العدد 30 - TRUMP, PUTIN AND A STRANGE CASE OF POLITICAL INFATUATION
Trump, Putin and a strange case of political infatuation
 I managed to beat Donald Trump by spending more time in the company of Vladimir Putin. Well, sort of. Over the weekend, the US president sat with Mr Putin in Hamburg for a two-hour meeting. I, on the other hand, listened to Mr Putin for four hours while lounging on my sofa, watching Oliver Stone’s lavish documentary on the Russian leader.

The strange infatuation that Mr Trump has with President Putin encouraged speculation of Manchurian candidate-like connections. After their first meeting, the attraction appears to have been reinforced. Not only did Mr Trump proclaim that it was “time to move forward” from Russia’s attempts to interfere in the US presidential election, he also revealed that the two leaders had discussed an “impenetrable cyber security unit” to prevent hacking, an improbable idea that received much deserved ridicule.

Mr Stone is afflicted with a similar crush on the Russian strongman. Over hours of filming, the interviewer and the president walk through multiple Kremlin offices, feed horses, watch hockey and sit through a screening of Dr Strangelove. They discuss everything from Mr Putin’s family to nuclear disarmament, military intervention in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria, and hacking the US election.
 
 The questioning is, with a few exceptions, gentle; the fawning is always excessive. At times, Mr Stone looks like he can’t believe his luck. When he concludes the interview, he embraces Mr Putin. Along the way, he humanises the Russian leader, giving him room to explain his narrative of history and justify Russia’s provocations as a defensive response to western hostility. If his aim was to leave the viewer with the impression of victimisation, he does it rather well.

I have never quite understood this fascination with Mr Putin. I know people who disagree with his every action yet conclude that he’s a remarkable man. They like his machismo. According to YouGov’s “world’s most admired” poll in 2016, Mr Putin ranks sixth out of the top 20 most admired men. That’s ahead of Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama, though behind Jackie Chan. Surely, this fascination has to do with the poor state of global leadership as well as a disturbing acceptance of illiberalism. Sadly, rulers who project strength become appealing in times of uncertainty.

It was clear during the US presidential election campaign that Mr Trump was attracted by Mr Putin’s strongman image. He’s had more reason to be envious since becoming president. Mr Trump is comfortable running a family business and is evidently frustrated by the checks imposed on his presidential powers. Mr Putin, in contrast, governs Russia as if he owned it, and with limitless resort to propaganda to burnish his deeds.
 
 He can send troops to fight dubious wars abroad, repress dissent at home and muzzle critical media, and still protect his popularity. Without brandishing the slogan of “make Russia great” Mr Putin has Russians convinced that he is reclaiming the glories of the past. Though his domestic ratings have slipped, according to Pew Research 87 per cent of Russians still have some or a lot of confidence in his handling of global affairs.

The Hamburg meeting was eagerly anticipated by both presidents. But the outcome of the talks seems to have worked better for Mr Putin than Mr Trump, who returned to Washington to find a storm brewing over his son’s meeting with a Kremlin-connected lawyer during the election campaign. The president’s critics, meanwhile, have pounced on his proposed cyber initiative, with Republican Senator Lindsey Graham telling NBC: “It’s not the dumbest idea I have ever heard but it’s pretty close.”

Mr Putin was on the whole satisfied with the encounter, having at least planted one dodgy idea into Mr Trump’s head. Praising the US leader as different from his TV personality, he described him as “concrete” and “sane” in his responses. But Mr Putin is an actor, his skills now honed in the Oliver Stone film. In reality, he scored a tactical and shortlived win in Hamburg. Such has been the backlash in Washington over the Trump discussions that the Russian president is unlikely to be any nearer to his objective of closer co-operation with the US.