While Donald Trump has established himself as a presidential front-runner, the Russian expert community might soon begin to view him as the American analogue of Vladimir Zhirinovsky rather than the savior of U.S.-Russian relations.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures during a campaign stop at Winnacunnet High School in Hampton, New Hampshire. Photo: AP
The U.S. presidential campaign is attracting keen interest in Russia. However, it seems that Russian experts are often too hasty in their predictions, focusing only on public opinion polls without looking at the inner workings of U.S. policy.
According to Russian Americanists, the controversial billionaire Donald Trump seems to be the only viable candidate in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
“Trump attracts audiences as a renegade and self-promoter,” says Yuri Yudenkov, a lecturer in politics at Moscow State University. “Trump is not a politician, but a public businessman. Trump is all about books, speeches, lectures, and money.”
The only presidential candidate to support Russia?
Yudenkov is very surprised by Trump’s position on Russian policy, which he voiced during the first televised debate for Republican presidential candidates.
“In this great debate Donald Trump was the only one of the ten participants who spoke out in support of Russia,” says the expert. “Trump said that Obama’s policy is wrong, and that he would reach an agreement with Putin. Many spoke out against, many remained silent, but Trump was the only one openly in favor.”
However, Donald Trump has merely reversed his rhetoric. Last year he criticized President Obama for his policy on Ukraine, calling on him to “be a man” and stand up to Vladimir Putin, insisting at the same time on tougher anti-Russian sanctions.
“Putin has shown the world what happens when America has weak leaders. Peace Through Strength!” wrote the billionaire in April last year on his Facebook page.
The statement about an imagined agreement with Putin seems to be just one of many outlandish statements made by Trump. Another is his promise to build a wall on the border with Mexico, since “the United States has become a dumping ground for Mexico,” which is a “tremendous infectious disease” that “is pouring across the border.” He has also made crude remarks about female adversaries, whom the presidential candidate has called “slobs,” “disgusting animals,” and “fat pigs.”
The Russian leadership has repeatedly made it clear that it is sick and tired of Barack Obama and has lost all hope of ever returning to the negotiating table. At the same time the Kremlin has intimated that it would prefer to deal with a Republican president, who would be more predictable and straightforward, Moscow believes.
However, Obama fatigue alone can hardly explain the Kremlin’s haste to heap praise on this eccentric candidate, who despite his unexpectedly high ratings at the early stage of the race, has little chance of becoming the Grand Old Party’s actual nominee, according to no-nonsense U.S. analysts. It would also seem an exaggeration to talk about the New York real estate developer’s excessive influence over Congress.
Trump: The American Zhirinovsky
“Trump is very rich and can seriously alter the balance of power in the Republican primaries. But I don’t think he’s aiming for the presidency, rather the vice-presidency. He knows full well that money can do a lot, but not everything,” says Russian political scientist and Americanist Areg Galstyan.
He does not rule out that if the Republican nomination goes to Jeb Bush or Scott Walker, the winner could ask Trump to share the ticket with him.
“It would add political balance: Trump is a radical, while Bush is considered a moderate,” surmises Galstyan. “Trump has a lot of influence over Congress, and I think that Bush or Walker would want a guy like that in their administration.”
Most U.S. analysts express a diametrically opposite view. Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson writes that after the first debate, “the GOP establishment confidently predicts that the Donald Trump phenomenon is over, done with, finished, kaput.”
Another well-known columnist, George Will, calls Trump a “counterfeit Republican.” “When Trump decided that his next acquisition would be not another casino but the Republican presidential nomination, he tactically and quickly underwent many conversions of convenience (concerning abortion, health care, funding Democrats, etc.). His makeover demonstrates that he is a counterfeit Republican and no conservative,” writes Will.
The rise of Trump has become a kind of aberration in U.S. public opinion — a significant number of voters are simply protesting against the more traditional candidates who all seem alike, and are flocking to support the extravagant outsider who loves to shock the nation.
In Russia, that role in politics has long been played by the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky. However, no serious analyst has ever considered him as a candidate for the top job. As for Trump, most U.S. experts assert that his political sun will set so rapidly that not only will the tycoon not be invited into the next president’s team (if the Republicans win), but, according to Galstyan, will not even be able to raise his voice in support of another candidate.
A blinkered foreign policy debate
Rather than sifting through the 17 Republican presidential candidates for the one who has the kindest word to say about Putin, the Russian expert community should heed the fact that the last debate paid very little attention to foreign policy issues. Yet 2016 has been dubbed the “foreign policy” elections due to the abundance of complex global problems that the next occupant of the White House will face.
“The debate also lacked regional balance, focusing almost entirely on the Middle East, the Iran deal, and ISIS. These issues are not unimportant, but other major topics went unaddressed. Russia got limited talk time, while China — arguably America’s most important diplomatic relationship — was not even discussed,” writes Emma Ashford of the CATO Institute, a Washington DC think tank, in her article, “A Blinkered Foreign Policy Debate.”
One cannot but agree with this observation. None of the presidential runners in the debates has shown him or herself to be a strategist with a passable grip on world politics. And whoever wins the upcoming primaries will find it difficult to compete with the Democrats’ shoe-in candidate, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It can be assumed that if the chaos in the Republican house continues, the Kremlin will have to forget about Democrat fatigue and try to rebuild relations with Barack Obama’s party after all.