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Monday, June 6, 2016

The Ballad of Donnie and Vova

“I’ll be friends with Vladimir Putin. I just think so.”

Such were the words of Republican Party nominee and real estate mogul Donald J. Trump when asked how he would engage the United States’ old rival Russia. 

This was a stark contrast to most of the other candidates who ran in the primary elections on both sides of the American political spectrum. Senators Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul appealed to caution but condemnation of the Kremlin’s action. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged to stay the course plotted by President Obama, and most other Republicans pledged to directly arm the Ukrainian Army in its still-not-quite-frozen conflict with pro-Kremlin separatists. Ohio Governor John Kasich even raised some eyebrows when he claimed that “we should punch the Russians in the nose”, a sharp contrast to his normally folksy “Aww shucks” Midwestern demeanor. 

Russian state media immediately jumped at the news when Mr. Trump claimed he and Putin would get along, and the Kremlin commended him for the overture. While Moscow did not venture to comment on American domestic political issues, it was more than happy to welcome a change from the icy relations between the two countries over the past few years. 

The honeymoon between Trump and Putin soured briefly when Trump’s campaign released an ad implying that Putin, and by extension, Russia, was America’s menacing, tough enemy by showing President Putin performing throws in his judo gi and laughing after a brief clip of Hillary Clinton barking like a dog at a campaign. The Kremlin did not seem amused by the campaign advertisement’s implications. 

But the ad did not seem to have lasting negative effects as Trump still is looked upon favorably by Russians including those working at the state media TV channels, and Putin’s strong-man style of rule remains popular with nationalists in both the United States and Europe. 

Press outlets seem largely amused by this unexpectedly chummy relationship between the mouthy real estate mogul and the Kremlin’s ex-KGB Commander in Chief. Social media users gleefully spread pictures around of a mural depicting Putin and Trump locking lips (not unlike that infamous picture of Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker) near a restaurant in Vilnius, Lithuania. 

But is Putin who Trump supporters think he is? And in the event of Trump taking up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue this coming January, will relations between Russia and the United States become friendly and possibly even cooperative? 

Donald Trump’s political platform has been, save for a few exceptions, consistently inconsistent. 

Mr. Trump was a Democrat at the beginning of President Obama’s first term, and he spoke glowingly of the new President as he rode into Washington on a wave of momentum from his election victory in November. 

For reasons still unclear, though, Trump’s approval towards President Obama did not last. Between 2011 and 2012, conspiracy theories that President Obama was not born in the United States and lied about his personal religious beliefs bubbled up and boiled over again. Trump, who was mostly silent about these theories in 2008 as Obama was on the campaign trail, became very outspoken and rode the wave of controversy by rallying those who believed the President was a Kenyan Muslim rather than a Christian American. Trump started to flirt with throwing his hat into the ring as the 2012 presidential election kicked off, but ultimately decided against it. 

The controversy mostly dissipated when Obama released his long-form birth certificate which said he was born, as he had said many times before, in Honolulu, Hawaii. Trump, however, continued to doubt as he demanded other documents such as his college transcripts from Columbia University. He has consistently criticized President Obama during his second term in office and finally decided to run for president, igniting a monumental movement and throwing the Republican Party into an identity crisis. 

Part of the reason the United States has only two political parties is due to the fact that both the Republicans and Democrats are very much “big-tent” political parties, meaning that they both incorporate multiple different factions under one banner who may or may not decide to unite behind a candidate when election season rolls around. 

The Republican Party in the United States is home to many factions. If one wanted to, they could probably break the party down along different lines three, four, or even five different ways based on the various presidential candidates in 2016’s primary. Candidates like John Kasich, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and George Pataki campaigned on their ability to achieve success in states with strong Democratic bases and were considered, for better or for worse, “moderates”. Candidates like Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, and Mike Huckabee played to the Christian Right which is more influential in Southern states. Rand Paul hoped to appeal to the more Libertarian Republicans with his cautious foreign policy and desire to relax penalties for the use of illegal drugs such as marijuana. 

