This is our cover story from our March 21, 2016 issue, months before Donald Trump surprised the world and was elected president of the United States.
Donald Trump has a bit of a thing for strongmen. Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi might have been “bad guys,” he allows, but “at least they killed terrorists.” Ditto for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, whom he has often characterized as a lesser, and more preferable, evil than Islamic State. And when he got caught retweeting fascist fortunes by Benito Mussolini last month—It is better to live one day as a lion, than 100 years as a sheep—Trump didn’t apologize, he doubled down. “It’s a very a good quote, it’s a very interesting quote, and I know who said it,” the would-be Republican nominee for president told NBC News. “What difference does it make, whether it is Mussolini or somebody else?”
His open admiration for foreign despots who talk tough and act without restraint could be genuine, or as calculated as his comb-over. But there’s one macho politician that Trump seems to be developing a real affinity for: Vladimir Putin. Ever since the Russian president praised him as a “brilliant, talented person,” and “the absolute leader of the presidential race,” during a December press conference, Trump has been busy returning the compliments. “I’ve always felt fine about Putin. He’s a strong leader, he’s a powerful leader,” he said on a morning-show appearance shortly before Christmas. “It is always a great honour to be nicely complimented by a man highly respected within his own country and beyond,” read a statement he released to the media a little later. Since then, Trump has gone even further, transitioning from flatterer to apologist. He’s downplayed allegations that Putin’s Kremlin arranged for the murders of crusading journalists: “It’s never been proven that he’s killed anybody,” said Trump. And in late January, he flat out rejected the conclusion of a U.K. public inquiry that the Russian leader “probably” sanctioned the 2006 assassination of dissident Alexander Litvinenko in London. “They say a lot of things about me that are untrue too.”
When pressed on the campaign trail last week, Trump eventually rejected the endorsement of former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke. But he stubbornly clung to Putin’s few, sly words of praise. “Putin was very nice to me. He said Donald Trump is a genius,” the billionaire candidate exaggerated before an Alabama audience. “Why would I disavow that? A guy calls you a genius. What’s wrong with having Russia work with us, instead of always fighting, fighting? What’s wrong with having Russia drop bombs all over ISIS? What’s wrong with that?”
- Related: How Donald Trump happened
As Trump makes mincemeat of his critics, racks up crushing primary victories and marches ever closer to the Republican nomination, pundits and pollsters have been searching for a way to explain the inexplicable. How did a bullying reality-TV star who breaks every rule of American political life go from being a no-hoper last summer, to a no-brainer this spring? Why are so many people embracing a campaign that began with a promise to deport 12 million illegal immigrants—the largest forced migration in human history—and then got even more ambitiously xenophobic? Since when is openly advocating torture and war crimes and picking Twitter fights with the Pope a sound strategy?
The answers might lie behind the walls of Red Square. America’s arch-capitalist doesn’t just admire Vladimir Putin, he resembles him. From the disdainful attacks on opponents to the promises of renewed national glory, to the manipulation of the media and the appeal to the public’s basest fears, Trump is following the Russian leader’s template. Both men obsess over even the mildest criticism, like to revel publicly in their virility, and choose to focus almost exclusively on outcomes, rather than policy. The apprentice, it appears, is cribbing notes from the master.
For Putin, at least, it has been a winning formula. After 16 years in power, his approval rating hit almost 90 per cent last fall, buoyed by Russian military adventures in Ukraine and Syria, and the neutralization—via exile, imprisonment and assassination—of almost all his high-profile opponents. Right now, Trump’s average support in national polls is 42 per cent, just three points behind Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton. There is room to grow.
When Vladimir Putin took over from Boris Yeltsin in late 1999, Russia was on the verge of social and economic collapse. More than 70 per cent of its citizens then reported that they were regularly going hungry because they couldn’t afford to buy enough food. The country was at war, for the second time, in Chechnya, and Islamist terrorists were being blamed for devastating bomb attacks. “Yeltsin was a drunk who allowed the oligarchs to take over the country. It was a complete breakdown of the fabric of society. There was a hunger for order,” recalls Bill Browder, the U.S.-born head of Hermitage Capital Management, a fund that invested in Russia during those years. Putin offered stability and security and tough talk— he famously promised to pursue terrorists right into the toilet and “waste them in the outhouse”—backed up by even tougher action. Browder was initially an admirer, and his fund grew to be one of Russia’s largest foreign investors. Everything changed in 2006, however, when Putin blacklisted him as a “threat to national security,” and denied him entry to the country. Hermitage’s assets were seized. Browder and his Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, were charged with tax evasion. In November 2009, after being held for almost a year without trial in a Moscow prison, Magnitsky died under mysterious circumstances. Browder, who now lives in London, morphed into one of Putin’s most vocal critics, writing a bestselling book about his experiences, Red Notice, and lobbying governments to take action against Russian officials who were responsible for his lawyer’s imprisonment and death.
