Donald Trump went to Moscow in 1987 and loved it. He has since preserved considerable affection for Russia, if not for the Russian Federation’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, then for his successor, Vladimir Putin. Putin has qualities of character that Trump admires: unconstrained power, wealth, and a “manly” cultural traditionalism that bestows legitimacy but imposes no personal responsibilities. Putin, about whom Trump has never had an ill word to say, is doubtless the kind of leader Trump wishes to be.
Beyond this elective affinity, a web of financial and personal ties link Trump and Putin, going back to the Kremlin-connected money that flowed into Trump’s properties in the last 20 years and to Trump’s dream of putting up a tower or two in Moscow, a scheme he was actively pursuing in 2016. Russia stands with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and a handful of other countries as a place for the Trump family to enrich itself. No doubt Trump still has business interests in Russia, and in the case of all these countries the Trump family’s cupidity boils down to the potential for foreign leverage.
A third reason for Trump’s inability to criticize or confront Putin is more hypothetical. Putin served in the KGB, became head of the FSB, the successor to the KGB, in the late 1990s, and has filled his government with men from the intelligence and security services. Trump is notoriously undisciplined and has often been in debt. His campaign had many ties to Russian intelligence, which was working to get Trump elected. Trump is the perfect object of an intelligence operation, and Russia has had every incentive to buy him, to compromise him, or to make him an asset, all scenarios since 2016 that have been a part of mainstream political discourse in the United States. This shocking explanation of Trump’s attitude toward Putin has not yet been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
The most convincing reason for Trump’s friendliness toward Russia is therefore to be found not in Trump’s sprawling personal life or in the chaotic mess that is his foreign policy but in his domestic political instincts. Trump is not truly wedded to any set of policies or to any one ideology. He does not care about foreign countries as such: Each is merely an end to his personal and political objectives. But Trump does care about the home front, the basis of his power and wealth. In the sphere of psychology and culture—in the sphere of American politics, that is—Trump is a formidable figure, fully capable of grievous mistakes yet imbued with genuine cunning.
A tangle of storylines, “Russia” has been of value to Trump. This is because “Russia” has served tangible interests, and may in fact be a catalyst, should he pull it off, of Trump’s reelection this November.
Trump knows the political terrain on which he has an advantage. It is the media-driven world of gossip, rumor, half-truths, and conspiracy theories—addled, agitated, perfervid, fueled by exaggeration. (Trump built his real estate career and initial celebrity status on the shrewd manipulation of tabloid journalism.) Prior to 2016, the transformation of politics into entertainment, the 24-hour news cycle, and the hunger for scandal were realities of American life. They were still on the margins, though. Trump has devoted himself to making them the warp and woof of American politics, and not simply because this suits him personally. In his world, conventional politicians cannot compete. They are too dull, too constrained, and too harshly defined by reality.
“Russia” has thus been perfect for Trump. The Mueller Report did not take Trump down, which may reflect undue caution on Robert Mueller’s part, the machinations of Attorney General Bill Barr, or real evidence that has remained hidden from view. Only time will tell. But too often Russiagate was a narrative of Trump’s demise in search of a factual foundation. Too often the hunt for a conspiracy involving Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos, and countless others augmented the conspiratorial mindset, and what the historian Richard Hofstadter called the “paranoid style,” on the left. This has redounded to Trump’s tactical advantage, because he is the practitioner of the paranoid style par excellence and the conspiracy-theorist-in-chief. The drier, the more fact-driven, and the more balanced American politics is, the worse for Trump. “Russia” helps him to be where he wants to be, and to keep his adversaries where he wants them to be—angry, disoriented, and trapped in responding to his limitless capacity for engendering scandal.
“Russia” has one final attraction for Trump. An overall climate of distrust and confusion delegitimizes the entire system of constitutional government. Most likely not a reader of Franz Kafka, Trump has nonetheless internalized an understanding of politics that is robustly Kafkaesque. It is his own behavior—asking Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails on the campaign trail, condemning the U.S. intelligence community during a 2017 press conference with Putin in Helsinki, having Rudy Giuliani dish dirt on Biden that was very likely fabricated by Russian intelligence—that has rightly inspired suspicion. Though he condemns those who suspect him, he also lets the suspicion itself float free and expand, “confirming” Trump’s frequent accusations that the system is rigged. It is the theater of the absurd, darkly comic in the Kafka vein, and an obvious jumble of contradictions. Yet each day he is President, the constitutional system of government gets weaker and weaker. Should “Russia” not be enough for Trump to win this November, his chief asset will be the system’s relative weakness, not just institutionally but in the court of public opinion. His appearance of guilt diminishes the general prospects for innocence or, rather, for legality.
Trump’s genuflecting to Putin goes far beyond previous examples of cultivating dictators. The Cold War and the War on Terror pushed American presidents to embrace authoritarian regimes from Chile to Argentina and from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia. By the standards of the American national interest, Trump has no strategic reason to praise Putin, and yet he does, rendering the democratic bona fides of American foreign policy not so much hypocritical as obsolete or beside the point. More acutely, though, Trump has exploited U.S.-Russian relations to obfuscate and manipulate domestic American politics and potentially to pave the way to his own version of authoritarian rule. One might recall here how Putin benefitted from the apartment bombings in Russia in 2000, which provoked fear and disorientation. Unscrupulous politicians can profit from crises that betray their own finger prints.
In the presidential election, Democrats and sympathetic Republicans should be critical of Trump’s actual Russia policy. They should propose three initiatives: shoring up the transatlantic relationship, which Trump has damaged; addressing Russia’s use of corruption and disinformation and election interference in the United States and Europe, which the Trump Administration has either abetted or ignored; and encouraging diplomatic engagement with Russia, which Trump has never pursued, despite his frequent calls for a better relationship with Moscow, and which might help to demystify the Russian leviathan.
Additionally, the FBI and the Justice Department still have much to do regarding the Trump family and Russia. If Trump truly is a Russian asset, it would be the greatest scandal in U.S. history; no stone should be left unturned in the investigation of this possibility. If the Russian government has exerted any influence on Trump’s decision-making as President, this would be an impeachable offense for as long as he is in office. It is something that would have to be clarified and litigated when he is no longer in office. These are urgent matters of state. Definitively proving Trump’s dependence on Russia would do much to restore the American body politic to health.
For Democrats, Federalist Paper #1 should establish the relevant polarities on Trump and “Russia.” One can have a government fashioned from “accident and force,” in which panic and fear are endemic, knowledge is tied in knots, and conspiracies are constantly afoot. Or one can have “good government [established] from reflection and choice,” helped along by empirical inquiry, intellectual honesty, and a healthy respect for nuance. Careful reflection would qualify the oversized, horror-movie role “Russia” has come to play in American politics. In turn, keeping Trump and Russia in perspective would encourage the spirit of reflection and the integrity of choices rationally considered and rationally made, preserving these precious goods for a time when Trump is no longer in office.