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.
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.
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.
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.