So let’s stipulate: Donald Trump is not Vladimir Putin’s willing agent, and it’s not certain if or to what extent Putin is trying to elect Trump president. The real issue is that Trump and Putin share the same nihilistic approach to international relations. Together, they could transform our world.
Putin already has fostered a current of ruthless, cynical and utterly unprincipled opportunism in what, before his arrival, was thought of as an increasingly cooperative and rational international community. The Russian president has embraced and perfected the use of lies for geopolitical advantage, pursued and murdered his opponents in foreign capitals, invaded neighbors openly as well as by stealth, intervened in other countries’ elections, and flouted the rules governing international trade and sports.
For the most part, he has gotten away with it, thereby establishing a model of lawlessness and mendacity that other regimes have begun to follow. Having noticed that one of Putin’s prime opponents, Alexander Litvinenko, was murdered in the heart of London without meaningful consequences, China has taken to abducting dissidents outside its borders, including a British citizen seized in Hong Kong. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s would-be Putin, hasn’t yet killed or kidnapped a foreign critic, but he bluffed Germany into authorizing legal action against one of its own citizens who insulted him.
Putin has succeeded in putting blatant falsehoods on a par with documented reporting in explaining international events. For example, Moscow says U.S. intelligence operatives, and not the Ukrainian people, were responsible for the ouster of Putin’s client, former president Viktor Yanukovych (who once employed Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort). And Hillary Clinton somehow ordered up the mass anti-Putin demonstrations in Moscow five years ago — thereby, perhaps, earning the payback of Russia’s hack of the Democratic National Committee.
Putin may well believe these lies himself, or he may suppose they are no different than the stories peddled by Western politicians. Either way, he has managed to create an alternative reality. There is the world the West knows, and there is Putin’s. Viewers of international satellite channels can take their pick.
This, too, is something other regimes are learning. More than perhaps ever before, thanks to the Internet and satellite television, the world is awash in state-sponsored conspiracy theories, most of them anti-American. The United States has a secret plan to divide Egypt into pieces, says the regime of Abdel Fatah al-Sissi; no, it is too busy sponsoring a military coup in Turkey, says Erdogan. Nonsense, says Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro: U.S. plotting is focused on overthrowing him via a military invasion.
For all its partisanship and poison, U.S. politics mostly avoided these pathologies — until the rise of Trump. Trump may not match Putin’s use of violence. But his unreserved embrace of falsehoods, cynicism and the amoral pursuit of narrow interest is as pure an American expression of Putinism as we are likely to see. That raises the ominous question: What would the world look like if they were both in power?
Start with alliances and multilateralism. For a century and more, the closest U.S. foreign bonds have been founded on shared values. In a Trump presidency, the United States, like Russia, would have no allies, only clients. Washington’s message to Estonia would echo Moscow’s to Belarus: Pay for the superpower’s support, deliver what is demanded, or be abandoned.
Like Putin, Trump would create his own global reality. Never mind that more Mexicans have returned to their country than have immigrated to the United States since 2009; in Trump’s world they flood across the border, mandating the construction of a wall. U.S. and Russian lies may well overlap — Trump and Putin concur that there are no Russian troops in Ukraine, even if they are still killing Ukrainians on a near-daily basis.
Who will defend truth? Maybe Sweden.
Trump would likely grant Putin’s most cherished wish, which is to sit as an equal with the U.S. president, dividing up the world into spheres of influence. The results would be catastrophic for a string of countries in Eurasia and the Middle East. Trump could be invited by Putin to surrender Ukraine and Georgia, and maybe Egypt and Jordan, and he may well agree. After all, the businessman may conclude, there is no money to be made in those places.
Trump pictures himself striking tough deals with a like-minded strongman. He surely underestimates Putin’s ruthlessness and is ignorant of his conception of U.S.-Russia relations as a zero-sum game. After 15 years in power, Putin is skilled at the arts of deception, betrayal, sabotage and tactical aggression. Trump, by comparison, is a dilettante. So the consequence of a Trump-Putin world would not just be the triumph of amoral statesmanship; it would be the rise of Russian influence at America’s expense.