Monday morning, President Trump had a friendly chat with campaign supporter and Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. Shortly after, he held a call with governors in his own country, where he sternly lectured that Minnesota had become “a laughingstock all over the world.”
Trump did not say which parts of the world he meant. But the timing of the call is suggestive. Indeed, history may one day record that when Trump was seized with paralysis over his response to the demonstrations against the murder of George Floyd, it was Putin who either inspired or goaded him to surrender fully to his authoritarian impulses.
Prior to Monday, Trump’s response to the national protests has been surprisingly measured, if not sedate. Torn between competing impulses, Trump’s tone alternated between belligerence and conciliation. His Twitter feed wandered frequently off the topic consuming the entire country, with several random messages about Fake News, the rocket launch, hydroxychloroquine, and “CHINA!” Although the events would normally have automatically triggered a prime-time address, the administration decided to against it. “Trump and some of his advisers calculated that he should not speak to the nation because he had nothing to say, according to a senior administration official,” the Washington Post reported with stark clarity. “He had no tangible policy or action to announce, nor did he feel an urgent motivation to try to bring people together.”
Trump all but confirmed this damning assessment himself. Asked by the New York Times what he was doing about the demonstrations, Trump replied as follows: “I’m going to win the election easily. The economy is going to start to get good and then great, better than ever before. I’m getting more judges appointed by the week, including two Supreme Court justices, and I’ll have close to 300 judges by the end of the year.” When I encountered this passage in the Times, I had to read it again to make sure: The president answered a query about his plans to address a national crisis by boasting about his odds of reelection.
The context to understand his indecisiveness is that Trump has been pursuing a rapprochement of sorts with black America. During his campaign and the first two years of his presidency, Trump treated African-Americans largely as a target. He picked fights with black politicians and journalists, questioning their intelligence, often associating them reflexively with crime, and famously cozied up to his white supremacist fan base. Trump’s preferred image centers on toughness, and black people were frequent objects of his aggression.
Over the last several months, that posture changed. Trump staged events highlighting support for HBCUs, made a few high-profile gestures of leniency toward sympathetic criminal defendants, and spent $10 million on a Super Bowl ad highlighting one of them. The campaign has planned to open storefronts nationwide to repeat the message. He did not back away from his draconian opposition to police reform, he presented himself sympathetically as a fellow victim of out-of-control prosecutors. In a bizarre February speech nominally devoted to a program linking employers with former prisoners, Trump launched a long riff denouncing the FBI investigation of his links to Russia, as though the travails of Roger Stone and Michael Flynn would bond him to black voters.
The object of this campaign was obviously modest. Trump’s campaign understood that merely shaving a few points off the margin of the Democratic advantage with black voters in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Florida could make the difference between winning and losing.
Trump was apparently still clinging to this plan when the protests broke out. Jared Kushner, a key figure in Trump’s black outreach strategy, worried that a militant message “could alienate key voters ahead of the November election, including African-Americans whose support the administration has been trying to court,” reported Politico. NBC likewise found that his advisers “have been divided” over what tone to take, with some of them arguing his tweet “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” — was “ill-advised.”
But in the end no strategy, regardless of how carefully they had worked it up or invested money in, could survive such a direct conflict with Trump’s instincts as that which was provoked by the demonstrations. Trump is obsessed with strength and domination. He is often publicly psychoanalyzed, and at times the accounts of his mental workings seem so reductive they could not describe a living human. Can he truly be so simple?
Yes — it seems he can. He berated governors as “weak,” and called for them to “dominate” protesters. “You have to dominate. If you don’t dominate you’re wasting your time,” he urged.
Conservatives used to periodically question whether the “authoritarian personality” was a real phenomenon, or the invention of liberal professors pathologizing conservatives. Trump ought to have put an end to that debate.
So too should end the debate over whether Trump’s lifelong admiration for authoritarian leaders across the globe has bearing on his fitness for the presidency. Over the years Trump has praised a long line of dictators, from Saddam Hussein to Viktor Orbán to, of course, Putin. And he explicitly admires these strongmen not despite their brutality — after all, every American president must deal with unsavory characters at times — but because of it.
Putin surpasses them all in the intensity of Trump’s admiration and the depth of the trust he invests. Trump has gushed that Putin “has been a leader far more than our president [Obama] has been” and had “great control over his country.” He continued to lavish his counterpart with praise. “I think President Putin is very, very strong,” he said after one meeting.
Trump does not merely believe, as his conservative defenders often try to explain on his behalf, that Russia shares foreign policy interests with the United States. He has deep affection for Putin’s Russia, and considers his iron grip to be a fundamentally superior style of governing to the topsy-turvy workings of American democracy.
Most American politicians, Republican or Democrat, would take Putin’s perspective on handling hostile demonstrations as a cautionary tale. This is how Putin would respond to protests used to be, self-evidently, an indictment. Trump may or may not have been influenced by Putin’s advice. But what’s clear is that he is the first American president who would take a Russian dictator’s perspective on crushing domestic protest at face value.