populist tendencies, one must look no further than Trump’s inaugural address to find a true populist manifesto. In it Trump exclaimed, “Today we are not transferring power not from one administration to another, or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the people.” “It was a doctrinal definition of populism,” said Wieseltier. This vision however, “starkly contravened the vision of the Founding Fathers, who preferred compromise to unanimity and believed that direct democracy was the same as mob rule. The genius of the Constitution lay precisely in its belief that mediation was the surest path to justice.”           

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