President Donald Trump got trolled by Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Group of 20 world leaders summit in Osaka. He was having so much fun joking with Vladimir, he seemed blissfully unaware.
Just before the summit, Putin gave an interview to the Financial Times in which he laid out his belief that the Western order is crumbling.
“The liberal idea has become obsolete (and) has outlived its purpose,” he said bluntly. He has made no secret of his desire to expedite the downfall of the Western order by probing its weak points, and encouraging its divisions.
Judging by Trump’s performance in Osaka, the U.S. president seems determined to help him along.
“Don’t meddle in the election,” a smirking Trump told a smiling Putin, in front of reporters, wagging a finger at the Russian leader. (Of course, the Mueller Report found that Russia made “multiple systemic efforts” to interfere in the 2016 election).
No bother to Trump. Rather than behave firmly and correctly with the Russian leader, Trump gushed: “It’s a great honor to meet with Putin. A lot of very positive things are going to come out of the relationship.”
Contrast this with Theresa May’s meeting with Putin in Osaka. Unsmiling, she told him Russian efforts to poison former spy Sergei Skripal on British soil “can never be repeated.” Of course, Putin denied any Russian role in the poisoning. But, unlike Trump, May stood firm in the face of his lies.
The issue is much bigger than Russian meddling or assassinations, which are part of a larger pattern.
“Putin talks incessantly about the end of the old U.S.-led unipolar order that didn’t give Russia a role,” says Angela Stent, author of Putin’s World: Russia Against the West and with the Rest. “He talks about moving into the post-Western order.”
The Russian leader presents himself as the guru of a new “illiberal” governing model that allows elections but curtails or dismantles democratic institutions.
Nationalist populist leaders in Hungary, Italy, France and elsewhere are looking to Putin — Hungary’s Viktor Orban calls openly for “illiberal democracy” — while Russian propaganda encourages European voters to move in a populist direction. “He is playing the populist card and has been rather successful,” Stent says. “He is trolling (others), maybe more will jump on the bandwagon.”
But Putin has no need to encourage the populist nationalist Trump.
Trump still endorses Putin’s denials of election meddling over the findings of his own intelligence agencies, which undercuts their efforts to block future Russian meddling. This is a gift to the Kremlin that keeps on giving.
Another gift is Trump’s repeated verbal attacks on the media when he meets with autocrats. “Fake news is a great term, isn’t it,” Trump commiserated with Putin, in front of reporters. “You don’t have that problem in Russia.” Of course, the Kremlin controls nearly all TV stations and major media, and pesky Russian reporters are murdered or jailed.
In his Financial Times interview, Putin, returns the favor. He cynically promotes the mantra of populists from Trump to Brexiteers to Orban. He cites the “the gap between the interests of the elites and the overwhelming majority of the people” in Europe and America. (Never mind that any Russian opposition to the Kremlin elite is eliminated or crushed.)
And, in Trump-esque tones, Putin links the “liberal idea” to unchecked immigration, and migrants who “can kill, plunder, and rape with impunity.” He claims the “liberal idea presupposes that nothing needs to be done.”
“So the liberal idea has become obsolete. It has come into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population.”
Then Putin goes on to extol “traditional values,” using language similar to onetime Trump strategist Steve Bannon.
The Russian leader insists that “traditional values” such as religion “are more stable and more important for millions of people than this liberal idea, which, in my opinion, is really ceasing to exist.” Never mind that Putin presides over a regime rife with corruption, willing to murder opponents, and disdainful of moral values.
Stent says that Putin’s talk of immigration has to do with “reinforcing people questioning their own system. He is certainly speaking to those parts of European Union who are pro-Russian, saying we Russians are going in the right direction.”
But Putin is also playing the American card. Now that the Mueller Report is passe, he may feel more free to engage with Trump on themes that appeal to Trump’s thinking and draw the U.S. president even closer.
And Trump, at the G-20, gravitated toward this autocrat who curbs courts, voters and press in a way that the president may wish he could or aspires to do by different methods, such as Supreme Court decisions. All Putin had to do was grin.