He promises to restore his country’s greatness, without offering a specific plan. He uses crude, vulgar expressions that make him sound like an ordinary guy, even though he’s a billionaire. He’s a narcissist who craves media attention. And for all his obvious shortcomings, he’s very popular.
Whom am I referring to? Russian President Vladimir Putin, of course. But the parallels with a certain American politician known as the “The Donald” are obvious.
Donald Trump is in some respects an American version of Putin. Like the Russian leader, he seeks to reverse his country’s losses and return its former glory. He promises a restoration of power and prestige without trifling about the details.
“We have no victories,” Trump complained to NBC’s Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “As a country, we don’t have victories anymore. And it’s very sad.”
Trump’s official slogan is “Make America Great Again!” It’s a line borrowed from Ronald Reagan’s acceptance speech at the 1980 Republican convention, when the Gipper promised a “crusade to make America great again.” But really, this kind of talk is the mainstay of politicians around the world who campaign on a platform of national restoration. Their message is as much psychological as political.
“Chuck, it’ll work out so well,” Trump enthused to Todd. “You will be so happy. In four years, you’re going to be interviewing me and you’re going to say, ‘What a great job you’ve done, President Trump.’ You’re going to say, ‘You’ve done one of the great jobs.’ It’s going to happen.”
The appeal of such politicians is partly their brash self-confidence. They don’t explain the mundane details of national revival; they just assert it. Think of the character Harold Hill in “The Music Man.” He promised to give River City a marching band, even though he couldn’t play music.
Putin, like Trump, seems to understand that power and showmanship are inseparable, especially for a nation that is traumatized by military and economic losses. It’s a confidence game. “Within the system, Mr. Putin has developed his own idealized view of himself as CEO of ‘Russia, Inc.’ In reality, his leadership style is more like that of a mafia family Don,” write Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy in their book, “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin.”
Gleb Pavlovsky, who was one of Putin’s key advisers during his rise to power, confided to the Guardian in 2012 that Putin was one of an “unseen, unrepresented layer of people” in Russia who dreamed of a revanche that would recover past glory. “By revanche , I mean the resurrection of the great state in which we lived, which we became used to,” Pavlovsky explained.
Putin laid out his vision of revival in a December 1999 speech that became known as the “Millennium Message.” He stressed the importance of building a strong state that could restore national self-confidence: “Russia has [just] experienced one of the most difficult periods in its many centuries of history. . . . She faces the real danger of becoming not just a second- but even a third-tier country. To prevent this from happening, we need an immense effort from all the nation’s intellectual, physical and moral forces.”
Trump is more nakedly self-promoting than Putin, with a vanity and braggadocio that would embarrass a Russian (or, indeed, almost anyone). Trump’s Web site promotes him as “the very definition of the American success story,” gliding over his four corporate bankruptcies. He seems to enjoy it when commentators deride him as an uncouth lout and rabble-rouser, underestimating the power of his message. His blunt comments speak to a nation that’s sick of political double-talk.
Trump’s tirades about illegal immigration, his loudest campaign theme, are part of a long and ugly story in the United States. Within 70 years of the republic’s founding, a party aptly dubbed the “Know-Nothings” was bashing immigrants, especially Catholics. Over subsequent decades, nativists were attacking every new thread of the American quilt — Irish, Italian, German, Slavic, Jewish, Chinese and African, as John Higham explains in his landmark history, “Strangers in the Land.”
What’s surprising about Trump is that he has attracted such a wide following. He’s Reagan without Reaganism, running a campaign nearly devoid of ideas. Americans have had flirtations with demagogues, from Father Charles Coughlin in the 1930s to Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. But the bullying authoritarian personality — the Putin style — usually doesn’t work here. This summer has been an exception, but history suggests that it won’t last.