Donald Trump has a problem, perhaps best defined as a tendency to wrap worthy observations in outlandish language, thus undermining his rhetorical force and subjecting him to severe criticism. So far this weakness doesn’t seem to have held him back in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, but it could catch up with him in coming weeks and months.
Take, for example, the recent exchange between Trump and MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough about Russian President Vladimir Putin, who thinks Trump is the cat’s meow of American politics. When Trump welcomed recent praise from Putin, Scarborough said, “Well, it’s also a person who kills journalists, political opponents and invades countries. Obviously that would be a concern, would it not?”
Trump: “He’s running his country and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country.”
Scarborough: “But, again, he kills journalists that don’t agree with him.”
Trump: “Well, I think our country does plenty of killing, also, Joe, you know. There's a lot of stupidity going on in the world now, Joe, a lot of killing, a lot of stupidity.”
When Scarborough suggested that Trump obviously must condemn Putin’s killing of journalists and political opponents, the GOP frontrunner replied, “Oh, sure, absolutely.” It seemed to be a kind of afterthought.
But then he also said Putin’s Russia could be a “great asset” to the United States if the two nations had a better relationship—“a positive force,” particularly in battling ISIS, the bloodthirsty Islamic State that has consolidated territory in Syria and Iraq and is bent on attacking the West whenever possible.
Herewith a post-mortem on that exchange and its aftermath, including the plastering that Trump sustained from establishment thinkers, including former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and former GOP presidential standard-bearer Mitt Romney. There are three areas of interest that deserve inquiry—the question of U.S. relations with Russia; the matter of Putin’s approach to ruling Russia; and the lessons in political discourse posed by the exchange. All were intermingled in the Trump-Scarborough interview.
Suppose Trump had handled the exchange more along the lines of this hypothetical exchange:
Scarborough: “Well, it’s also a person that kills journalists and political opponents, invades countries,” etc.
Trump: “Well, Joe, I don’t have any independent knowledge of Putin actually killing journalists, do you? Everyone in the media says so, but can you confirm it? Marco Rubio accuses Putin point-blank of shooting down the Malaysia Airlines plane over Ukraine, without any evidence at all. Is that responsible? As for invading foreign countries, he has operated strictly within his traditional sphere of influence, just like America did when it invaded Nicaragua, Panama, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Granada. We were trying to protect our national interest in what might be called our near abroad. So I don’t know that this should be disqualifying in terms of dealing with Putin.”
Scarborough might then have noted that, after all, Russian journalists and other Putin opponents have indeed been killed in Russia and abroad. What’s Trump’s explanation for that?
Trump: “Well, Joe, Russia went through a complete humiliation in the 1990s, after its defeat in the Cold War. I’m glad of that defeat. I’m proud of our victory. But Putin is trying to bring Russia back to a place of respect and influence in its crucial Eurasian region. In doing that, he has embraced a political system that combines some economic and cultural freedoms with something approaching a state monopoly on politics. The stakes are huge in Russia right now; people get killed in those situations. It’s certainly not my kind of system; I’m glad we don’t have that here in America. But we have dealt with all kinds of countries in our history with all kinds of governmental systems, and I think our geopolitical interests should take precedence over any ideological purity.”
That would have provided a foundation for Trump’s most intriguing point, which is that Russia perhaps could be a positive force in the world and a possible asset to America if managed with some foreign policy adroitness.
To understand this potential, it’s necessary to understand Putin and his Russia. A good place to start might be a 2012 book (since updated) by Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy of the Brookings Institution, entitled Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin. Elements of their thesis appeared in the January/February 2012 issue of the National Interest. In that piece they explore what they call “two central elements of the Putin persona: his firm conviction that his personal destiny is intertwined with that of his country; and his resolve to fashion the Russian destiny through slow, methodical decision making over a long period of time.”
Certain convictions and traits illuminate these elements. First, he is a statist, in the tradition of Russian history going back far beyond the Soviet era and extending through the 300-year Czarist period. “In the United States,” write Hill and Gaddy, “the state exists to protect the rights of the individual. In Russia, the state is primary. The state stands above the individual, who is subordinate to the state and its interests.” This is almost impossible for many Americans to understand and appreciate, but it is central to understanding Putin and also to understanding the reality that his statist views “have broad resonance in Russia,” as Hill and Gaddy put it.
Another element is the Russian obsession with survival, born of the country’s geopolitical vulnerability to invasion and its history of struggle (often to fend off the multiple invasions it has experienced over the centuries). This bolsters the country’s statist impulse as people there look for a strong government to protect them from the vicissitudes of fate. Write Hill and Gaddy, “The ‘survivalist’ may be the mentality that is the most widespread among Russians of nearly all backgrounds and ages, given the shared experiences of war and privation.”
The authors also explore Putin’s embrace of free market principles. Many Russians were prepared to toss aside these convictions after the disastrous 1990s, when, in the name of free enterprise, the country was essentially auctioned off to well-positioned citizens who got fabulously rich in the process. Putin went after these people—the so-called Oligarchs—while clinging to his view, formulated during the disastrous final Soviet years, that central economic planning could not work. Thus, he emerged, as Hill and Gaddy put it, “as a statist who determines the state’s interests but protects entrepreneurs, gives them a free hand, and only intervenes in businesses’ decisions and operations in extreme cases that appear to threaten state priorities.”
Thus, he forged a classic authoritarian system, preserving the state’s control over politics while opening up other facets of civic and personal life. It was and remains a far cry from the totalitarian Soviet system, with its assault on the country’s traditional religion and cultural heritage, the freezing of artistic expression, and its gulag of dreary prison camps to enforce its total dominance over the private life.
Through this lens it can be seen just how foolhardy it was for the West to push eastward toward the Russian border after the collapse of the Soviet Union, to seek to lure into NATO countries that for centuries had constituted a buffer zone between Western Europe and Orthodox Russia—or, worse, had been part of Russia’s sphere of influence for centuries.
Particularly incendiary was the effort to pull Ukraine, right on the Russian border, out of Russia’s influence zone, where it has resided for nearly four centuries. No self-respecting country could allow that, particularly given that the crucial strategic enclave of Crimea, Russian territory through most of modern history, was part of Ukraine. Russia promptly took back Crimea and extended support to Eastern Ukraine, populated largely by Russian-speaking people with deep Russian sympathies.
The result of all this has been the widespread demonization of Vladimir Putin throughout America, expressed in harsh, dismissive language by journalists, academics and politicians of all stripes and both parties. He’s a killer, they say, a tyrant, a gangster.
And then along comes Donald Trump, a brash, undisciplined developer with no political background or foreign policy sophistication. But somehow he sees what the vast majority of establishment denizens can’t seem to perceive. He says, essentially: There’s something wrong here. Putin seems to be doing what any effective leader would do in the same circumstances. He could easily take Ukraine’s eastern regions militarily and nobody could stop him, but he hasn’t. His proposals for a negotiated settlement have been summarily rejected by the West. He’s true to his allies in the Middle East, such as Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, in sharp contrast to President Obama, who threw over Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for no particular reason. He could become a significant geopolitical counterweight to a rising China, which is emerging as a major U.S. adversary. So, I think I could get along with the guy, and I certainly think it’s worth a try.