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OP-ED: Not what Putin has on him, but with him

  • Published at 12:44 am December 26th, 2020
trump putin
Photo: REUTERS

What explains Trump’s near sycophancy of Russia?


Even though his fawning cabinet secretaries like Mike Pompeo and Chris Miller have admitted that Russia is behind the largest national security cyberwarfare attack on the United States -- an attack which is not in the past tense, it appears -- President Donald Trump has continued his obeisance to Vladimir Putin by remaining silent for days, then downplaying the intensity of the attack, and finally pivoting to accusing China, his default target for all foreign affairs problems.

The in-depth investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller detailed a troubling collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russian operatives leading up to the 2016 elections where, by all available evidence, Russia’s foreign intelligence services were waging a significant cyber public relations effort on behalf of Trump. There has been equally concerning indications that many of the loans underwritten by certain German and other European banks to the Trump family businesses have been backstopped by banks either directly or circuitously owned by the Russian state. 

More than one report has mentioned that Putin -- a consummate spymaster who once headed the KGB -- has damaging video evidence of Trump’s sexual peccadilloes during the latter’s Moscow busines visits. Chatrooms and online forums populated heavily by Trump supporters are very welcoming of Russophile apologia as any visitor to 4chan, Reddit, Parler or similar nooks of cyberspace.

Mind you, this was the same Republican-conservative coalition that spent 50 years defining itself as the most Cold Warriorish of the Cold Warriors. 

Less than the loans or blackmail-worthy videos, I suspect a more tribal reason is at play with Trump’s fascination with, and near sycophancy to, Russia. With the Cold War, Afghanistan War, and Iraq Wars in the rear-view mirror, the necessity for global, multicultural alliances had diminished in the eyes of many of the paleo conservative whose pressing concern has long been the slowly but steadily changing face of America, which has become more multi-ethnic, multi-religious, gender-equal than their imagined halcyon days of the 1950s when non-whites, women, and gays and lesbian folks “knew their places” in broader American society. 

To further underline the unease of this base, studies have repeatedly shown that an increasing slice of upper and upper-middle income America -- corporate chieftains and physicians and the like -- have joined university professors and trial lawyers as embracing such diversity and crediting it with the success of the very idea of America.

President Trump’s most ardent supporters frame the concept of America and Americanism very differently than the traditional one known and long understood as the consensus holding by generations of scholars going back to the indefatigable Baron de Lafayette, a friend of George Washington and the first major chronicler of American society, mores, and values. 

As a nation built upon waves upon waves of immigrants from many places rather that a primordial blood-and-soil connection in vogue in most nation-states and empires, this conception was a revolutionary one in the 18th century, and continues to be rather unique to this day among the comity of nation-states.

Russia has not, unlike the United States, been an idea-based nation-state. Rather, from times immemorial, it has been ruled by successive autocrats whose appeal to the “fatherland” and “Mother Russia” served as an alternative to the democratic legitimacy that they lacked. 

A nationalism based on a majoritarian culture, language, religiosity, and centralized authority has long defined the Russian sense of self just as pluralism, individual autonomy, and political participation has defined the American one. 

Under perceived pressure over the decades from ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities, it is not surprising that many Americans on one side of the spectrum -- especially those whose lives have been upended by global competition and technological advancement -- have found solace in the Russian framework of nationhood. It is an added bonus that Russia remains a very “white” country, with a deep-seated social, and sometimes legal, disaffection for non-white minorities and migrants.

Regardless of the conventional wisdom, I have long believed that Donald Trump is one of the smartest men ever to run for the presidency of the United States. In tapping into this vibrant vein of a desire to reframe what America means and what it means to be American, he harnessed a powerful undercurrent among working class white voters that propelled him not only to the presidency but to a level of unquestioned adulation rarely seen for modern day American politicians. 

If his fanbase finds such an inspiration in Russian values and mores, it would be foolish for Trump to argue against such a powerful totem, especially when he has nothing to gain by such an argument.

After all, Putin is a very powerful autocrat; and Trump’s recent pronouncements about overturning election results show that his instincts are more Putin than Madison. 

Esam Sohail is a college administrator and writes from Kansas, USA. He can be reached at [email protected]

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