A lot of ink has been spilled on drawing the connections between Trump and Russia. Whether it’s the shenanigans not-quite-rising to the level of conspiracy during the campaign, after the election secret meetings between Trump and Putin where note takers were told to leave the room, or in the strange finances from Russia through the National Rifle Association (NRA)to the Republican Party. All of it is very questionable and will hopefully be brought into the daylight at some point before the American people go back to the polls to select our future leaders.
Despite this deluge of connection conversation, one meaningful component of the connection between Trump and Russia has received practically no coverage at all. Trump himself, in no small way, is a personification of the Russian experience in history. This is not said to be jingoistic or confrontational. Rather, it’s said to offer understanding to the man and country, both of whom had difficult developmental experiences and reflect that in their actions and attitudes in the world.This understanding offers all who care about democracy, international peace and security, and the general health and well-being of individuals as well as nations, to see a path toward helping Trump, Russia, and the world move beyond their similar developmental experiences toward a more stable present and peaceful future.
Let’s start with Russia. This country, as powerful as it appears on the outside, has existed for its entire history in a justifiable state of fear. From the invasion of Genghis Khan in the 13th century through to today, Russia has been in an almost constant state of war with some outside group. During this time, the Russian people have not had it easy. From serfdom (a version of slavery) to Soviet Totalitarianism (a version of slavery), the Russian people and nation, as my college professor Peter Reddawaysurprised me by saying in class more than 20 years ago, never had the chance of Western Europe to experience the Enlightenment. The ideas about personal freedoms, universal rights, democratic governance, and the rule of law never had an opportunity to take hold. When the Russian people briefly glimpsed life outside of repressive regimes in half of 1917 and the early 1990's things went wrong very quickly. In the first case, the overthrow of the Tsar was relatively quickly followed by the Bolshevik Revolution and Civil War. In the latter case, the fall of the Soviet Union was followed by economic collapse, political instability, and disastrous wars to hold onto breakaway regions in a crumbling empire. Russia is a scared country operating in a dangerous world with lots of enemies near and far without the internal institutions to engender trust of others, be they insiders or outsiders.
Combined with this fear is a false blessing. Russia is a resource rich country. From its birth, Russia has been able to rely on itself for almost all it needed, whether it was population, food, oil, or other natural resources, Russia, for most of its history, had plenty. Whether or not it was effectively distributed is another question. This abundance of resources left Russia able to make easy decisions about not trusting others: Why bother trusting others when we have all we need right here? It’s a rational choice, but one which deepened Russia’s insecurities, rather than solved for them. Able to rely on itself, Russia did not reach out to find ways to interact in a world it deemed unfriendly. It did not make hard choices about shared responsibility. No democracy within, and no need for democratic institutions outside, Russia was able to get away with self-reliance and a distorted view of the world. This way of thinking almost doomed Russia in World War II, and is not a healthy way for a country to exist in a modern international system with global issues and shared responsibilities toward solving them.
It may be worth talking about the Enlightenment briefly here for context. Social tolerance, individual rights, democracy, the rule of law all stem from thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries. Within this context, names like John Locke, Adam Smith, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Thomas Paine, Jean Jacques Rousseau all stand out. The founding documents of our democracy were inspired or written by these thinkers, the Americans of which we call “The Founding Fathers” for their bravery in standing up to monarchy to found a republic, in Franklin’s words, if we can keep it.
The Western Liberal System of economics and government is derived from what these Enlightenment leaders wrote, advocated, and constructed. Theinternational security system built after World War II to reduce conflict, empower people, and engender economic growth all stem from this way of thinking. For the president of Russia, a spy trained to mistrust others, to say the Western Liberal Order is obsolete is to admit he clearly does not understand the bedrock of western society, and wishes for it to stop inspiring his people to oppose his oligarchical rule. What he fails to realize is this institution building based on the rule of law is a response to oligarchy, a method of preventing revolutions, and a means by which to secure individual freedoms at the same time as the state. In his attempt to project strength against democracy through his criminal-state authoritarianism, he reveals the weakness of his position.
When Donald Trump was asked about Putin’s views on the Western Liberal System he misunderstood the question, instead answering about the governance of Los Angeles and San Francisco. His misunderstanding, though, reveals something Trump shares with Putin. He does not understand the Enlightenment. This is not a commentary on anything other than his views of 17th and 18th century thinkers and the founders of our country. Many of Trump’s statements about the Presidency of a democracy,affinities for dictators, the rule of law, individual rights and freedoms, the utility of alliances, the economic system, and international security architectures, when put in this context, now have a certain kind of logic to them. Without understanding the Enlightenment how can one view Congressional oversight on the power of the President as anything other than unjust to the leader? How can one view dictators of repressive regimes as anything other than powerful? How can one see an alliance of democracies as worthy of anything other than ridicule? His views are not those of the founders of the country because he does not understand the impetus for those views and why they informed the creation of our republic, if we can keep it.