Browder is not a fan of Trump. “All the world’s worst people are supporting him,” he says. Browder calls the Republican’s analysis of world events “simplistic” and says his cozying up to Putin is “idiotic.” He warns there is real danger in charting a political course that is fuelled by anger and resentment. “Putin created a mass sense of uncertainty and fear. I see parallels all over the world now,” he says. “We’ve had a major economic dislocation. It’s perfectly fertile ground for an ignorant, nationalistic leader.”
Putin’s appeal has gone up and down over his years in power. Between 2010 and 2014, polling suggested he had lost about a third of his support as the economy slowed. “A lot of Putin’s backers are people who have no ideology or views at all,” says Denis Volkov, an analyst with Moscow’s Levada Center, an independent polling and social research organization. “These are people who are not interested in politics.” The country’s success at the Sochi Olympics, followed by the annexation of Crimea, reversed the decline overnight. “Before Crimea, Putin was only talking about Russia’s greatness. Now he’s proved it to people,” says Volkov. “The feeling is that Russia is an empire again. We do what we want.” By the spring of 2014, 80 per cent of Russians agreed that they were a superpower, up from just 30 per cent in November 2005. Making Russia great again has paid lasting dividends for Putin. A full 80 per cent of “likely” voters say they are ready to re-elect him for a fourth term as president in 2018.
Steven Miller, an assistant professor of political science at Clemson University in South Carolina, specializes in “strong leaders,” and sees many similarities between Putin and Trump. “They both offer a certain level of charisma, and project an image of strength with no care for politeness,” he says. “And they both talk about outcomes, rather than policy—they’re going to protect your security and provide for your economic well-being.” (In a recent national Trump vs. Clinton poll from Rasmussen Reports, the billionaire enjoyed a nine-point lead on the economy and job creation.)
There’s a large body of research, and many historical examples, that show voters turn toward strongmen and strongwomen when they are fearful about the economy or national security. Termed “authoritarians” in the literature, these people prize stability and the social status quo above almost every other issue. What “activates” their longing for a take-charge leader are perceived threats.
Trump’s messaging in this campaign has been explicitly tailored to stoke those types of concerns about terrorism, job losses and the changing face of the United States. “Most Americans are kind of ambivalent about Barack Obama, but there’s an absolute belief that the country is on the wrong track—Congress is broken and the system doesn’t work,” says Miller. While the U.S. economy is growing, there has been little improvement in the wages or prospect of the white, low-skilled workers who are among Trump’s most ardent supporters. (A December Pew Research study showed the proportion of Americans who earn “middle class” incomes has been shrinking for four decades, from 61 per cent in 1971 to 50 per cent in 2015, as inequality grows.) “These people have a fear about where the economy is going and see all sort of threats to their sense of self, from how we’re ‘losing’ to Mexico and China, to mosques and Muslim immigration,” says Miller.
In fact, recent opinion research conducted by Matt MacWilliams, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, found that an inclination toward authoritarianism is the single-biggest predictor of support for Trump, eclipsing gender, race, education, religion and income. Almost 50 per cent of likely Republican voters he surveyed scored as having “high” authoritarian tendencies, as well as 39 per cent of independents.
The U.S., like every society, has always had its share of people who desire strong leaders. But in recent years, the research suggests that they are becoming more influential. In the mid-2000s, Marc Hetherington, a Vanderbilt University political scientist, and his University of North Carolina colleague Jonathan Weiler, went looking for an explanation of why American politics was so polarized when voters actually held similar beliefs about many of the big issues. The answer, they posited in their 2009 book, Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, wasn’t money or lobby groups, but authoritarians. Before 1992, people who held such inclinations were split pretty much evenly between the Republicans and the Democrats. But over the ensuing two decades there has been a mass authoritarian migration to the Republicans, which has led to more uniform and hardened opinions within each party. “We’re living on different planets,” says Hetherington. “People don’t understand how their opponents view problems. What sounds like a smart solution to you, seems like inaction to them.” It’s an explanation for America’s divided approach to challenges like mass shootings, where one side favours gun control, while the other seeks to arm itself to the teeth.
