After last week’s events the question how close Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin really are almost forces itself upon us. There are two extreme possibilities. The first is that there is no existing relationship, but that Putin knows how to play Trump like a fiddle. As a pathological narcissist, Trump is extremely receptive to flattery, because although he thinks of himself as a perfect human being, deep inside is a burning sense of uncertainty and self-doubt that can only be suppressed by screaming louder than everybody else, for instance that ‘he knows something other people don’t know’ about computer hacking, an issue he clearly knows nothing about. Putin fills that bottomless pit of mental and emotional need with compliments meant to reinforce Trump’s Narcissistic Personality Disorder, automatically driving the president-elect into his corral, because other than family and people in his immediate environment who mostly are on his payroll nobody of importance in the US has anything nice to say about him. Trump’s admiration is the price Putin extracts in return.
The second extreme possibility is that there are deep ideological and business ties that connect the two men and their respective entourages. Trump’s first campaign manager worked for one of Putin’s puppets, his National Security Advisor freelanced for a Russian propaganda TV station, and his intended Secretary of State received the Russian Order of Friendship from Putin personally. And although Trump has never released his tax returns there is evidence that a significant amount of Russian money circulates in the Trump organization, if only from real estate transactions with oligarchs. Maybe even more importantly, this is a case of kleptocracies of the world uniting. Putin and his cronies have already divvied up Mother Russia’s resources and deposited the fruits of their thievery in foreign investments, while the Trump family is all set to start using American foreign policy to bolster its interests around the world. Trump’s inability to divest himself, in spite of repeated promises that usually resulted in cancelled press conferences, speaks volumes.
The truth is most likely a combination of these two possibilities, and the effect on Russia and the US of the Putin and Trump regimes will be similar but not identical. In both cases the already existing social dichotomy between a small layer of ultra-rich and a large majority of have-nots will be amplified, with the caveat that in Russia the have-nots never had much, if anything, while in the US the middle- and working classes stand to lose hard-earned entitlements in social security, health care and education.
Trump’s friendliness towards Putin, immediately after US intelligence agencies established that Russia tried to affect the outcome of the election and Obama imposed punishment, puts him on a collision course with members of the GOP like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who made their lack of admiration for Putin clear on the Ukrainian-Russian border and will continue to do so at home.
Treason, the first constitutional ground for impeachment, is defined as ‘the crime of betraying one’s country.’ A president can probably not be impeached for his behavior as president-elect, but all the signs suggest that Trump will not only keep it up but double down after January 20th.