Why would this be? Surely he had civics education during his school years. Instead, the answer must reside in his personal developmental experiences before adulthood. The forces which forged the individual who is our current president are similar to those which forged Russia: A developmental timeline of abundance combined with constant insecurity derived from internal weaknesses and external threats. Donald Trump grew up in an abusive home in which he was never good enough for his mistrusting father and dis-affectionate mother. This is well documented. Always trying to prove himself, he had to constantly strive for attention as he sought affection, which was not forthcoming. We can see the outcome of this in his disastrous marriages, his affairs, his relations with men and women against whom he is always trying to dominate and compare himself. He has the classic bully complex combined with sociopathic behavior. When such an experience is paired with an endless supply of resources it is disastrous for the individual, and those around him.Donald Trump could always simply buy his way out of any problem simply by getting a loan from his father. This saved his casino in Atlantic City. If the father is replaced by funneled money from Russia through Deutsche Bank into Manhattan real estate, this can also be seen saving him from his bankruptcies in the 1990’s and beyond.
Trump and Russia came together because they are natural partners. They see the world in the same way because they developed in a similar fashion and face the same demons in their current existence. Both look down on those who work together to solve problems, and see themselves as under siege by such groups. Russia by NATO. Trump by democratic institutions. These are outsiders who are trying to weaken them or prove them to be as frail as they feel inside. Thus, they must constantly try to prove themselves as strong and worthy, ratcheting up tensions to achieve dominance. Russia is doing it on the international stage as a country with increasingly violent tests of NATO's resolve while undermining democracy in NATO's leading countries. Trump is now doing it on the international stage as a person who desires to personify a country, and believes he rules one along the lines of Louis XIV who proclaimed “L’Etat C’est Moi” — I am The State. This is a very pre-Enlightenment point of view for a leader, particularly the leader of the free world, which until January 2017 the President of the United States was.
What are the rest of us supposed to do with this information? So what if Donald Trump and Russia have parallel developmental experiences and see the world in a pre-enlightenment way? How does this realization compel us to act?
For starters, we can use this understanding to guide our interactions with both Trump and Russia. They are clearly flawed, but not through ill-will or a malfeasance. Instead, their experiences created the entities they became. Many adults from abusive childhoods have worked with therapists and social workers to realize healthy lives and livelihoods. Both Trump and Russia could, in theory, go through some form of therapy. Yet, who believes either will? This, despite working for many, is not the realistic answer for this duo.
Trump would be starting late, but it’s still possible to make great progress if he wished. To be honest, though, there is no chance he would do this. He is who he is, and in his outside appearance at least, seems fine with that. Internally, or when he’s alone looking in a mirror at himself, I’m not sure. At some level is it possible for a sociopath to know there’s a problem? I don’t know.
For Trump the train has left the station. Instead, the levers of power in which he can inflict harm on others, e.g. the nuclear codes, the ability to put children in concentration camps at the border, and order the use of military force should be removed. Let the man finish out his term in office barring any conviction by the Senate of High Crimes and Misdemeanors. Then, rebuild the institution of the Presidency with new checks imposed on the role through greater Congressional oversight and the establishment of laws instead of norms as the modus operandi of democratic governance in our country.
If, for any reason, Trump does not go willingly, then we need to face him as one faces any bully. Stand up and counter him. He will go face to face with his challenger(s), but he will back down, as he often has, when confronted by an irresistible force. He, let’s keep in mind, is a scared child acting like a strong adult. Simply standing firm against his threats has proven the most effective method of getting him to turn-tail and back-down. We saw this with the government shut-down, the citizenship question in the census, his response to Iran shooting down a drone in the ramp-up in tensions after he pulled the United States out of the JCPOA, and China’s counter-actions to get him to retreat on Huawei in the trade war he started with them. Trump always backs down when confronted with a stronger adversary, but only after talking a tough game. He does not want to fight, he wants to intimidate up to a fight, as that’s often worked for him because most other people are reasonable. When confronting a bully it’s necessary to be unwavering. This will work on Trump.
