It’s time to come clean, Donald Trump has a real connection to Russia. This connection is not anything to do with the mythical Russiagate which has been debunked as much as the existence of Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy. Furthermore, it is not a connection to Russia’s history, culture or society.
Donald Trump did not acknowledge the 9th of May on Twitter, nor did he send the Russian President fraternal greetings on Russia day, although many other leaders did including North Korea’s Kim Jung-Un.
Donald Trump likewise has never talked about listening to Tchaikovsky or reading Pushkin. He’s been pictured eating a Mexican style taco bowel and plenty of burgers and fried chicken but has never been seen eating golubtsy or Olivier salad. He drinks Diet Coke, not Kvass.
Donald Trump is thoroughly American and this means that he loves his country but tends to known little about the history of other countries. This is fine, he was not elected to be President of Russia and if he stood in the Russian elections, he would probably have to battle for fourth place with Sergey Mironov, though to be fair he’d probably get more votes than Grigory Yavlinsky at this stage.
Donald Trump’s real connection to Russia is an intellectual curiosity and it generally derives from Trump’s apparent interests in the accomplishments and personal biography of Vladimir Putin.
If for example Dmitry Medvedev or Gennady Zyuganov were the President of Russia, one could imagine Trump having far less engagement and interest. If Vladimir Zhirinovsky was President, one could imagine a very different dynamic, one of engagement but not intrigue, after all Zhirinovsky’s historical genius far surpass that of just about any American politician and yet he has compared his style to that of The Donald. While Trump could learn from Zhirinovsky, he probably wouldn’t be interested in doing so, historical knowledge isn’t the kind of knowledge which intrigues Trump or most Americans.
Trump admires achievement more than intellect and by Trump’s standards, Vladimir Putin is a winner. He literally ‘Made Russia Great Again’ after a disastrous 1990s and an uncertain late 1980s that most Russians rightly view negatively.
Vladimir Putin also shares something else with The Donald, both Putin and Trump are one part elite but one part hardworking everyday people.
As a respected intelligence officer in the Soviet Union, Vladimir Putin could have been justifiably called a member of the Soviet elite. Likewise, as a wealthy businessman who was acquaintances with multiple celebrities and politician figures, Donald Trump was a kind of American elite too.
But Donald Trump was never an effete elite, he prefers burgers to fine dining, he talks like a regular person and made his image one of accessibility rather than that of condescension. He was not the cartoon elite American businessman that The Simpsons’ Mr. Burs represented, nor was Donald Trump ever a globalist billionaire like George Soros. After all, the most American thing about Soros is the paper in his passport and that assumes that American passports aren’t printed in China or Vietnam.
Luckily, the Soviet Union and modern Russia dose not have the snobbish culture of elitism that the west has. Most of Russia’s leading politicians and businessmen talk in a straight forward manner. Effected dialects and accents is not part of the Russian national psyche.
This partly explains why Trump is able to connect with Russian officials whether it be Sergey Lavrov with whom he famously shared a laugh or with Vladimir Putin. By contrast, it seems that Trump has difficulty grasping Chinese officials on a personal level.
Chinese culture dictates that protocol, a very formal way of showing respect and a stratified manner of governmental bureaucracy is very much the norm. It is a norm that Trump has not yet come to grips with which is why his relationship with China often seems condescending–something the Chinese take as an insult.
Ironically, the post-modern, politically correct American way of doing business is becoming increasingly similar to the rigid Chinese bureaucracy minus the intelligence, respect, background of Confucianism and class. Trump by contrast is the archetypal straight-shooting American.
Russian culture is likewise one of the most individualistic cultures in the world, although the Russian idea of individualism is very different than that which exists in the US. American free speech is all about being provocative which has its upsides (erstwhile robust political exchanges) and downsides (men wearing women’s cloths). By contrast, from the Tsarist period straight through to the Soviet days and of course up to the present, Russian individualism meant patriotism, piety and loyalty (to state, family and comrades) but beyond this, Russian’s show a great deal of tolerance for people doing as they please.
Unlike in many European societies, one’s mannerisms, the price of one’s clothes, the style of one’s hair and one’s manner of speech is not held against them in Russia. In Russia, friends can disagree about their world-view and still be friends because the personal and spiritual is ultimately more important to Russians than worldly considerations that modern westerners tend to take far too seriously.
In spite of the myth of Soviet conformity, Russia’s have always ridiculed the system, whatever that system is. Russians are sceptical and scepticism is in many ways incompatible with conformity. At the recent meeting between Chinese and Russian officials and members of the business community in both countries, each Chinese representative bowed to their President to show respect. In Russia this isn’t done, but not wanting Russians to appear less respectful than their Chinese partners, some tried a kind of awkward semi-bow to Putin as if to say, “we respect you as much as the Chinese respect their President, but we’re not particular good at rigid protocol”. Far from being cross, Putin almost certainly saw the well intentioned good-humour of it all. Sergey Lavrov, one of Putin’s most important ministers briskly walked off, clearly the sign of a man whose had 2 days of solid work and in desperate need of a cigarette, but no one would dream of saying Lavrov isn’t respectful, he’s Russian and he’s a regular man with extraordinary ability, nothing less and nothing more.
And hence we get to the other element of Putin’s ‘self-made’ side. While many political leaders who came of age (politically speaking) during the 1990s admitted that it was a hellish time, few would have been so bold as to do something about it and accomplish it without a revolution or other acts of violence. Yetsin, the darling of the west, did use violence to consolidate his power, Putin did not. Instead, Putin peacefully drained Russia’s political and financial swamp and won the trust and later the affection of a Russian public who barely knew his name prior to his rapid rise to political power.
Trump likewise went into politics in a meteoric rise that caught the US mainstream media totally off guard. The truth is that Trump would like to be America’s Putin. He would like to have Putin’s respect and popularity and would like to emulate a legacy of turning a broken society, economy and a state around.
This is the beginning and end of Trump’s Russia connection. It used to be that some on the liberal left would moan about Americans having too little interest in learning from foreign examples. To this day, Bernie Sanders on the self-styled American socialist left says that America should emulate the British National Health Service.
But when Donald Trump stated that he admired Putin’s leadership and strength during the campaign, the seeds were sown in the minds of Trump’s opponents to make more of these remarks than was ever there.
How can it be a bad thing for any foreign leader to admire Putin? Vladimir Putin’s accomplishments as President and Prime Minister of the Russian Federation were history making. If Putin were to retire tomorrow, and far from that he may stand for and win another term in office, people would look back at his legacy and say that he left Russia in a far better condition than that which he inherited in 1999.
Donald Trump likes a winner and he likes an honest man, a man’s man, a doer rather than a frivolous individual. Putin fulfils all these criteria. In this sense Trump’s only Russia connection should be praised. What is a good leader if not someone who makes things better rather than worse. All men interested in leadership ought to study Vladimir Putin, it would frankly make less sense not to do so.