Putin Trump

Is Donald Trump a Manchurian Candidate?

The short answer is no. As colourful as Donald Trump’s biography is, I gather he has never been taken a prisoner of war while serving his country overseas (that only happens to losers like John McCain), brainwashed by our enemies and sent back home as a sleeper with a deadly mission. Granted, it might seem like that at the moment to the large, saner sections of the Republican Party, not to mention the broader American and international public.  Some of the former have been asking themselves for some time now whether Don might instead be more of a Clintonian Candidate sent to wreck the GOP for the benefit of Hillary’s run. Even the Clintons are not that devious.

Perhaps a better question to ask is: is Donald Trump the Manchurians’ Candidate?

The short answer is yes. So why would Vladimir Putin be happy with Trump in the White House? Does it matter? And is he doing anything to make it happen?

Starting with the first question, I see three main reasons:

Vlad and Don are a similar type – they are both outsiders, anti-politician politicians and self-perceived strong leaders.  They have both come to the top by tapping into a rich, though often underground vein of disdain for and frustration with messy democratic party politics. They also share in a certain slightly pathetic upper middle age machismo.

Would that make them good buddies? Unlike George W Bush, I never had a chance to look Putin in the eye and get a sense of his soul (should he have one), but I’m pretty sure that privately Vlad would think Don a joke. Trump is pretty much a walking and talking communist caricature of an American capitalist: loud, vulgar, obnoxious bully with ridiculously cartoonish looks and questionable morals. It is highly ironic that the Soviet communism had to wait a quarter of a century after its fall to see its propaganda finally come true, but I reckon a cynical Chekist survivor like Putin can appreciate that irony.  In any case, Putin, like a Palmerstonian nation, has no permanent friends (or friends in general), only permanent interests. Which brings me to the next point.

Don would let Vlad be Vlad – it’s not just that Trump seems to like Putin and the way Putin goes about his business (killing your enemies’ families is a tactic straight out of the Russian playbook), he also seems to think that Putin has every right to do what he does on the international scene. This is not a question of misguided Russophilia but more of an amoral realism: Russia is a great power, entitled to its sphere of interests and entitled to act to protect these interests within its sphere, be it the Eastern Europe, the Caucasus or Syria.  Also, Trump is at heart an old school “America First” isolationist, which means he believes the rest of the world can go on unmolested about its messy business while he makes America great again (in reality America has been at its greatest when she was most involved in the world. Also, the others’ messy business invariably impacts on America, oceans or not). Putin is quite fine with such an international carte blanche.

Don’s America is a weak America – remember when everyone was going to love the United States again after that war-monger Bush has gone and the Nobel Peace Prize winner Obama has demonstrated the audacity of hope? Yeah, about that. Instead of the new international era of hope and change, we have had nearly eight years of pissing off all the traditional allies and cosying up to all the traditional enemies.  As Talleyrand had said of Napoleon’s judicial murder of the Duc d’Enghien, it was worse than a crime, it was a mistake. Obama could be forgiven if he had something to show for all of his trendy duplicity. Alas…

But if America’s stocks are low internationally after sixteen years of the Bush and the Obama Administrations, imagine how much lower they can still get under Trump.  America will be – rightly – seen as a joke if she elects a buffoon like Don as president. Other countries can get away with similar political travesties, but there is only one United States, and whether she is “the city on the hill”, the “Leader of the Free World” or “the last remaining superpower”, we should expect better of her. America’s image problem would bad enough in itself, even if Trump stayed mute and still his whole term, but of course he won’t.

Putin’s world is zero-sum.  America that is less credible, less respected and less involved means more room for a neo-Tsarist Russia to move and fewer moral, military and economic obstacles as she reasserts her dominance over Eurasia.

What about Hillary, you ask? Wouldn’t Putin be happier with a Beta Clinton rather than an Alpha Male in the White House? As hopeless as Hillary was as the Secretary of State, at least she comes from the mainstream of the American foreign policy tradition. Secondly, there is a better chance she will surround herself with a strong and credible foreign policy team. In other words, the Clinton Administration is more of a risky unknown for Putin than the Trump one.

But does it at all matter if Vlad likes Don and would like to see him in the White House? Yes and no. It should certainly give any decent Trump supporter a pause when contemplating that one of the world’s premier anti-American and anti-Western leaders approves of his or her electoral choice. But one should also be wary of simplistic “X likes Y, I don’t like X, therefore I will not support Y” equations.

Lastly, can Putin in any tangible way help Trump’s campaign? Probably not. Americans have historically been uninterested in how foreigners want them to vote. If anything, too much pontification from overseas can have the contrary and contrarian effect, turning a vote into a finger to the world.

The only way Putin can assist, and it is not a particularly significant one in the context of a billion-dollar election campaign, is to unleash his cyber army to spruik Trump and hound his enemies.  Having been casually observing the social media and the commentariat over the past few months I suspect, though I can’t prove, that Russian trolls are already at work in America, the way they are in Europe, where they are busily undermining Russia’s competitors and advancing Russia’s interests.  Then again, the ugliness of an alt-right political sentimentality does not belong to any one country alone.  Sadder than a Russian troll army might be the realisation that a not insignificant native minority longs for a strong man riding a horse – or a bear.

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