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The real Trump-Putin connection

What little the two men share is a perception of the nature of the West’s present moment, as well as of its origins.

The real Trump-Putin connection

Among the first (and originally few) world leaders to congratulate Donald Trump on winning the White House was Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But was Putin also the first to call it?

After months of speculation about Russian meddling, nobody is now saying that Putin 'threw' the election for Trump. That was always something far beyond his power to do; Trump won it for himself.

What little the two men (one a quietly spoken spy, the other a larger-than-life real estate developer) share is a perception of the nature of the West's present moment, as well as of its origins.

The cornerstone of Trump's campaign has been an appeal to those who feel left behind by globalisation, sneered at by metropolitan elites who despise their religion and patriotic, homespun values, and dismayed at what they consider the federal government's failure to enforce its own migration laws.

Less than two weeks ago, Putin took the stage to deliver his address to the so-called Valdai Discussion Club (an annual invitation-only annual gathering of Russia experts) in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi. At its centre was a Trump-ish denunciation of global elites who 'do not see the deepening stratification in society and the erosion of the middle class', 'implant ideological ideas […] destructive to cultural and national identity', and 'subvert national interests and renounce sovereignty in exchange for the favour of the suzerain' (meaning the US).

The world, Putin said, is divided between an 'expanding class of the supranational oligarchy and bureaucracy […] not elected and not controlled by society' and 'the majority of citizens', people 'who want simple and plain things – stability, free development of their countries, prospects for their lives and the lives of their children, preserving their cultural identity, […], basic security for themselves and their loved ones'.

Putin has used previous Valdai addresses to put the cause of traditional values (as in 2013 when he took the US and countries of the EU to task for 'turning their backs on their Christian roots') and of a multipolar, neo-Westphalian world order (the dominant theme of his 2014 and 2015 addresses).

But in choosing his emphasis this year, he was (despite the irony, given his own rumoured wealth) adding his voice to those who see a crisis of legitimacy at the heart of liberalism; the philosophy that has shaped Western society both culturally, since the Sexual Revolution of the late 1960s, and economically, since the Thatcher-Reagan revolution of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Like Trump-the-phenomenon - if not the man - as well as many of the arguments put forward in favour of Brexit (and key aspects of Theresa May's 'One-Nation Conservativism' response), Putin's programme can be described as post-liberal, at least rhetorically.

It hasn't always been that way. After coming to power in 2000, Putin’s economic programme was for years unrelentingly neo-liberal, confirming the (scandalous) privatisation of state assets that had taken place under Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, introducing a flat-rate income tax (today 13%), and monetising the remaining public benefits Russian citizens had inherited from the old Soviet Union.

In his first two terms Putin generally avoided pronouncements on public morality and did little to distinguish his own lifestyle from the showy and shallow materialism of the oligarchic elites who surrounded him. Today, however, not only has Putin emerged as a critic of Western liberalism, the Kremlin now presents Russia as offering something different: neo-traditionalist; neo-realist; neo-protectionist; and, in a word, conservative (still understood in Russia as an antonym to ‘liberal’). We might say populist.

Putin hasn’t made this transition either alone or in a vacuum. Though we can’t be sure of its exact influence over Putin, it’s nonetheless strange how little attention has been paid to a semi-official paper published in 2013* by Russia’s Institute for National Strategy, a Kremlin-backed think tank in Moscow, called Conservatism as a factor in Russian “soft power”.

The Russian intellectual who was a step ahead

It’s a compelling read, one that reveals the decisive influence of the Institute’s director, Mikhail Remizov, a political philosopher and in my opinion one of Russia’s finest and most interesting public intellectuals today (he's also said to have been responsible for helping persuade Putin to embrace conservatism as an ideological programme).

Some of its insights are piercing, if not prophetic. The paper effectively anticipated important elements of both the Brexit referendum and Trump’s nomination for president by diagnosing the modern West as experiencing a 'crisis of solidarity' through the effects of secularism, globalisation and multiculturalism (in the bonds of church, nation and family above all, but also in the firm as a place of lifelong economic employment, as well as trade unions and civic associations).

It notes that despite their formal opposition the liberal principles from which both left and right proceed in the modern West actually unite them in seeking the 'overthrow of the “dictatorship” of collective identities and the transformation of all obligations connected with them into dissolvable contractual relationships'. It’s this collusion between the West's left and right that has opened up a space for an apparently post-liberal such as Trump (the adequacy of his policies and character aside).

Take, for example, its portrayal of the plight of the Western middle class (whose discontents Trump has ridden into the White House). The paper sees its fragmentation as embodying the collapse of the national solidarity that underpinned the success of the West’s post-war political, economic and social settlement. Whereas globalisation (which it knowingly calls the 'emancipation of the oligarchs') represents a neo-liberal 'revenge of the elites' that 'crushes the middle class from above', the ubiquitous 'expansion of minorities' brought about by mass migration, and the left’s identity politics 'undermines it from below'.

In place of the political, economic and cultural solidarity of the modern nation-state, globalisation 'doesn’t give rise to a homogeneous global society, but a deeply fragmented space, traversed by a multitude of fractional, cultural and social barriers, once upon a time limited by modernity'. This is a keen observation, one that suggests a deeper understanding of the West’s present predicament than ‘Russian propaganda’ is usually credited with (and indeed than it seems a deeply liberal candidate such as Hillary Clinton was capable of).

