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Putin, Trump and the New Normalcy

The one thing Putin and Trump have in common is that they are both genuine conservatives averse to revolutionary policies who seek to normalise conditions in their respective countries.

In politics there are at a fundamental level, three kinds of revolutions:

  1. Those which radically overturn a political system in order to replace it with one based on an ideologically driven antithesis
  2. Those which drive out a group of powerful leaders but essentially maintain the existing power structure
  3. Those which challenge prevailing and generally failed political views and operational methods in order to return the country in question to a more traditional modus operandi of governance.

It is the third form of revolution which Putin has quietly led in Russia and which Donald Trump may well lead in the United States.

To understand this, one can objectively summarise the accomplishments of Vladimir Putin during his period as President and Prime Minister. Putin inherited a country which was experiencing an identity crisis, an economic crisis and a crisis of geo-political positioning.  Whilst Putin and his closest comrades have indeed pulled off what historians might one day call ‘The Russian Miracle’ (though unlike Konrad Adenauer he accomplished it without generous Marshall Plan aid and do so in a country that dwarfs the geographical size of the former West Germany), where Putin’s most profound legacy lies is in helping Russia to solve her post 1991 identity crisis and indeed in doing so he helped solve the economic and geo-political crises of the 1990s.

Putin understands about the Russian character what Nietzsche did. Nietzsche claimed that the virtue of the Russian spirit was found in her slowness, her steadfastness; the ability to be confident in traditions as the rest of the world ripped itself apart in fits of ideological storm and stress with all of the bloodshed this entailed. After all, in the 19th century, Russia and Britain, the two powers who bookend Europe were the only two major countries in the northern hemisphere not to undergo a change in governance at the hands of revolutionaries.   

In this sense, the events of 1917 were aberrational in terms of Russian history up to that point, although in the context of European history of the period, 1917 simply anticipated the violent revolutions and competition of ideologies from the far left to far right which plagued virtually all of Europe after 1918 and would continue to do so till 1945.

This helps to understand why Leonid Brezhnev remains the most popular Soviet leader amongst the population of the Russian Federation at the present time. Brezhnev may have led the Communist Party but far from the radicalism of the early Soviet period, Brezhnev emphasised stability over drastic change, gradual improvements in living standards over obtuse schemes and an enhanced standing of Soviet power in the world over the provocative remarks  associated with his predecessor, Khrushchev. 

It was under the assured stability of Brezhnev (almost comically derided as stagnation by many in Western Europe and America), that Soviet Citizens achieved their highest living standards in history up to that point and that the Soviet Union stood as a superpower which even many hawkish American politicians couldn’t dream of challenging. If hawkish American politicians in the 1960s spoke of peace through strength, it was ironically Brezhnev who accomplished it in the 1970s, making events like the Helsinki accords possible. In this sense too, when at the 24th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Brezhnev talked about a new Soviet Citizen free from the weight of the past, what may have sounded like a rhetorically radical statement was actually one of assured normalcy. It meant that the Russian identity based on a yearning for stability, community values and a loyal patriotism could now comfortably manifest itself amongst the fraternal ethnicities of the Union.

Putin’s actions and indeed his words make it clear that he understands these profound historical and metaphysical truths. Putin has tapped into the fact that contemporary pride in the history and culture of both Imperial and Soviet periods is not incompatible, but rather, it is desirable. This has been combined with an approach to the terror of the 1990s which has been firm yet not vindictive. Russia in the 20th century had far too much political upheaval for the liking of the average person (1905, February and October of 1917, 1991 and 1993).  Putin has made sure to stay clear repeating such tensions, even though frankly he would have been in a strong position to do so in the aftermath of the darkest decade for Russians since the early days of the Great Patriotic War.  This approach has helped Putin to restore and revive the Russian economy, restore Russia’s role as a respected voice on the global stage, bring stability to the North Caucasus, see off aggression against civilians in South Ossetia quickly and with minimal carnage, restore Crimea without a single shot fired and currently helping to bring order to war torn Syria.

How then does this relate to the increasingly likely reality of Donald Trump becoming the President of the United States? Radical interventionists (neo-Trotskyists fighting for neo-liberalism rather than Marxism) have become alarmed by Trump’s skepticism towards NATO, his refusal to endorse the funding and arming of fascistic groups in Europe and his proclamation that it would be better to work with rather than against Russia in trying to bring peace to Syria and the wider middle east. The surreal implication is that Trump and Putin have behind closed doors, conspired to bring the world to the brink of peace.

The only real connection between the two men is a fundamental understanding that a country, in order to be prosperous and safe, must return to its traditional method of conducting itself both globally and internally.  Trump also seems to realise the dangers of a ‘one size fits all’ ideology as articulated by Tony Blair in Chicago in 1999 when he claimed his country and the United States had a mission to bring a specific kind of neo-liberal government to places where it does not exist. This approach if applied to the human body would suggest proscribing cancer drugs to a patient suffering from heart failure simply because one has come to the view that cancer is a bad condition and that the particular drug in question is effective.

To understand the real political parallel to Trump one needn’t look to Putin but to former US Senator Robert Taft. Taft who never fulfilled his ambition to become President,  had a traditional view of America’s role in the world. He was opposed to foreign wars, opposed to NATO and opposed to the policy of every President since Truman that the United States is somehow directly threatened by the events of sovereign countries on the other side of the world. Taft whilst known as a quintessential pre-Cold War American conservative was ironically once accused of being sympathetic to socialism because he was not wedded to ideological conservatism (itself a kind of contradiction in language) but rather was conservative by temperament. This can be compared with Putin who does not categorically reject any specific solution to a crises based on dogmatic ideology.

In this sense Trump isn’t new, but he is a new normal. People in countries like the United States but also Britain and France have grown weary of a Bourbon attitude to war. The coffers are empty and un-winnable wars continue unabated and that’s before one makes an emotional appeal based on the deaths of innocent civilians and soldiers fighting wars with no meaning, no real goal and no end in sight. One can look to another example from American history to explain Trump. The often forgotten President Warren G. Harding. After the First World War, he called for a ‘return to normalcy’, likewise in Britain the equally forgotten Andrew Bonar Law set himself out against the radical policies pursued by the war time government of David Lloyd George.

This is what Trump represents, not radicalism but conservatism in its truest sense, a return to calm after a storm. His policies are amongst the most moderate in recent history. He is anti-interventionist, opposed to the apparatuses that should have been forgotten after the Cold War and his fiscal policies could easily be confused with those of a pre-Goldwater East Coast Republican.

This is what so frightens an establishment who have built  careers thinking that the neo-Liberalism of the Blairs and Clintons would be here to stay. The truth now is that history is against them. Ironically Trump isn’t anti-establishment per se, he is opposed to the current establishment. He is not calling for revaluation but for a re-establishment.   As The Who song goes, ‘meet the new boss same as the old boss’…the old boss did seem more sensible after all.

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