Trump imitates Putin, but the U.S. isn't Russia
If Vladimir Putin cared about American public opinion, he'd encourage Donald Trump to make at least a symbolic gesture to prove he's not the Russian strongman's vassal. So far, there's no sign either party to their oddly one-sided alliance feels the need.
Trump's every significant appointment and foreign policy pronouncement has been exactly as the Russians would have it. "The man has very strong control over his country," Trump has said. "He's been a leader far more than our president has been a leader." So what if Putin's leadership skills include having political rivals and troublesome journalists jailed or killed?
For all of his crudity, Trump can be excruciatingly polite.
More telling are Trump's cabinet picks: first, national security adviser Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, a flaky conspiracy theorist who not only gave credence to the delusional "Pizzagate" tale, but has also dined publicly with Putin and done paid gigs on the Kremlin-sponsored "Russia Today" TV network.
Then there's Rex Tillerson, the ExxonMobil CEO who has done billions in business deals with state-dominated Russian oil companies and accepted that country's highest civilian medal from Putin himself.
The Guardian has revealed that "Tillerson was the longtime director of a U.S.-Russian oil firm based in the tax haven of the Bahamas" -- perfectly legal, but unusual behavior in a man nominated as secretary of state. Imagine the caterwauling if Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had done something similar.
Also, did you know that Paul Manafort, the Trump campaign director forced to resign last summer after reportedly taking millions from the Russian puppet government in Ukraine, actually lives in Trump Tower? Did he ever really quit stage-managing the campaign? It's worth wondering if, like the omnipresent Trump children, he remains on the president-elect's private payroll.
Add the skeptical noises that Trump has made about NATO, his seeming indifference to Russian military interventions in Ukraine and its role in the ongoing Syrian slaughter, and it becomes hard to imagine anything Putin might want that Trump's unwilling to give him. It's a good bet President Trump will withdraw U.S. support for NATO economic sanctions imposed after Russia's seizure of Crimea -- a blow to our European allies and a boost to the faltering Russian economy.
What Trump gets out of his "bromance" with Putin is also perfectly clear. His campaign's response to The Washington Post's revelation that CIA and FBI analysts have concluded that Kremlin operatives meddled in the 2016 presidential election on his behalf was a classic of the Trump method.
"These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction," the Trump campaign responded. "The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It's now time to move on and 'Make America Great Again.'"
Almost every significant syllable was a barefaced prevarication. Without rehearsing the history of Vice President Cheney's 2003 bullying of CIA analysts during the run up to the Iraq War (which Trump has also lied about opposing), his election win was one of the least decisive in U.S. history. Besides losing the popular vote by 2.86 million, he won fewer electoral votes than Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan and many others.
And what exactly do Trump voters think they're getting out of the Russian connection? Most simply don't care. They've basically chosen party over country. They dislike Americans who vote Democratic far more than the Russian dictator, a distant figure of seemingly no significance to their lives. Most are too busy gloating and rationalizing Trump's boasts to worry about the Kremlin's armlock on the White House.
But how much money does the House of Trump owe to Russian banks? If the president-elect gets his way, we'll surely never know.
Writing in New York Review, expatriate Russian journalist Masha Gessen analyzes the two men's deep similarities. "Lying is the message," she explains. "It's not just that both Putin and Trump lie, it is that they lie in the same way and for the same purpose: blatantly, to assert power over truth itself."
She examines Putin's brazen 2014 denial of Russian troops in Ukraine. His lies, Gessen argues, "communicated a single message: Putin's power lies in being able to say what he wants, when he wants, regardless of the facts. He is president of his country and king of reality."
Similarly, millions watched Trump and Clinton bicker about Russian meddling during the 2016 presidential debates. "You're the puppet," he pouted, like a third-grader. Now he insists nobody mentioned the subject until Hillary lost.
Trump too, Gessen emphasizes, "was demonstrating his ability to say whatever he wanted about the election, precisely because he had won it."
No doubt. But Americans aren't Russians, with their long history of serfdom and dictatorship. Nor can Trump have his opponents bumped off or imprisoned. As partisan passions cool, skepticism will reawaken.
And then we'll see what happens.
Email Gene Lyons at email@example.com.
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