Equally sophisticated is its analysis of widespread popular anger towards a transnational elite by dint of whose influence political power has become experienced as something 'primarily anonymous and unaccountable'.

In a criticism embracing both globalisation and growing power of supranational bodies such as the EU, the paper presents the West as pre-occupied with the propagation of a specific government type (liberal democracy) at the expense of a proper appreciation of the state’s sovereign form: a 'sovereign state and its government can be constructive or ineffective, democratic or authoritarian, but it has all the same one inherent and inalienable quality: by its very nature it is something public, visible and for that very reason it can be held responsible'.

Given Russia’s own democratic shortcomings, this might seem convenient. But the paper’s point is at once larger and more profound: sovereignty and a healthy body politic, it appears, are not so easily separable.

The Russian paper’s fundamental insight is that, properly understood, modernity is the fruit not of only 'left and liberal ideas' but of the 'collision, and subsequent synthesis, of reformation and counter-reformation, revolution and restoration, Enlightenment and conservatism'. This goes to the heart of Trumpism.

Shoved aside by liberalism’s late 20th century triumph, conservatism is yet modernity’s rightful 'co-author'; a purely liberal modernity is inherently unstable, if not unsustainable, since it consumes what it cannot reproduce. ‘The story of modernity’, the paper observes, ‘is not just the story of scientific and technological progress, or the progress of rationalism or the realisation of freedom. It’s also the story of the squandering of the resources of traditional society – such as an ethics of work and of the family, of a spirit of asceticism in the service of society, of the capacity for trust and solidarity, of the religious definition of man.’

Its causes are not just the decline of religion or the dissolution of a collective sense of being part of a distinct 'nation', but also the shuttering of the factories and the outsourcing of the back-room clerical jobs that provided the economic foundation for stable family life and prosperous local communities.

Contrary to what has been understood in the West since Thatcher, the Russian insight is that it is not for the conservative to reflexively champion the free-market or the libertarian dicta of rugged individualism, but rather to seek to preserve the solidarity-creating inherited resources of traditional society without which modernity cannot survive – not in order to thwart progress, but actually to make it work. Unchecked, liberalism always runs the danger of consuming itself. Can you run a democracy without trust or an economy without a sense of honesty? But though it 'consumes' both, how does anti-nomian liberalism actually produce either?

Trump, a New York liberal whose multiple marriages and unbridled pursuit of fame and riches poorly reflect these traditional values, is admittedly a strange person to put in charge of guarding such an inheritance (indeed, he is in many ways a symptom of its fracturing.) But it says much that what millions of Americans appear to have feared more is further erosion under a cultural liberal like Hillary Clinton. In the face of the forces of secularism, globalism and multiculturalism, Trump has promised them their country, jobs and way of life back, including the right to practise their religion unmolested.

Has Trump really taken the measure of the task before him? Perhaps the best that can be said about a Trump presidency is that the (apparently neo-realist) distaste he shares with Putin for the promotion of democracy or human rights has made a war with Russia in Syria less likely than it would have been under the liberal interventionist Clinton (or, alternatively, a Republican neo-conservative). Yet Democrats have credited Russia with an influence over the outcome of the election that the Kremlin never possessed. At the very most Putin seems to have sensed that if Trump won the White House, it would be on the back of liberal overreach.

That overreach is bigger than Clinton's candidacy or Obama’s presidency. It's at least a generation old, if not two, and took place on both right and left. Let’s not forget that Trump only defeated Hillary’s cosmopolitanism after trouncing the neoliberal orthodoxies of half a dozen Republican nominees with a message of tariffs and neo-Keynesian infrastructure spending.

Now that Trump is president-elect we’ll have a chance to see how deep, real and sophisticated his 'post-liberal' vision really is. It’s strange enough to say, but in the Russian paper we have a benchmark against which to measure it. 'The most complicated task of conservative ideology today', it observes, 'is to create the image of the successful, educated citizen of his or her own country, living in dignified conditions and enjoying all the benefits of progress, but for all this preserving his or her own (traditional) values' – and not just the 'image', one might add, of such a citizen but the actual substance.

The Kremlin knows that while Russia talks the talk, it doesn’t yet walk the walk of a truly creative kind of conservatism – and that until it does, the appeal of Russian 'soft power' will be limited.

But, just as important, even as a set of ideas rather than a reality, Russian conservatism doesn’t seek to offer the world an alternative to modernity. Like the great Russian novels of the nineteenth century from which it draws inspiration, at its best what it offers instead is an opportunity to conceive of a different kind of modernity, one more respectful of the inheritance entrusted to it, moderate in its aims and conscious of its own fragility.

And, mightn’t we ask after Trump’s stunning (and to many incomprehensible) election victory, isn’t that in the end the only kind of modernity that’s sustainable at all?

The liberal stranglehold over late Western modernity has provoked a populist-conservative correction. But there are serious doubts that the man charged with bringing it about fully understands the gravity of the task he has been entrusted with.

Photo: Getty Images/Bloomberg

*Correction: This article originally stated that Conservatism as a factor in Russian “soft power”was published in 2015. It was actually published in 2013.

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