For those who might be tempted to embrace despair as the weeks roll on with Donald Trump still perched atop Republican presidential primary polls, and the temptation is virtually irresistible, we should be thankful to his candidacy for at least one thing. The celebrity candidate has exposed the would-be authoritarians among us who wrap themselves in the flag, bearing a copy of the Constitution in one hand and a truncheon in the other.
It was perhaps predictable that Trump would react favorably to the dubious praise he was provided by the authoritarian Russian President Vladimir Putin. All one needs to do in order to earn the reality television star’s respect is to flatter his immense ego. The extent to which Trump would embarrass himself in returning the favor, however, and thus prompt his idolatrous followers to rehabilitate the man who represents perhaps the greatest threat to Western security and democratic values, was astonishing.
At his annual marathon press availability, the new Tsar of all the Russias heaped praise upon the American presidential candidate who has distinguished himself among the field of candidates by promising as commander-in-chief to cede territory and operating space to Moscow. “He is a bright and talented person without any doubt,” Putin said, adding that Trump is “an outstanding and talented personality.” The vainglorious presidential frontrunner couldn’t help himself. “It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond,” read a Trump statement. His press release added that the United States and Russia should work together toward “defeating terrorism and restoring world peace” in the brave new world he hopes to midwife.
This mutual admiration would be merely distasteful if it ended there, but it did not. In his near daily appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Trump elaborated on his respect for the autocrat in the Kremlin. Confronted by the Russian leader’s abhorrent human rights record and his penchant for making dissidents disappear, Trump averred “at least he’s a leader!”
“He kills journalists that don’t agree with him,” the MSNBC host noted. “I think our country does plenty of killing, also, Joe, so, you know,” Trump shot back. “There’s a lot of stupidity going on in the world right now, Joe. A lot of killing going on. A lot of stupidity.”
You can say that again. When asked if he would condemn Putin’s clear links to the murder of his critics, Trump replied, “Oh sure, absolutely.” You can be forgiven for questioning his sincerity.
None of this is harmless. It is all quite dangerous. Trump’s ardent defenders are today out in force singing the praises of the despot in Moscow, which reveals something quite disturbing about their movement. Responsible political commentators who tortured logic in the effort to reach a comforting explanation for Trump’s rise flattered his adorers by contending that they were merely perturbed over the economic displacement they’ve suffered in the Obama era. His presidency has been a divisive one, they said, and we should not be surprised to witness as a result widespread division. That benefit of the doubt is no longer warranted. Trump backers don’t want a recalibration; they want revenge.
There is no excuse for ignorance. Vladimir Putin has been exacting the kind of retribution against his political opponents that apparently titillates the Trump supporter for over a decade. In Putin’s Russia, reporters at formerly independent news outlets (virtually all of which have now been coopted by the state) have had a habit of disappearing or simply being slaughtered in broad daylight, and their murderers are conspicuously skillful at eluding investigators. The luckiest of dissidents – a label that is frequently applied to foreign nationals as well as citizens of the Federation who threaten the will of the Kremlin – end up imprisoned on fabricated charges and for indefinite periods.
“They have taken authoritarianism to a whole new level,” said Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Europe and Central Asia in January. Not merely journalists but political figures at home and abroad are targeted for premature death. The most famous, only because it was the most brazen, was the shooting of Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov while he walked across the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge within feet of the Kremlin walls. The message was clear: No opponent of Vladimir Putin’s is safe, even within the shadow of Saint Basil’s Cathedral.
Not merely dissidence but divergence — racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual — is criminalized in the New Russia. Putin’s program is one of cultural and racial homogeneity.
Russia is not satisfied to encourage ethnoreligious tensions on the home front. Putin’s Russia operates a cyber information warfare network dedicated to a form of agitprop that would have made Andropov blush. Pro-Kremlin news outlets like RT and Sputnik flood the zone with anti-Western propaganda (just ask the Americans who resigned these outlets in protest). The Kremlin’s army of social media users specifically target and agitate self-identified white nationalists inside the United States, many of whom see Trump’s moment as their moment. It’s not uncommon to encounter “race realists” on social media canonizing Crimean Prosecutor General Natalia Poklonskaya in their avatars. Nicknamed “prosecutie,” the comely young face of Anschluss in occupied Crimea has found an audience of Western fans, many of whom are suspiciously conscious of the threat of “white genocide.”
Too many Trump defenders in the United States care little for Putin’s aggression. They care not for his brazenness in plunging the European continent back into war, his being the first European autocrat to invade and annex territory since Joseph Stalin in 1945, and for his semi-covert war in eastern Ukraine. Just 18 months ago, itchy Russian-trained trigger fingers in the so-called Republic of Donetsk fired a Russian-made surface-to-air missile at a civilian airliner carrying 298 civilians – 243 of whom resided in nations the United States is obliged by treaty to protect.
Nor do they seem to care that Russia is not seeking to avoid conflict with the Atlantic powers but is instead provoking it. Frustrated by the West’s galling refusal to engage Putin in Europe, Moscow has since intervened in a theater in which NATO could not avoid confronting Russia because the alliance’s military assets were already there. Since intervening in Syria on the behalf of the chemical-weapons deploying dictator Bashar al-Assad, Russian warplanes violated NATO-allied Turkish airspace on more than a handful of occasions, harassed U.S. drones, painted Turkish warplanes with missile radar, conducted near-miss passes over U.S. naval assets in the Black Sea and the Pacific, and has focused almost exclusively on striking CIA-provided weapons depots and Western-backed forces in the region. The dangerousness of this game was made clear last month when a Russian warplane was shot down after again invading Turkish airspace. Trump defenders expend so much effort in the willfully self-deceptive attempt to convince themselves that Russia is leading the fight against ISIS in the region, but they can cite only the Kremlin’s duplicitous propaganda networks to support this deceit.
Donald Trump’s myopic self-obsession is not itself malicious, but his signaling to supporters that they have a friend in Moscow is irresponsible in the extreme. Those who do not admire autocracy outright convince themselves of the fiction that Trump the businessman is merely submitting an opening bid in his future relations with Moscow. But America is not a corporation; it is a nation that espouses and promotes values, values that Trump and a disturbing number of his followers do not share. This latest disgrace is an assault on the very American idea, and it must be resisted. The memories of the generation of Americans who fought and died for the freedom of all mankind demand it of us.