Ever since he began his unlikely ascent to the height of American politics, Donald Trump has made a habit of savaging his country’s political elite and praising the leaders of other countries who he feels have been running rings around our leaders.
From trade to geostrategy to terrorism to immigration, Trump has spent the past couple of years excoriating what he claims are terrible deals and decisio0ns. It seems the leaders of every other country, from China to Mexico, have America by the throat, and our elected leaders are irredeemably weak and ineffectual. No wonder America doesn’t win anymore!
A Little Love for the Strongman
Of particular interest has been Trump’s ebullient praise for strongman leaders like China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Putin, in particular, has been the subject of much of Trump’s admiration. He has frequently referred to the Russian president as an exceptionally strong leader, praising his ability to wield power and influence and comparing him negatively to Barack Obama, who, for Trump, seems to be the living avatar of American decline and infirmity.
Some commentators have fretted for months over Trump’s relationship with Putin, fearing that his warmth could signal a diminishing American commitment to the Atlantic military alliance, and perhaps even ceding to Russia the sphere of influence in Eastern Europe Putin has long coveted and wished to reclaim. These are legitimate concerns, up to a point. It is certainly a bit worrying that Trump will be relying on retied General Michael Flynn, who has a remarkably cozy relationship with the Kremlin for a former American spymaster.
Yet, Trump’s own geostrategic interests will keep him from folding up the NATO tent or letting Putin walk all over the Baltic states. After all, that would be showing the same sort of weakness he so loathed in the Obama administration.
What is of interest, rather, is not so much Trump’s desire to be friends with Putin, as is his affinity for some of the political tactics Putin has put to effective use in Russia.
Naming and Shaming
One of Putin’s favorite tactics is to hold televised meetings with the boards of massive companies that have displeased him. Before a rapt national audience, Putin attacks the executives for all manner of failures and forces them to explain how they plan to change their ways. It is excellent television, and never fails to win Putin points with the public.
We can already see similar behaviors from the President-Elect. When Indiana-based Carrier planned to move much of its operation to Mexico, Trump pounced on them. Eventually, through a mixture of browbeating and public funding, Carrier decided to keep most of the jobs in the United States. The optics of the victory were profound, with Trump and Mike Pence, his soon-to-be vice president, calling it a first victory in their campaign to Make America Great Again.
Trump employed a similar tactic this week, calling out Boeing for its cost overruns on the next-generation Air Force One. He has gone as far as threatening to cancel the order altogether.
No Cure for Stagnation
Taking the rich and powerful to task, and humbling them before a television audience, is always a solid way to win popularity. No one likes the elites who are perceived as untouchable, getting rich off the backs of hardworking people. In that way Trump, and Putin before him, can play the role of people’s tribune, keeping the greedy economic powers in check through their indomitable wills.
While it ultimately took a very significant public subsidy to keep most of the Carrier jobs in the US, the public perception was of Trump bringing a company trying to flee America back into line. That fits with the narrative that won him the White House. More visible victories like that will help insulate his popularity from the economic costs such policies ultimately impose on a country. Because, for all its value as political theater, calling out individual corporations does nothing to affect macroeconomic realities.
This is true in Russia, where a long resource-driven economic boom has turned to a sustained period of stagnation and contraction. And it is true of America, where anemic economic growth continues to be a problem. Scapegoating specific companies can keep the heat off a leader in the face of economic hardship. And if Trump follows through on his promises to throw up trade barriers, he will need all the scapegoats he can find.
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