And Trump? Trump proved himself to be the wild card in all this. Rather than appealing to the traditional “small government, Christian values, and lower taxes” platform of many Republicans, Trump opted to appeal to vague but powerful nostalgia for a bygone era with his slogan “Make America Great Again!”, took a hardline stance on the issue of illegal immigration by boldly proclaiming that he plans to build a wall across the US-Mexico border and that Mexico will be the ones to foot the bill (this did not go over well south of the border, as three different Mexican presidents scathingly fired back at him). He also promises to be tough on Islamic fundamentalist terrorism by instituting a “temporary” ban on Muslim immigration to the United States as well as fiery claims that he would take on China and other countries competing with the United States with protective “America First” economic policies. In doing this, Trump adopted a right-wing stance much more similar to European nationalist and populist parties rather than traditional American conservatism. 

So what does Vladimir Putin have to do with all of this? 

Vladimir Putin is considered by many in Europe’s nationalist parties to be an ideal leader. He’s considered a strong, bold leader who demonstrates a deep love for the country he leads and its culture. He’s considered to be someone who will not tolerate outside forces diluting that culture or national identity through fear or intimidation. Marine Le Pen of France’s National Front, Viktor Orban of Hungary’s Fidesz, Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party, Vojislav Seselj of Serbia’s Radical Party, and various other political figures have demonstrated an admiration for Putin’s method of conducting business. If Putin or someone like him was in power, the problems America or Europe 
face, they claim would not be as severe or perhaps not even exist, they claim. 

Below the surface, however, things are not such a clear consensus between Trump and his supporters, the European nationalist bloc, and the Kremlin. Russia’s immigration policies are not as strict as Trump claims he wants the United States’ to be. Many migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus come to Russia for job opportunities as Russian remains a lingua franca between former members of the USSR. 

Furthermore, Russia is not an ethnically homogenous country, nor has it ever been such. In the Russian language, there are two words that both translate to “Russian”, but their definitions are slightly different. There is Russkiy, which denotes people who are ethnically Russian, and there is Rossiskiy which denotes “a citizen of Russia”. These terms are not mutually exclusive, one can be both Russkiy and Rossiskiy, but there is an important distinction. The official name of the country most people call “Russia” is “Rossiskoi Federatsiy” or “Russian Federation”. The use of “Rossiskoi” rather than “Russkoi” implies that Russia is a home to all the peoples of Russia, be they ethnic Russians or not. 

Many of the ethnic minorities living in Russia and the immigrants who come to Russia are Muslims. Within Russia there are millions of Muslim Tatars, Bashkortostanis, Chechens, Dagestanis, and Ingush peoples. Likewise, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Kyrgyz peoples come to Russia for economic opportunities, all of whom are predominantly Muslim. Around 6.5 percent of Russia’s 150 million people are Muslims, a much higher number than that of the United States and higher than many European countries. This denotes a small but very important difference between the ideas Trump and many of Europe’s nationalists propose and that which is actually practiced in Putin’s Russia. 

Vladimir Putin is many things, but he’s no Islamophobe. Trump proposes extended surveillance at mosques and a temporary ban on Muslims who want to come to the United States? Vladimir Putin oversees and approves the construction of new mosques in Russia’s cities and has wished “Eid Moubarak!” to Russia’s Muslims after Ramadan came to a close. Is it true that many of these peoples are more secular than Muslims elsewhere? Perhaps, but that is much more a product of history (particularly seventy years of state-enforced secularism) than Putin’s policies. 

Is Putin a strong leader? Is he the strong leader that he is portrayed as? Suppose it depends on what your definition of “strong” is. Considering the current situation in Russia, though, that may be a somewhat difficult argument to make. The economy has slumped into a considerable recession. The rouble doesn’t buy what it used to. The conflict in Ukraine, regardless of whether you support the Kremlin’s actions or not, has become a stalemate with few tangible benefits. Russia is much more isolated and distrusted internationally. The Kremlin has been mostly mute on how it’s going to tackle economic woes. Things may not be a catastrophe now, but there are wounds festering below the surface in Russia and if current trends aren’t reversed, those wounds could become infected and spread to corrode still-healthy aspects. Rhetoric and pride can mobilize a people to do things previously considered impossible, but it doesn’t fill one’s wallet with a stable wage every few weeks by itself. 

Coming back stateside we may be seeing a similar horizon. Donald Trump’s plans to “Make America Great Again” lack substance in many ways. He never really specified how he would be friends with Putin...he’s never really specified much at all. Economists are very vocally wary of his protectionist policies. 

And yet his popularity still sits high and mighty. Whether he can turn that into a general election victory over Hillary Clinton is still yet to be written, but if he can’t, he may just prove the point that rhetoric can mobilize, but its ability to deliver tangible results is inconsistent at best.