As panic grows over Donald Trump’s likely victory in the battle for the Republican Party nomination for the White House and the #NeverTrump movement gathers strength in GOP ranks, many are comparing Trump to another populist demagogue: Adolf Hitler. But Hitler parallels are both overdone and extreme. For a somewhat less inflammatory but still troubling comparison, one can look to another authoritarian leader from our own time — one who actually belongs to a mutual admiration society with Trump. I’m talking, of course, about Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
At a news conference in December, Putin praised Trump as a “talented and outstanding personality” and “the absolute leader of the presidential race.” In response, Trump had warm words about the “great honor” of being “complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond.” Earlier, Trump had said that the two of them would “get along very well.”
A number of Russia-watchers such as Russian-American author Masha Gessen have noted a temperamental kinship between Trump and Putin. Both are blustery men who like to flaunt their macho accomplishments — Trump bragging about his sexual exploits, Putin showing off his prowess at martial arts, deep-diving, and subduing wild animals. Both are known for crude, nasty, cynical comments meant to show toughness or jeer at critics. Take Putin’s dismissal, a few years ago, of international monitors who noted irregularities in Russian elections: “They should go home and teach their wives how to cook cabbage soup.” Take away the Russia-specific dish, and this could easily be a Trump line.
Trump also has expressed unabashed admiration for Putin’s statesmanship. On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” in December, he was pressed on the fact that his fan in the Kremlin seems to have an unfortunate habit of killing journalists and political opponents. Trump’s reply? “He’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country.” As for those pesky dead journalists — well, “our country does plenty of killing, too.”
Pockets of right-wing Putin worship have existed in the United States for a while. It’s not uncommon to see a certain type of conservative on the Internet gush over Putin’s qualities — strong, patriotic, a true leader — and contrast him to President Barack Obama. Now, these Putin fans have found their American Putin in Trump.
In many ways, Trump’s appeal is also similar to Putin’s appeal within Russia. Putin gained his massive popularity by coming to power after a period of catastrophic economic decline and social chaos and promising order and prosperity (and taking credit for the affluence due largely to rising oil prices). While the situation in the United States is not even close to being that dire, Trump supporters believe we are in decline and on the brink of catastrophe. Trump speaks of “making America great again”; Putin has spoken of Russia “rising from its knees.” Both have stoked nationalist fervor and grievance while ostensibly disavowing overt xenophobic bigotry.
If Trump were to actually win the election, it is extremely unlikely that he could build a Putin-style authoritarian regime, shut down TV stations, or have critics imprisoned. America’s political, judicial, and civil institutions are far too strong to crumble under a strongman’s onslaught the way Russia’s fledgling civil society did. But even in America, a would-be authoritarian strongman at the helm can do a lot of damage to the polity, particularly when he flaunts his contempt for common decency. Aside from any specific points in his platform, Trump’s history of treating brutality as strong leadership — also evident in his praise for the Chinese rulers who crushed the Tiananmen Square protests — should disqualify him from the office.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.