Skip to main content

U.S. President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin talk during a photo session at the APEC Summit in Danang, Vietnam November 11, 2017.

JORGE SILVA/Reuters

As events unfold in Helsinki on Monday, remember this: The Trump-Putin relationship is not primarily one of personal friendship or competition, nor an enmity or awkward reconciliation between nations. It is, above all else, a single ideology, Trumpism-Putinism, that is the joint work of both men and their followers. It has been years in the making.

The most effusive praise I heard of Vladimir Putin, after he became a full-scale demagogue following his 2012 reconquest of the presidency, was not on my visits to Russia. I’d spoken to many Putin admirers there over the years, and at one point broke bread with the man himself, but Putin fandom within Russia has always tended toward a characteristically mordant tone: “He is more stable and effective than what came before,” or even, “This is what we deserve.”

It was driving around the United States in 2014 and 2015 that I first heard really enthusiastic admiration of Mr. Putin. Listening to hours of conservative talk radio (as one does), I was startled at the frequency with which some hosts – Hugh Hewitt (“Putin has served his country’s national interest better”) Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly (“a macho man who’s going to do pretty much what he wants”) and their lesser imitators – would enthuse about the Russian President as “a strong leader,” a man who “has done so much for his country” – rants that inevitably ended with “our country needs a Putin.” Their praise would be amplified by a circle of outspokenly pro-Putin Republican guests.

Story continues below advertisement

First NATO, now Britain, next Putin: What Trump’s been up to in Europe so far

Around that time, some U.S. conservatives began to express alarm at the Putin cult emerging within their ranks. As conservative columnist Cathy Young noted in The Weekly Standard, “for well over a decade, there has been a contingent of paleoconservative/libertarian Friends of Vladimir” within the Republican Party.

When Donald Trump declared his candidacy in June, 2015, those figures all got behind him; many are now part of his circle. Mr. Trump devoted much of his 2016 campaign to praising Mr. Putin as a man who had done great things for Russia and with whom he’d have “a good relationship.” From the beginning, even before the beginning, Donald Trump’s unique selling proposition was to be an American iteration of Vladimir Putin.

Mr. Trump’s Putinism did not depend on a fixed or formal relationship with Mr. Putin, or even on agreement on specific issues. Maybe the U.S. President thinks Russia was wrong to invade Ukraine and seize Crimea; maybe he thinks it was an acceptable move (he has said both). Maybe Mr. Putin’s interference in the 2016 election was done specifically to put a like-minded man into power; maybe it was yet another Putin move intended only to sow chaos. What matters is the shared ideology.

Justin Trudeau expressed hope that a message for Russia to become a more 'positive actor' is passed along at the upcoming summit between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. The prime minister spoke Tuesday in Riga, Latvia. The Canadian Press

What is Trumpism-Putinism? It is not the sort of ideology that has a manifesto. They are strongmen, not thinkers. Yet their actions are based on a specific view of the world, and a consistent response to it. The best articulation I’ve heard is from the philosopher Michel Eltchaninoff’s recent book Inside the Mind of Vladimir Putin, which articulates three characteristics of Putinism that also happen to be central to Trumpism.

First, a defence of the past, of “traditional identity,” against what Mr. Putin has called “the excesses of political correctness,” the answer to which is a strong man who will stand up against liberals, feminists, environmentalists, gays and Muslims.

Second, the creation of troubles on the frontiers and borders of the country, and among its alliances and partners, cast as threats to the national identity that can only be “solved” by the leader. The United States had no significant problems at its southern border until Mr. Trump’s actions created them; likewise with Russia’s troubles on its Ukrainian and Georgian borders. “They are constantly trying to sweep us into a corner,” Mr. Putin says of the democratic world. “They’re laughing at us,” Mr. Trump keeps saying, as the two savage their most important alliances and wall their countries off – all for an image of “strength” and personal gain.

Story continues below advertisement

Third, the creation of an authoritarian, explicitly anti-Western bloc. Russia was ready to join NATO and have free trade with the European Union up to about 2004, when Mr. Putin saw an advantage in moving the opposite, “Eurasian” direction. The United States was enjoying the most successful era of multilateralism and international co-operation it had seen, up to the end of 2016. Mr. Trump has been consistent in savaging democratic allies in Europe and the Americas, and broaching no criticism of autocrats and demagogues.

In other words, his meeting with Mr. Putin, whatever comes of it, will be an extension of this common ideology – the event itself, and its circumstances, are pure Trumpism-Putinism.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter