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Russia’s parliament, the State Duma, greeted the news of Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election with applause. The parliamentary ovation will have confirmed the worst fears of his opponents about Russia’s agenda for a Trump presidency. But Russia’s enthusiasm also puts the U.S. president-elect on the spot, as Russians have unrealistic expectations of what a Trump presidency means.
The Russian and American elites have very different takes on Trump. In Russia, it’s not just the Kremlin, the Duma, and ordinary people. A number of educated individuals also sided with the next president of the United States, primarily because of their dislike of Hillary Clinton and their disapproval of her actions during the Arab Spring and the NATO intervention in Libya.
Moreover, many Russians have less of a problem with the comments that are perceived to be racist or denigrating of minorities and just view Trump’s politically incorrect pronouncements as a form of candor. In Russia, a person who shoots from the hip is seen as honest and courageous. Russians don’t put much stock in exercising self-restraint, especially in heart-to-heart conversations. In fact, Russian diplomats and politicians get upset when their interlocutors say the same thing behind closed doors as they do in public, seeing this as an extreme form of cynicism rather than a sign of honesty and integrity. How hypocritical can one be, they say, to keep pretending, even in a private conversation?
Trump has let it be known that he wants to treat foreign policy as a series of business transactions on behalf of America. The concept of foreign policy as a transactional process is much more attractive to Russian politicians than invocations of freedom, equality, and fraternity. And so far they seem unconcerned by the eventuality that America’s gain could mean Russia’s loss in the transaction.
Those Americans who fail to understand Russia’s euphoria over Trump’s victory should realize that his victory looks different from outside their country’s borders than from the inside. A politician like Hillary Clinton who is considered a peace-loving Democrat in the United States may come across as a warmonger to foreign audiences.
For Russians, America the superpower had turned into a version of the Roman Empire from the age of Emperor Augustus: a well-run civilization that is no longer just a republic looking after its own interests but a world power to be feared.
As in Ancient Rome, so in the modern United States, the people elect leaders, worrying mainly about how they will fix domestic problems, but those leaders, thanks to the empire’s might and image in the world, end up deciding the world’s biggest issues.
Backing Trump, the current Russian regime is interested not in the Western elite, which will never be its friend, but in its own domestic public opinion. The Kremlin also looks to developing countries, many of which view Trump just as the Russians do, believing that the West is detached from reality, and Trump is a reality check.
So, by supporting Trump, Putin is making an appeal to those at home and abroad who want to see Russia at the forefront of a struggle against Western hegemony and wish for a better future for all oppressed peoples. Some may even give credit to Putin for making the victory happen.
Of course, there is another Russia, one that unequivocally supports its American intellectual counterparts. This Russia invested a lot of effort in promoting the message of Western democracy in Russia, which Trump is now undermining.
After Trump’s victory, this group now resembles the pious devotees in Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov who expected that the body of the wise elder Father Zosima would be incorruptible, but instead watched with horror as it rapidly decomposed. Some of these Russians still cling to a faith in the Western democratic system, but their beliefs now look badly discredited.
Yet Trump’s victory also makes it hard for those Russians who criticize Western democracy to keep up their harsh critiques. After all, the American people have made the “right” choice in defiance of their elite—a choice moreover that the Russian people are not given the opportunity to make themselves. And that raises the question: if the United States is not going to be the enemy anymore, whom can Russia blame for its failures now?
In the end, no American may be good enough to win the support of all Russians. Russia likes Trump because he is an enemy of their enemy—the current U.S. administration—and that still leaves room for continued anti-American rhetoric and for future conflicts. The problem is set to continue as Trump of necessity makes key appointments from the ranks of the Republican Party, almost none of whom are sympathetic to Russia.
On the other hand, Russia’s political leadership and its spin doctors have grown tired of having to keep up an endless stream of anti-Western hatred. Trump’s victory is a good excuse for them to take a break and pause the overheating propaganda machine.
So much for Russia’s positive feelings about Trump. How come the sentiments are reversed?
Trump’s unexpected pro-Russian statements in the election campaign won him no dividends in the United States. Any American knows that a politician usually has nothing to lose by attacking Russia. After all, ordinary Americans don’t care about the issue, there is no consolidated Russian ethnic vote in the U.S.—as there is for Cubans, Poles, or Greeks—and no large business interests. Praising Russia alienates intellectuals and East European diasporas. Attacking China is much more risky—and again Trump bucked that trend.
There are two basic reasons for Trump’s aberration—one personal and one public. On the personal level, Trump just doesn’t know how to retreat and instead sticks to his guns when under pressure. Getting attacked for praising Putin made him want to praise the Russian leader even more.
On the public level, as many others, Trump saw Putin’s Russia as a country where a charismatic leader derives his power from popular support while curtailing the powers of the elite.
Trump and Putin have very different personalities. Where Trump is beaming and boisterous, Putin is quiet and collected. A Russian charismatic leader in the Byzantine tradition is allowed secrecy and enigma and must be on some level a messenger from heaven. But the two men also have a lot in common. Both are unhappy with the modern global order and the direction it is going. Both dislike domestic and global elites and despise political correctness. Finally, both of them are masters at crossing invisible red lines.
Are these commonalities enough for us to conclude that Trump is an infection inculcated into the American political system from outside, that, as some commentators suggested during the campaign, he was working to Russia’s orders? This supposition does not add up, as if Trump’s campaign was really a Russian intelligence operation, he would not have exposed it by praising Russia so openly.
The theme of Russian interference in the U.S. democratic process was a concern to educated Americans, who consider Putin a threat to world democracy. It was summed up in the Atlantic headline, “It’s Official: Hillary Is Running Against Putin.” But for Trump supporters, this simply was not a big issue.
And the anticipated rapport between Putin and Trump may not work out as predicted. After all, many commentators said that the Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom was inspired or supported by the Russian government. But the post-referendum British government has turned out to be just as harsh on Russia as its predecessor.
There is another dangerous scenario. That is that, emboldened by the victory of its new supposed ally, Moscow will try something risky that it hasn’t done before—but that, as U.S. president, Trump will be forced to respond, and the outcome will be very unpredictable. After all, nothing about Trump has been predictable so far. Putin’s up-and-down relationship with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan presents a cautionary tale here. The men have been best friends—but also underwent a stormy quarrel. Future Russian-U.S. relations in the age of Trump are all too liable to a tempestuous relationship of this sort.
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