As U.S. politics has become more and more polarized there seem to be more and more people who find reason to be fearful. Trump’s genius, so far, has been in creating a coalition of sorts, attracting not just strong authoritarians, but also voters whose concerns normally lurk below the surface. “People talk about Trump continually breaking through his ‘ceiling,’ ” says Hetherington, “and this is why he’s been able to broaden his support: He’s scaring the bejesus out of people.”
Building border walls, assassinating terrorists’ families, ripping up trade deals, and altering libel laws so he can better punish his critics are some of the planks in Trump’s platform. Of course, those promises are just that: promises. His supporters love that he “says what he means,” but there’s a certain reluctance from everyone else to believe that Trump actually means what he says. “It’s not uncommon for presidential candidates to discover that they have far less leeway than they vowed in their campaigns,” says Jonathan Turley, an expert in constitutional law at George Washington University. “You can’t run the executive branch on pure gusto and sound bites.”
America’s political system, with its three distinct power bases and checks and balances, was specifically designed to prevent a leader from becoming a tyrant. It’s worked pretty well for 240 years. These days however, it creaks under the weight of hyper-partisanship, special interest money and legislative gridlock. “We’re currently going through what can only be described as a constitutional crisis,” says Turley. “Ironically, President Obama has laid the foundation for Trump to exercise unilateral presidential powers if elected.” Obama came to office in 2008, promising to limit the reach of the president, but has behaved in as imperial a fashion as any of his predecessors. Faced with an obstructionist Congress, he has issued more than 400 executive orders and memoranda on everything from gun control to paid days off for civil servants. He and his administration have frequently pushed the envelope when it comes to military interventions and measures of national security. “We are living in deeply hypocritical times where much of our politics is being driven by personalities, rather than principles,” says Turley.
Trump has already proven himself to be exceptional in many ways. “He’s the first Republican politician who is post-dog-whistle,” says historian Rick Perlstein. “His racial politics aren’t coded. He just says it outright.” Perlstein, having written books on Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, is one of the foremost chroniclers of the conservative movement. But he says Trump most reminds him of a Democrat—George Wallace, the pro-segregation governor of Alabama who staged four runs at the presidency between 1964 and 1976. Trump certainly isn’t a conservative, and in many ways is barely a Republican, says Perlstein. “He’s indifferent to all these very subtle, ingrained patterns in the party.” Instead, it’s all about raw emotion. “It’s the feeling, it’s the expression of dominance. He’s out there bragging about his penis size,” says Perlstein.
Fourteen seasons on reality television (and several more decades of relentless self-promotion) have taught Trump that visibility is perhaps the greatest accomplishment in American life. His name recognition coming into the campaign was already 94 per cent; now it must be all but total. The Republican debates in which he stars are averaging more than 16 million viewers, almost twice the audience for the Democratic ones. The networks that are reaping the advertising windfall are more than willing to aid and abet his performances.
Even now, after Trump has repeatedly proven that he not only has what it takes to stay in the Republican race but has more than enough support to win it, the doubters remain. Trump’s extreme views and high negative polling numbers—a recent Gallup survey found that 60 per cent of Americans view him unfavourably, the highest they have ever recorded—will make him unelectable in November, they say. But could that change?
“There are very high levels of fear and worry out there,” says Vanderbilt University’s Hetherington. “I have a hard time imagining that Donald Trump is the vessel for it. But what if there were a string of terrorist attacks and there was legitimate reason to be fearful? People make bad decisions when they are scared.”
Vladimir Putin followed the same path to full control as many other strongmen. Elected democratically, he traded on his popularity and the urgency of the crises he faced to sideline his opponents, consolidate his grip and seek ever more authority. The power was handed over mostly willingly, and ratified by the ballot box.
Americans have long believed that their system has built-in firewalls to guard against the type of petty despots that dot the Americas, Africa, Middle East and ’Stans. They’re probably right. But the world doesn’t want to see them test the theory. After all, many great nations have ended up with great dictators. What happens if the U.S. chooses a really tremendous one?