Lately the Putin comparisons have moved in the other direction—into the present and across the ocean to the United States. The presidential candidacy of celebrity millionaire Donald Trump has caused chaos in the American election cycle. His campaign of constant outrage has drawn a solid minority in the GOP primary, and combined with massive media coverage he has transformed from an alarming joke into a legitimate threat to reach the general election.
When equating political figures and movements past and present, it is easy to go off the rails. Superficially, Putin and Trump have little in common. A KGB spook who quietly rose to power versus a bombastic tycoon. Putin has little of Trump’s showmanship. A dictator with total control over every aspect of society has no need for that sort of populism. Russian television is obligated to fawn over Putin 24/7—while American networks do the same for Trump by choice.
I resist most comparisons between Trump and Putin for one simple reason: power. Putin has it and Trump does not. When comedian Louis CK called Trump “Hitler in the 1920s” last week it echoed my labeling of Putin as “Hitler in the 1930s.” Of course Putin isn’t Hitler and Trump isn’t Putin, but this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pay very close attention to anyone who sounds like Donald Trump, especially when he’s leading the Republican primary. We want to learn from history instead of repeating past mistakes.
Trump doesn’t talk much about policy and is incoherent when he does. This makes it difficult for the pundits to make useful policy contrasts with the other candidates. This is by design. When Trump’s lies and flip-flops are pointed out, he presses on twice as loudly as before. What Trump does talk about relentlessly, instead of policy, are simple words with positive connotations. “Strength”, “power,” “greatness”, “energy”, “winning”, “huge”, “amazing.” Trump delivers these words, over and over, with the bravura of a carnival barker and the righteous anger of the oppressed, the trademark combination of the populist demagogue.
Trump also refers regularly to how he will demolish any and all critics and obstacles, from entire nations like Mexico to elected officials like Speaker Paul Ryan. He doesn’t talk about boring things like legality or procedure or how any of these threats and promises will be carried out. Before anyone can even ask, he’s on to the next audacious claim. “It will be taken care of!” “He’d better watch out!” “We’ll take the oil!” “They’ll pay for it all!” “It will be amazing!” Bold, decisive, fact-free, impossible, who cares? His followers love it.
All of these rhetorical habits are quite familiar to me and to anyone who has listened to Russian media—all state controlled—in the past decade. The repetition of the same themes of fear and hatred and racism, of victimhood, of a country beset by internal and external enemies, of how those enemies will be destroyed, of a return to national glory. How the Dear Leader apologizing or admitting error shows weakness and must never be done. Inspiring anger and hatred and then disavowing responsibility when violence occurs. It’s a match. As is the fixation with a leader’s personal strength and weakness, intentionally conflated with national strength and weakness.
There lies the clearest and most dangerous similarity between Trump and Putin: the authoritarian instinct, the veneration of power over the values that direct it. Trump has repeatedly praised not just Putin himself for his “strength,” but other tyrants as well. In 1990, in an interview with Playboy, Trump criticized Mikhail Gorbachev for not having a “firm enough hand” and spoke with admiration for the Chinese government’s massacre of protesters in Tiananmen Square.
During the campaign Trump has talked about how he would get along very well with Putin and I have no doubt this is true. Democratic leaders of feeble moral character have often gone weak in the knees out of envy for the unchallenged might of a dictator. Trump and Putin both care only about personal influence and prestige. The interests of smaller nations that got in their way would have no place in their conversations, let alone distractions like democracy and human rights. A president Trump would happily take his place as Putin’s latest Western lapdog, a role previously played by Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi and Germany’s Gerhardt Schroeder.
The temptation of voters to bring in a strongman who can “clean up the mess” and “get things done” during troubled times is well established. It is how military juntas have risen to power cyclically in Latin America and elsewhere, usually with popular support. It’s a terrible trap that inevitably leads to tyranny. Abandoning your principles in order to defend them is a fatal mistake. We made this blunder in Russia when we elected Putin—it became the last free election we ever had. With Trump’s finger on the nuclear button it might be the last election anyone has ever had.
Americans cannot say they didn’t know. Trump has appeared in eleven debates during this campaign (eleven more than Putin has participated in during his entire life). Many Americans are fearful and angry today, unsatisfied with the weak excuses and vague proposals provided by their establishment politicians. Audacious plans and unorthodox candidates are attractive under these conditions, no matter how utopian or menacing their proposals are. This is how ideologies like socialism and fascism gain traction in democracies. But burning it all down isn’t any more of an answer than putting the government in charge of everything. And if you think liberals like big government, just wait until you see an authoritarian! Trump’s first war would be on the Bill of Rights.
The world is in a state of growing conflict and chaos after seven years of Barack Obama’s steady withdrawal of American power. More than ever, we need an American leader with a positive vision for the free world and the ability to reassure allies and to deter enemies. If Vladimir Putin’s endorsement of him isn’t enough to convince you that Trump is the worst possible choice for president, nothing will.
Garry Kasparov is the chairman of the NY-based Human Rights Foundation, the author of Winter is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped, and the 13th World Chess Champion.