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.