While many have suggested that Republican candidate Donald Trump might be able to get along with Russian President Vladimir Putin, it’s far more likely that a Trump presidency would result in a much more uncertain geopolitical situation for Russia.
Among the waving of campaign signs, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally Saturday, March 19, 2016, in Tucson, Ariz. Photo: AP
As Republican candidate and billionaire Donald Trump presents his foreign policy advisers and attempts to clarify his position on a myriad of foreign policy issues, one cannot help but wonder about Trump as a leader in the international arena and the stance that he will take with a resurgent Russia.
So far, Trump has promised to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it. He has also suggested that China is America’s biggest enemy, Europe should sort itself out, and that the United Nations is not a friend to democracy, freedom or America. With so many harsh words for so many allies and neighbors, one must ask: Who are going to be Trump’s friends? Maybe Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi or Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.
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Trump thrives on the same level of populism and nationalism that has manifested itself in many nations around the world, including both in Italy and Russia. These examples might shed some light on the kinds of consequences from the Trump presidency one might expect for U.S.-Russian relations.
There has been much comparison between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. After all, Trump is very keen to tell anyone who listens that he and Putin can do business together.
Indeed, Putin is no novice when it comes to populist politics. There have been many well-documented accounts of Putin’s rise to power – his use of the Chechen war, the threat of terrorism, economic crisis and, last but not least, Russian ethnic nationalism to secure popular support and political legitimacy.
Putin will love dealing with Trump as he, Putin, understands the mind of a Western businessman and knows exactly how to work it to achieve his own needs. Make no mistake about it: Putin does not have any scruples in dealing with Western capitalist businessmen.
The “new” Cold War is not about ideological disparities between different socioeconomic models. Putin is simply making Russia “great again” no matter the cost to the Russian citizens or international law.
When it comes to Russian politics, however, Trump is more comparable to another “Vladimir” – Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a buffoonish politician and the bombastic leader of Russia’s Liberal Democratic Party. Zhirinovsky, of course, is less well known in the West than the Russian president.
Yet, he has been a prominent politician and the face of his party since the mid-1990s – not an unremarkable feat for a Russian political party leader. His secret is simple –populism, nationalism, and a healthy dose of straight talk.
Zhirinovsky does not spare insults or minces word when it comes to anyone. Many remember well his drunken rant about American involvement in Iraq in 2002, and his sexist and aggressive comments about Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2006.
On the immigration front, Zhirinovsky has been more than vocal about the evils of migrants from the Caucasus, calling them “criminals.” And when it comes to international relations and security, Zhirinovsky is eager to remind the world about Russia’s military might and nuclear arsenal.
Populism and nationalism are the easiest and most dangerous of political platforms available to those who try to seize political power. Like the magic potions peddled by charlatans to villagers, populism and nationalism appeal to the public because they identify deep psychological prejudices and exploit them. The danger of this, however, is that returning the genie of hate back into its bottle is nearly impossible.
The polarized pluralism of Italian politics has been plagued by doubt and suspicion since World War II. The presence of strong parties on both extremes of the political spectrum made political normality questionable at best. Yet, it was the end of the Cold War that brought the most uncertainty and turmoil into the political realm.
The Tangentopoli scandal of 1992 brought to light the corruption of the Italian political elite. The wholesomeness of both political right and left was called into question and in the 1994 election, a new political force Forza Italia (Italy Forward!), became victorious in Italian parliamentary election.
For Italy, a parliamentary republic, this election also meant a new executive leadership in the person of new Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. A former TV executive, a millionaire, and an all-around fun guy with expensive tastes, Berlusconi presented a new face of Italian politics – not a politician, but a successful and prosperous businessman. Sound familiar?
Berlusconi’s rule, however, was not uncomplicated. He lost his post two short years later in 1996 due to a political scandal related to allegations of tax fraud, was reelected again in 2001, lost again, came back in 2008, lost, returned, and than resigned in disgrace in 2011.
All of the years of his administration have been plagued by allegations of fraud, corruption, sex scandals, and lawsuits. Today, the media mogul attempts to exercise his political and business clout to influence politics.
What is so appealing about him? Well, it is the same thing that makes Trump’s “make America great again” campaign so appealing – the promise of economic success and greatness in simple terms that appeals to the common man of a silent majority.
Making something “great again” is one of the most remarkably successful of populist slogans. When political forces find themselves at an impasse or deadlock, populist appeals become the distinguishing factor between different “piles.” In the hands of non-politicians and outsiders these appeals are even more powerful.
Politics is too important to be left to politicians who have made a huge mess of things so it is up to a successful businessman to lend a hand. In Berlusconi’s own words: “I don't need to go into office for the power. I have houses all over the world, stupendous boats... beautiful airplanes, a beautiful wife, a beautiful family... I am making a sacrifice."
His self-made businessman’s success story and straight talk made him irresistible to Italy’s blue-collar public. Trump seems to strike a similar chord with the self-described disenfranchised of the American population.
Trump and the future of U.S.-Russian relations
So, as Americans go to the polls, whether it is a primary vote in the spring or in November 2016, it’s worth keeping in mind the potential impact of a Trump presidency on the future of U.S.-Russian relations.
If comparative politics can teach us anything, a Trump presidency could lead to a broad spectrum of results – everything from a rapprochement with Russia to the start of World War III. What remains to be seen is whether the same strident message that Trump is pushing now will be toned down once he’s formally appointed as the Republican Party’s nominee.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.