The bizarre and unsavory strongman bromance between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump continues. If you’re a MAGA Republican and not having second thoughts by now, something’s wrong with you.
The latest head-scratcher and jaw-dropper is a new list of sanctions slapped on American individuals by the Russian president. That’s already weird. Aren’t we in the West the ones imposing sanctions on him for waging a genocidal war of conquest against Ukraine?
But there it is. Putin, as ever, peddles his own narratives that wantonly invert reality. So in the Kremlin’s book, it’s Russia that must punish the West for its aggression.
The creepier part is Putin’s pick of the 500 Americans on that list. Quite a few of them have nothing whatsoever to do with Russia or American policy toward the Kremlin. They instead share a different distinction: They’re domestic foes of the former U.S. president.
There’s Letitia James, for example, the attorney general of New York who’s suing Trump for fraud. And Brad Raffensperger, the secretary of state of Georgia, who resisted Trump when, after losing the 2020 election, the president leaned on him to “find” votes to flip the outcome. And there’s Michael Byrd, the police officer who shot and killed a pro-Trump rioter on Jan. 6, 2021, when MAGA crowds sacked the U.S. Capitol. Also included are celebrity Trump foils like Barack Obama and Stephen Colbert.
What’s going on here? Putin, with his KGB-trained mind, is one of the most manipulative creatures on Earth. His sanctions list is just one more twist in his extensive and global disinformation campaign, designed to sow division and discord in Western societies.
In this case, the Russian president is once again signaling to Trump and the Tucker Carlson wing of the Republican party that they should make common cause. Your enemies are my enemies, Putin is vibing. And of course he’d quite appreciate Trump returning that favor if he gets back into the White House, and even if he doesn’t.
I say “once again” because Putin has long been siding with Trump, on the sly and not so sly. As the special counsel’s report of 2019 confirmed, Russia meddled in the election of 2016 to help Trump. The special counsel’s only question mark was whether Trump actively “conspired or coordinated with the Russian government” — or merely enjoyed its help passively. That ambiguity was enough for Trump to run around mouthing “no collusion, no collusion.”
Once in the White House, Trump certainly seemed to see the world in a Putinist way. His first impeachment had to do with his attempt to bully Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who’s lately been number 1 on Putin’s — literal — hit list. Trump also talked to his NATO allies — especially former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who triggered him in unfathomable ways — as though they were America’s real enemies. At the same time, he made googly eyes at his neo-Tsarist pal in the Kremlin, with the admiration of one authoritarian for another.
In that way, both strongmen belong to a small but growing club of populists that also includes Viktor Orban. The Hungarian prime minister impresses them because he took a liberal democracy, one that’s part of the European Union and NATO, and in effect turned it into an “illiberal” — Orban’s word — autocracy. He did that in part by stoking resentments against liberals, LGBTQ people, migrants and eurocrats. Step by step, he also ignored, then dismantled, almost all of those pesky and tedious checks and balances that democracies have. That’s made Orban a hero of the American far right.
But Hungary is small, whereas Russia is — militarily and geographically, at least — huge, and it has nukes. Have Trump fans not noticed that Putin has over the past 15 months repeatedly threatened to use nuclear weapons?
Trump has noticed, of course. But it doesn’t seem to bother him all that much. Supporting Ukraine and antagonizing Russia is not in America’s national interests, he told Tucker Carlson when the latter still had his talk show on Fox News. Instead, Trump is sure that he’d broker peace. What he seems to have in mind is Ukrainian capitulation.
America’s Western allies are increasingly clear about their fears and hopes for next year’s U.S. presidential election. In reply to students at a school near Berlin this week, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz dropped diplomatic niceties. “The current president is better, so I want him to be reelected,” he said. Joe Biden, Scholz added, knows “what you have to do to prevent the world from going to war.” Trump, Scholz said, only stands for division.
Ultimately, it’s Republicans who must decide whom to nominate for president, and whether to keep turning themselves into a Trumpist cult. It’s not too late. Raffensperger, the one on Putin’s sanctions list, is also Republican, for example. And he knows how to deploy macabre humor for patriotic ends.
“While I was previously unaware of my anti-Russian activities, I accept the verdict of Russia, whose commitment to truth, justice and the rule of law speaks for itself,” Raffensperger deadpanned this week. “My inclusion on this list is deserved, and I appreciate them thinking of me.” Let Republicans think on that.
Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. A former editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist, he is author of “Hannibal and Me.” This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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