Trump’s Unrequited Love for Vladimir Putin
When the U.S. president looks at Vladimir Putin, he doesn't see his handler. He sees his dad.
New York Sen. Chuck Schumer said Monday that “the only possible explanation” for U.S. President Donald Trump’s lavish endorsement of Russian President Vladimir Putin at their meeting in Helsinki is “the possibility that President Putin holds damaging information over President Trump.” He’s wrong. The much likelier explanation is that, perhaps for the first time in his life, Donald Trump feels a type of love.
Put yourself in Trump’s place for a moment. If you knew that a sword of Damocles was hanging over your head, would you demonstrate your own guilt with every word and deed? No, you would try to make good your debt to Putin without calling attention to that debt. You would criticize Putin publicly and do his bidding privately. And Putin would bank his winnings with a grim little smile and take the criticism. Instead, Trump has done the exact opposite, fawning over Putin in public while allowing sane people in his administration to protect the United States from its most determined adversary. This does Putin much less good.
It is, of course, altogether possible that Trump believes that he is innocent of a crime or impeachable offense of which he is, in fact, guilty. Since the U.S. president appears to be incapable of recognizing any fault or failure of his own, his own inner conviction tells us much less about actual facts than would be true with a normal person. He may very well have obstructed justice, for example by firing FBI Director James Comey last year, without having any belief that an investigation of his behavior would uncover guilt. Nevertheless, the extraordinary lengths to which he has gone to embrace Putin so obviously point to that guilt that even Trump would act otherwise unless some deep emotional commitment is at work.
That commitment, of course, predates any meeting with Putin. Trump has been bragging about his (apparently nonexistent) relationship with Putin since at least 2013, when he held the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow. During the 2016 presidential campaign, he basked in Putin’s praise in front of the hosts of Morning Joe, and added, “He’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader. Unlike what we have in this country.” This behavior was so strange as to require a special accounting. Trump’s most notable political gift, after all, was divining his audience’s primal fears and wishes and putting them into words; yet at the time, his base regarded Putin as a monster. (The base has come around on Russia after two years of Trumpeting.) Trump ruthlessly discarded anything that didn’t get traction on the campaign trail — except his bromance with Putin. Even then, long before the Russian influence campaign on his behalf began, his behavior could be explained only as a matter of self-interest so overwhelming that he was prepared to risk his political prospects. Or it was, and still is, a matter of actual belief.
During the campaign, a third explanation did in fact occur to me: Trump assumed that he would lose, and he was buttering up a country full of instant billionaires infatuated with gaudy stuff — i.e., future investors. If that was his motive, however, he might have tamped down the rhetoric once he saw that he had a real chance of winning. He didn’t.
We know, of course, that Trump is deeply drawn to dictators of all kinds, including outright maniacs like the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte. That’s no mystery: Trump admires strength, despises weakness, and regards all impediments to the fulfillment of his desires, including the law, as unjust. He ran his company like they run their countries. What’s more, Trump sees his alleged ability to forge a working relationship with the meanest hombres, whether North Korean leader Kim Jong Un or Putin, as the ultimate proof of his own strength. He could do what his predecessors couldn’t because he’s tougher.
Putin is the brightest star in that twinkly constellation. He’s the most powerful of them, because he runs the biggest country with the biggest military. He has the balls to stand up to the United States — and Trump’s respect for cajones greatly exceeds his patriotism. Many of the dictators, like Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, are puritans, with modest wives trailing in the background. Putin, however, is said to have dumped his wife for a gymnast 30 years his junior, which is the kind of move Trump respects. Above all, Putin understands, as Trump does, that a strong man shapes his own reality. Many of the American people stubbornly refuse to believe what Donald Trump wants them to believe. He’s dogged by “fake news.” Putin is not: The Kremlin writes the news, and the Russian people absorb it. He’s a leader, as Trump told Joe Scarborough.
All that is, at some level, rational, if repellent. But when a person behaves as recklessly as Trump has, you look either for secret explanations — Putin has something on him — or irrational ones. It may be, for example, that Trump so resents criticism that he has embraced, rather than repudiated, the object of critique. I prefer to think that he is besotted. The only attribute Trump has ever admired is the toughness required to win a fight; all his life, he looked up to men who had fought and won. That begins with his father, Fred, whom he described to a biographer as a “very difficult” man who “would never let anything go” and whose own highest term of praise was “killer.” (The insignificant role that Trump’s mother, Mary Anne, plays in his own accounts of his life may help explain his radically unbalanced personality.) Trump then transferred his affections to Theodore Dobias, a World War II veteran and brutal drill sergeant at the New York Military Academy. As a young businessman, he attached himself to Roy Cohn, the unscrupulous fixer.
Trump owns everyone, or thinks he does, save the man stronger than himself. That man, today, is Vladimir Putin, who has risen to the top in a world incomparably more brutal than any Trump himself has known. He has taken what he wanted through force and guile. Perhaps Trump really does accept that Putin interfered in the 2016 elections, but what he can’t reveal is that he only admires the Russian leader all the more for his audacity. Trump looks at the leaders of countries he’s told are America’s allies and he sees powerful people meekly submitting to rules. Vladimir Putin laughs at rules. How can Trump not respect, envy, and defer to this man? Perhaps the word “love” has no place in Trump’s emotional vocabulary, at least for people who have not sprung from his loins. But if he could love anyone, would it not be Putin?
Back in the Kremlin, surrounded once again by his sycophants and henchmen, Putin must be shaking with laughter.
[To read the full transcript of the Trump-Putin press conference in Helsinki on Monday—including the bit that the White House edited out from their transcript—click here.]
James Traub is a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.