As I’ve noted, I’m a sceptic about the suggestions somehow Moscow is bribing or blackmailing Trump to be their stooge. Rather, though, the otherwise-inexplicable fondness The Donald appears to have for The Vladimir (so far, at least) seems more a matter of triangulation, perversity, and the common sodality of the worst kind of authoritarian alpha male. This last, alarmingly, also seems increasingly to be leading Trump’s style of government to begin to resemble Putin’s. The particular characteristics I have in mind are:
1. Power is based on proximity to the boss, and his favour. In the Russian system, the formal hierarchy, from president to prime minister, to ministers, is bypassed by an informal one, whereby Putin exerts power through his Presidential Administration and on the basis of decisions made after consulting with his cronies. Likewise, it is clear that Trump has a similarly personalised and informal approach, best illustrated by the decision last week to take the Director of National Intelligence and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs off the permanent membership of the National Security Council and instal his ideologist-in-chief Stephen Bannon in their stead, with his own little inner-circle ‘Strategic Initiatives Group’.
2. Ministers are flunkies, not policy-makers. The corollary of the above is that, as in Russia, a cabinet position alone is no guarantee of influence. Some do have weight, but this is generally because they have a personal relationship with Putin, such as defence minister Shoigu or deputy PM Kozak. Otherwise, they – and cabinet as a body – are simply there to execute their master’s bidding. Likewise, there seems little evidence at this stage that Trump regards his ministers as peers and colleagues. The odds are unlikely that even those with serious heft of experience and respect, such as defence secretary James Mattis – who has already been used as the legitimating backdrop for one of Trump’s egregious executive orders, on migrants – will be able to hold their own against the likes of Bannon or national security advisor Flynn.
3. Real decisions are made out of sight and off the books. As a result, we don’t get to see or hear the discussions about policy, or even to know for sure who was involved. Everything of real import is assessed and adjudicated behind the scenes, any – just like Trump’s conversation with Putin – not even recorded. Indeed, Bannon is already trying to ensure a lack of paper trail, something which will allow the White House to shape the narrative, and if need to evade responsibility.
4. Truth is by decree, and dissent is disloyalty. All administrations spin, but for outright lies to be coming so regularly and brazenly from the White House press podium, or even the presidential twitter account, is something new, and much more reminiscent of the Kremlin’s cavalier and creative attitude to the truth, secure in the absence of a critical media, on TV at least. Trump may not have that last yet, but the enthusiastic zeal with which his people exclude and excoriate those who don’t accept the new rules of the game suggests that’s the aim, at least. Dissent, after all, is not just a matter of alternative perspectives, it is an attack, it is disloyalty. The spectacle of acting Attorney General Sally Yates being not just dismissed for having the temerity to do her job and uphold the law, but the language used – “betrayal” – is proof that this does not only apply to the Fourth Estate.
5. The economic interests of the boss and his cronies become state priorities. Whatever the scale of Putin’s personal fortune (my own view is that this should not be over-stated: a man who can use the whole Russian state as his piggy bank need not concentrate on stuffing his mattress with valuta), it is clear that his closest and oldest do very, very well out of his rule. Whether old judo buddies like the Rotenbergs, or musician-billionaire (and likely front man) Sergei Roldugin, Putin’s trust and friendship is eminently monetisable. These people can expect the state to be bent to their needs, awarding them contracts, bailing out their failures, and even compensating them for sanctions losses. As Trump packs his entourage with oil executives and acolytes of the vampire-squid Goldman Sachs, as well as sidestepping demands he divest himself of his own portfolio, Trump is already making it clear that he will not stint his friends. The structures there to control Wall Street – already flimsy – face the wrecking ball, as there are “friends of mine, who have nice businesses who can’t borrow money“…
6. The boss sits outside the formal party structure. Is Trump a Republican? Not really, even if there is clearly a vastly closer overlap between his nativist, kleptocratic instincts and theirs. Rather, America now has a three party system – Democrats, Republics, and Trump – and a coalition government between he last two. Like all coalitions, it is potentially fragile – it will be a depressingly compelling sport trying to guess just how much the Republicans are willing to swallow, in the name of notionally controlling the White House – but it remains to be seen who will lose out when the inevitable split occurs. After all, Trump – like Putin – has positioned himself outside the formal party system and political elites. Even his much-derided tweeting is a way of trying to forge a direct connection with his electorate. This does not mean that (unlike Putin) Trump is wholly immune to Congressional action, but it does mean that he is unlikely even to pretend about the party he notionally represents.
Of course, none of this suggests any direct collusion. Those trying desperately to find some connection between Bannon and Putin (no, Dugin is not influential in the Kremlin), or Flynn and RT’s Simonyan, are probably missing the point. This is not happening because Moscow says so. This, alas, is all on Trump.