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Trump Is Not Putin’s Puppet

There's a better explanation for his fondness for the Russian president.

Chris McGrath/Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s seven-day swing through Europe last week, which concluded on Monday with his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, was clarifying. But not in the way many critics think. 

While Trump’s latest trip abroad provided some important insights into his worldview and ideology, which has long stumped observers, for many it simply confirmed once and for all that he is Putin’s puppet. Charles Blow, the New York Times columnist, wrote that “Trump is a traitor and may well be treasonous,” a sentiment that other Trump critics appeared to share. “Dear Allies - Call on Trump to resign,” MSNBC contributor Scott Dworkin tweeted. “The world can’t afford to have Putin’s puppet acting as if he’s president.” Even Hillary Clinton chimed in: “Question for President Trump as he meets Putin: Do you know which team you play for?”

These and other critics couldn’t think of any other explanation for Trump’s behavior over the past week. (Last week, in a New York magazine cover story, Jonathan Chait floated a theory that Trump has been a Russian asset since 1987.) But there’s a more plausible explanation. Trump sees himself in—and aspires to be—the Russian president, not just as a nationalistic authoritarian but a distinguished culture warrior.

To be fair to the critics above, Trump’s behavior was indeed troubling. During the NATO summit, Trump insulted and alienated leaders of the United States’ closest allies, and it became clear early on that he had no intention of toning down his rhetoric. After declaring that Germany was “captive to Russia,” blasting other members as “delinquent,” and threatening to “go it alone” if other countries didn’t raise their spending, the president held a bizarre press conference on Thursday to declare the summit a success and once again refer to himself as a “stable genius.” The NATO summit was a success in at least one sense: As Alex Ward put it in Vox, the big winner of the summit was Vladimir Putin, who “wants to divide NATO.” 

Halfway through the president’s eurotrip, the Justice Department announced the indictment of 12 Russian nationals for hacking emails associated with the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee (DNC), which all but confirmed the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 election. This indictment made the president’s meeting with Putin all the more controversial, and on Sunday, Trump attracted even more controversy when he said that the “European Union is a foe” to America.

The week concluded with the long-anticipated meeting between Trump and Putin and, in stark contrast to the U.S. president’s behavior earlier in his trip, he was positively chummy with Mr. Putin, who predictably denied interfering in the 2016 election. During their press conference after the meeting, Trump effectively sided with the Russian president against his own justice department, prompting widespread condemnation. Trump’s news conference “was nothing short of treasonous,” tweeted former CIA Director John Brennan, adding that Trump was “wholly in the pocket” of Putin.

This theory that Trump is in the pocket of Putin is still very much a conspiracy theory—just like the claim that the DNC and Clinton campaign emails were the result of an internal leak, not a Russian hack—and like most conspiracy theories it is probably false. The idea that Trump is somehow a traitor who worked for Putin is obviously appealing to those who see Trump and Putin as a dual threat to democracy, and the fact that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 election to help Trump—which the Trump campaign welcomed—makes it all the more believable.

But even after Trump’s scandalous week in Europe, there is still a better explanation for his apparent hostility towards Europe and affection for Putin: Trump and Putin have similar worldviews and political temperaments, and thus see eye to eye on many things. Both are political reactionaries and ultra-nationalists and, though Putin is far more authoritarian, Trump has made it clear that he would rather be a dictator than the leader of a democracy with constitutional restraints on his authority. The American president has a long history of praising authoritarian leaders like Putin and President Xi Jinping of China while disparaging democratically elected leaders as “weak,” so it is not surprising that he would admire the Russian president.  

During his visit to Britain, Trump provided further insight into his worldview when he went on an extended rant about immigration, suggesting that in Europe it was “changing the culture,” and that European leaders “better watch themselves”—in other words, implying that non-Europeans cannot continue so-called “Western civilization.” Putin has made similar claims about Russian culture and civilization, and has been driven by a desire to restore Russia to its past glory, viewing the collapse of the Soviet Union as a “catastrophe” not because he believes in communism (far from it), but because he believes in Russia’s destiny to lead “Eurasia.” As Steven Lee Myers observes in his biography, The New Tsar, Putin does not lament the demise of the Soviet system “but the demise of the historical Russian idea,” emanating from the Slavophile tradition.

During a speech at the Valdai summit in 2013, Putin put forward a reactionary critique of the West similar to the one offered last week by Trump, albeit much more articulate: “We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization. They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual. They are implementing policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan.”

This critique is informed by Putin’s nationalism and anti-liberalism, qualities that Trump shares. Trump does not view the European Union as a foe because he is anti-Europe per se, but because his nationalist worldview conflicts with the international liberal order, which the EU epitomizes. Like right-wing European populists, he is a Eurosceptic who is driven by nativism and a hostility towards “globalism.” For Trump and European reactionaries, globalism represents a threat to traditional values and “Western civilization,” and like Putin, Trump’s reactionary social views shape his view of Europe.

Trump and Putin, then, are friendly because they are allies against liberalism and “globalism.” No doubt Putin is far more politically astute than Trump, and he recognizes that his country will benefit much more from the collapse of the international order than Trump’s country, which helped establish it. But this hardly means Trump is his “puppet.” Peddling such conspiracy theories, or accusing the president of the United States of treason without solid proof, only contributes to the deterioration of democratic norms. The rise of right-wing nationalism around the world demands a serious critique, not a revival of Cold War paranoia.