Two Donald Trump supporters were recently photographed at a rally wearing shirts emblazoned with the phrase I’d rather be Russian than a Democrat. To some supporters of President Trump, praising Russia and denigrating Democrats is simply a means of expressing tribal loyalties, or of goading liberals. However, as heated political rhetoric becomes part of the media landscape, such fringe views are becoming more mainstream, displaying an increasing convergence of interests between Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the views of Trump supporters.
While many Americans are concerned that the Trump campaign may have colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 election, Trump’s outright convergence of interests with Putin’s Russia may well prove far more damaging for U.S. interests in the long run. Convergence can be defined as distinct groups doing the same things for different reasons, or as a unity of interests evolving from separate starting points. Both Putin and Trump seek to inject chaos into the U.S. political system. They support an assault on U.S. foreign-policy elites, encourage fringe and radical groups, and envision a United States untethered from traditional allies. They also share a willingness to utilize informal and semi-legal means to achieve their goals. The common interest shown by Russia and the alt-right in exploiting fears surrounding the routine Jade Helm military exercise in Texas in 2015? That’s convergence.
As the Trump T-shirts signify, even collusion can be easy to justify if you view your domestic opponents as the real enemy. But having a U.S. president who shares character deficiencies with the president of Russia is one thing. Becoming the enemy is worse. Trumpism shares a disturbing amount in common with Putinism, including promoting racist hatred of outsiders; the belief that the rich are above the law; the reflexive use of propaganda lies and denial; and the shredding of legal and political norms.
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Trump has been consistent in his support of Russian talking points and his unwillingness to acknowledge the Russian attack on the 2016 election. The United States spends billions on the largest and most effective intelligence apparatus in world history. Submarines; aircraft; land, sea and space sensors; listening posts; satellites; a worldwide network of diplomats, law-enforcement sources and spies combined with the insights of allies, academics, and media experts provide the president and his administration with a clear picture of Russian perfidy. As David Sanger and Matthew Rosenberg recently outlined in The New York Times, Trump has been told the truth and shown the facts over and over, even prior to taking office. As president-elect he was provided multiple streams of well-sourced evidence of Russian interference, including specific e-mails and comments by Putin. Further, the level of detail released to the public in the Justice Department indictments of Russian intelligence officers provides a glimpse of what the intelligence community knows about Russian subversion.
Perhaps more troubling than a president peddling a narrative that he knows to be untrue is that the narrative aligns with that of the Kremlin. Indeed, Trump and Putin are similar in many ways. Both Putin and Trump share a fundamental grievance—they feel looked down upon and disrespected. They distrust experts and the political elite, instead surrounding themselves with cronies chosen for their personal loyalty. In turn, they allow their cronies to get rich as long as they do the boss’s bidding. They create scapegoats and blame others for their troubles. They trade in conspiracy theories and lie without compunction. They insist on loyalty, embrace vengeance, shun outsiders, and exhibit the instincts of gangsters. They are bullies.
Most importantly, both instinctively make everyone around them complicit, creating an informal system of personal obligation and threats. Alena Ledeneva of University College London recently explained the system of unspoken rules, or sistema, in Putin’s Russia to The New Yorker’s Adam Davidson:
Each actor in sistema faces near-constant uncertainty about his status, aware that others could well destroy him. Each actor also knows how to use kompromat to destroy rivals but fears that using such material might provoke an explosive response. While each person in sistema feels near-constant uncertainty, the over-all sistema is remarkably robust.
In some ways, the impulse of Trump and his supporters to view Russia as a natural ally is very American. Every post–Cold War American president has tried to “reset” or reenergize relations. President George W. Bush even peered into Putin’s soul. This week Senator Rand Paul traveled to Moscow seeking to “open lines of communication,” implicitly suggesting that the problem between Russia and the United States is equally shared by both sides and is simply a matter of poor communication.
We’ve even seen it inside the Central Intelligence Agency. The day after 9/11, senior CIA officials charged with fighting terrorism briefed Bush at the White House. They provided a plan to tackle al-Qaeda, explaining that the Russians would be key allies in the fight. The next day, CIA Director George Tenet came to those of us managing the CIA’s Russia program asking for additional material to provide the White House on what assistance to expect from the Russians. Unaware that the topic of Russia came up at the White House, we were dumbfounded. Those of us who had worked on Russian issues for years knew that there was no way the Russians would be real allies. The years that followed proved us right.
Russia’s bloody experience with Islamic terror and its own long war in Afghanistan might suggest it would be a natural ally of the United States and Europe. However, shared goals do not necessarily translate into a common outlook and approach. Russia may be determined to stamp out radical terrorism inside Russia, but it is equally comfortable supporting those terrorist groups at war with the U.S., including the Taliban in Afghanistan and Hezbollah in Syria. Despite the Kremlin’s claims, the Russian military in Syria is not targeting ISIS but is allied with Iran and Hezbollah in an effort to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
A former colleague who was leading the effort to engage Russia in the War on Terror compared the periodic desire to work with the Russians to someone who buys a baboon as a pet, only to be surprised to have his face ripped off. Then, after recovering, he goes out and buys another baboon. “How many times do we have to get our faces ripped off by the Russians before we realize that we have fundamentally different goals?” my colleague asked.
Further, the disconnect between the United States and Russia is not our fault. The basic problem is that Russia is more interested in doing damage to America than helping us solve the terrorism problem. Like many before him, Paul this week promoted the notion that the U.S. and Russia could work together to defeat terrorism. As with all the previous efforts over the past 17 years, the Russians will likely provide nice words but do little. The United States is a bigger enemy than ISIS.
There is also a darker side to the notion that Russia is a natural ally. White nationalists and other right-wing groups are attracted to the belief that Russia represents a socially conservative European nation guided by a Christian, anti-immigrant, and anti-gay agenda. The recent arrest of the Russian activist Maria Butina, who allegedly exploited the appeal of Russia to conservatives, shed some light on this mind-set.
Of course, those who view Russia as a conservative nirvana are mistaken. Traditional conservative values of small government and individual rights find no home in present day Russia. Abortion is still a primary means of birth control, such that Russia has one of the highest rates of abortions among women of child-bearing age in the world. Christian values are protected as long as you belong to the Russian Orthodox church, and gun rights are severely limited. Tyranny is what Russia does best.
More importantly, Putin’s Russia hates us. Putin’s core interests are directly opposed to those of the United States. He has framed himself as the leader of a global anti-U.S. movement. He doesn’t care a whit about Trump, Republicans, or Democrats; he pursues a zero-sum foreign policy, premised on the belief that anything that hurts the U.S. is good for Russia. When Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was recently asked which of the two governments in Libya the Russians would support, he answered, “Whichever one the U.S. is against.” Short of surrendering to Putin’s view of the world, no U.S. administration is likely to meaningfully change Russian behavior.
Putin’s goal is to stoke hyper-partisan fighting, weaken U.S. institutions, split the U.S. from its allies, and have the U.S. pull back from its international obligations. The United States, though, remains a more prosperous and more powerful nation, an advantage built on its commitment to its founding values. The greatest concern for Americans shouldn’t be that Trump may have colluded with Russia; it’s that under his guidance, we may be converging.