“If [Vladimir] Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset, not a liability, because we have a horrible relationship with Russia,” President-elect Donald Trump declared in his wild ride of a news conference on Wednesday. “Now, I don’t know that I’m going to get along with Vladimir Putin. I hope I do. But there’s a good chance I won’t.”
The specific nature of Trump’s relationship with the sinister president of Russia has been giving foreign policy experts shudders for months, climaxing this week in the publication of a dossier with allegations so salacious that they practically gave smelling salts a comeback. Beyond Putin, Trump’s voracious hunger to be liked seems to be one of the defining elements of his personality and, likely, of his presidency. He doesn’t yet seem to have learned that being liked can be a very bad thing and that there are times when it’s worth making an active effort to earn a good enemy.
For the purposes of argument, and given Trump’s well-documented and exceptionally high self-regard, I’m going to assume that Trump believes that Putin likes him because Putin appreciates and admires the quality Trump values most in himself. That’s not unusual; most of us hope to be loved for ourselves, and to be seen in the best possible light. Relationships that proceed on these terms are based on respect and give us reason to expect that the other person involved will be willing to work with us in a constructive fashion, to accept our wishes and ideas as legitimate and to reach compromises that are genuinely agreeable.
This isn’t the only road to being liked, though. For plenty of people, Trump included, the primary criteria for whether someone is likable isn’t whether he or she possesses a strong character, sparkling conversational skills or a well-calibrated moral compass: It’s whether the person gives you what you want and tells you what you want to hear. No matter how much Trump would like to believe that Putin genuinely likes and respects him, it would be prudent — if not within his capacity — to consider the possibility that Putin has treated Trump warmly because he believes Trump can be easily manipulated into behaving like an obedient toady. Trump’s desire for Putin’s approval may be a more valuable asset for Putin than Putin’s ostensible affection for Trump will be for the president-elect.
If it’s possible to be esteemed for the wrong reasons, there are also people whose approval isn’t worth having. Putin’s long record of authoritarianism and corruption has been extensively documented. Presidents don’t always have the luxury of purity, but their choices ought to become at least somewhat clearer when dealing with someone who pairs an ominous governing style with decisions that endanger American interests.
And there are situations where a leader’s governing style is so morally intolerable that it might not be acceptable to court his or her approval even for strategic reasons. Though it might be hard to imagine facing this choice personally, there are times when it’s better to be called “son of a whore” than to garner glowing praise from someone who has bragged about personally carrying out extrajudicial executions in the midst of a murderous campaign against people who sell and use drugs.
Trump himself has occasionally appeared to recognize the value of this idea, if only on the level of personal expedience.
“I don’t want to energize the group. I’m not looking to energize them,” he told editors and writers from the New York Times in November, when executive editor Dean Baquet asked Trump about his support from white nationalist groups. “I don’t want to energize the group, and I disavow the group. They, again, I don’t know if it’s reporting or whatever. I don’t know where they were four years ago, and where they were for [Mitt] Romney and [John] McCain and all of the other people that ran, so I just don’t know, I had nothing to compare it to. But it’s not a group I want to energize, and if they are energized I want to look into it and find out why.”*
Okay, Mr. Trump. If you say so.
This was essentially the same thing Trump said last February when informed that former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke had endorsed him — “David Duke endorsed me? OK, alright. I disavow, OK?” — except multiple times, as if “disavow” or “energize” are magical words of power that could banish these pesky fans and the trouble they cause him.
No matter how often Trump utters these incantations, they still the same thing as “[looking] into it and [finding] out why.” Instead, these impatient, monotonous statements treat the cause of white nationalist enthusiasm for Trump as if it’s incidental, rather than the result of anything he has said or any position he has taken. If Trump was serious about deflating the racists who see his administration as an opportunity to restore white power, it would not be difficult for him or his staff to figure out what racists respond to, and to stop doing it, or at least to actively and publicly discourage the ugliest interpretations of his rhetoric.
Winning an election is certainly a matter of getting people to like you, though that can mean everything from “I could have a beer with him” to “I find him marginally less offensive than his opponents.” The substance of the job that follows winning an election, though, has very little to do with being liked. I don’t know if Trump will learn this the easy way, or the hard way, or whether he’ll learn it at all.
* In the course of the same answer, Trump immediately framed the question of how to bring the country together in terms of how Americans felt about him. “It’s very, very divided, and I’m going to work very hard to bring the country together. I mean, I’m somebody that really has gotten along with people over the years. … I’ve never had a person boo me, and all of a sudden people are booing me.”