Unwavering resilient resistance will also work against Russia. The Russian people know they have a problem, but are extremely proud. They don’t want, nor would they accept, some outsider coming in to help them fix themselves. They have to choose to fix themselves and follow-through on the process of self-healing. That is not likely any time in the near future, especially as long as Vladimir Putin is in power, but even afterwards. He is not the problem. It’s the Russian people themselves. Whether it’s propaganda or not, there is a father complex in Russia, similar to Trump’s father complex, which can be well understood by watching the first ten minutes of Tsar. In this movie we see a very mentally disturbed Ivan the Terrible. What’s so disconcerting from this set of scenes, though, is not necessarily him, but the people and their actions to accommodate him by becoming disturbing themselves. The Russian people, similar to an abused child, cannot seem to break free from the abusive father, just as Trump, now in his 70s, is still striving for his father’s approval.
To address Russia, as one would a bully, the democracies of the world must align and confront it as a single voice. We must show the path toward cooperation, but also an unwillingness to feed their insecurities. We must oppose Russian aggression, even on the smallest scale — Georgia, Ukraine, Brexit, the poisoning of Skripal, and the U.S. elections have sent the wrong message. When the Russians challenge us in Cyberspace as well as on the ground in the Baltics, we must not cave. They will continue to push, to ratchet the tension up, to attempt to intimidate, but Russia has an economy smaller than Italy despite having a population more than two-and-a-half times its size. Russia is not a great power, despite possessing nuclear weapons.
What are the potential downsides of this approach to confronting these bullies in this way? Honestly, it’s war. Whether it’s Trump and a second United States Civil War, or Russia and a global nuclear war, the downside risk of such a confrontation is war. Then why, you may ask, am I advocating this approach? The reason is the natural outcome of not confronting them is a larger war. Therefore, the chance of war is actually less when they are confronted, and the potential cost to humanity is lower when they are confronted. It’s a dangerous card to play, but it’s the only card left in our hand.
I’d like to take a historical example here as a precedent to make my point. In 1938 The Soviet Union was preparing to go to war with Germany based on the demands Germany was placing on Czechoslovakia over the Sudetenland. This is a component of the Munich agreement not often discussed. The Soviets reached out to the British, French, and even Italy, suggesting a joint stance against Hitler’s Germany. Instead, the Western democracies and Fascist Italy came to an agreement with Hitler, giving away a large swath of Czechoslovakia. The Soviets realized they could not rely on the Western powers to counter Hitler, and would have to go it alone. They then started working with Hitler, surprising the world with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact which divided Poland between the two, and gave the Soviets free reign in the Baltics. Stalin knew this was a delay tactic to gain time for rearming the Soviet military to prepare for a solo war against NAZI Germany. Not only did Germany eventually come around to attacking the Soviets after annexing Czechoslovakia, conquering Poland, Luxembourg, Belgium, The Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, and France, but the Soviets barely survived, losing more than 20 million people to the German assault. Countering the Germans in an alliance in 1938 would have been much less costly for all parties involved.
Bullies must be countered at some point. The earlier the better, otherwise they keep ratcheting up their demands to maintain their status as a bully. Either everyone gives in, or there is a confrontation. The democracies of the world had many chances to confront Russia in the early 2000’s through to today, continuously failing to do so. Each failure will cost us more as the Russians ratchet up the demands. Don’t be surprised to see Russian soldiers challenge NATO in the Baltic countries, taking a small border town, just to see if NATO’s Article 5 mutual defense agreement is activated for the loss of a little bit of NATO territory.
The same goes for Mr. Trump. The country had many chances to stop him as he rose. We knew exactly the flawed individual we were getting before he ever declared his intent to run for President. Throughout the campaign we were reminded of the flaws he possesses. The Republican Party was unwilling to challenge him when word came out of his attacks on Gold Star Families, his racist remarks, his sexual assault on women, and his many other ugly assaults on our democratic institutions. Despite the fact over 2.5 million more people voted for his opponent, these democratic institutions against which he rails, provided Trump his path to power through the Electoral College. For the first two years of his administration he’s only been countered by the Courts until the House of Representatives began standing up to him in 2019, with some success. All who believe in a democratic form of government, who support the rule of law, who want to protect individual rights, and who want to avoid a disastrous second Civil War need to stand up to say “We will be bullied no more!”
Yes, Russia and Trump are flawed. It’s too late to help Mr. Trump overcome his flaws to become anything other than a sociopath. The Russians need to overcome their flaws through their own initiative. We may be able to help with that at some point in time, but that is not currently an option.The path to their flaws, though, offers the road to countering them. Between Russia and Trump we can stanch their ratcheting up of conflict and violence. We can rebuild our domestic as well as international democratic institutions. We can codify into law (domestic and international) the principles of the Enlightenment about individual rights and freedoms, the rule of law, cooperative problem solving, and democratic governance of the people, by the people and for the people. We can continue to have our republic, if we can keep it.