Mr Putin and his asset

I’m in the wrong part of Scandinavia this week – I’m in Oslo, not Helsinki – but it feels quite close enough. I don’t think I’d want to have been any closer to the nauseating spectacle of an American president fawning before a geopolitical rival, who is also a corrupt authoritarian.

There has been much debate on how to explain the fact that Donald Trump appears to be in Vladimir Putin’s pocket. Opinions differ on whether or not it shows that the Russian leader has “got the goods” on Trump: that Trump is not a free agent because Putin, explicitly or not, is blackmailing him.

Last week, before the summit, Jon Chait in New York magazine set out at great length the case for believing that Trump has been a Russian intelligence asset since as far back as 1987. Chait doesn’t endorse the idea – he describes it as “unlikely but possible.” But the evidence he presents is quite impressive.

Others, including those with no brief for Trump or Putin, have pushed back against the idea. Conor Lynch at the New Republic, for example, argues that “Trump and Putin … are friendly because they are allies against liberalism and ‘globalism’,” and that it is harmful to go further and peddle “conspiracy theories”.

It seems to me that neither of these positions quite captures what is going on. In particular, I think that Chait’s evidence points less to actual blackmail and more to a common plan of action.

Trump does not look like a man who is being blackmailed. If he didn’t believe his own words, and was saying them only as a result of Putin’s leverage, we would expect him to look resentful and unwilling. But instead he gives every impression of embracing the Putin line with genuine enthusiasm.

Furthermore, everything we know of Trump suggests that he would be a difficult person to blackmail, given his general lack of shame. What could be more damaging than the things that are already public – indeed, that Trump has boasted of?

Chait points to the Stormy Daniels affair as evidence that he “holds his sexual privacy dear,” but freely distributing hush money to make problems go away is a rather different thing from the sort of continuing relationship that’s hypothesised with the Russian intelligence community.

Yet the alternative, that Trump and Putin are no more than ideological allies, also seems unsatisfying. It misses what is really distinctive about their relationship.

Neither man is an ideologue in any ordinary sense. Certainly, the anti-liberal outlook that Lynch describes is the default position for both – one that Putin, of course, argues for with much greater coherence.

But in neither case does it represent their reason for being in politics. Their views are more tribal in nature; driven by their common hatreds, of the cosmopolitan elites and their liberal opinions, rather than by any positive vision for society.

And even that misses something vital: that both are in politics primarily for themselves. Each would cheerfully sell out any number of ideological allies (including, of course, each other) for personal financial gain. Putin has masterminded the skill of running government as a tool for wealth accumulation for himself and his cronies, and Trump’s Washington seems set on the same path.

It is this toxic combination of tribal hatreds and narcissistic gangsterism that we now recognise worldwide as “Trumpism”.

And it’s typical of the gangster mentality to see blackmail material not as something shameful, but as a common bond. As a matter of course, everyone in that world will have something on everyone else, but that’s not why they are there; it’s just incidental to their common enterprise.

Reinterpreted, Chait’s evidence can be seen in this light as showing Trump not as the dupe of Russian intelligence, but as a willing (albeit still relatively clueless) participant in a common design: happy to accept Russian help on various fronts, but also happy to trust Putin and contribute to his schemes.

Hence the now familiar attitude towards Putin – a mixture of respect, flattery and awkward camaraderie. It’s the attitude of a successful amateur who knows himself to be in the presence of a professional.

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