One of the biggest problems with political pundits, foreign policy wonks, and politicians themselves is that they don’t take into account the deeper effects of messaging. They think they do. They think they understand the effects of a particular message, but as has been made abundantly clear, anything they thought they knew in the past can be tossed out the window for 2016.
Donald Trump is almost certainly not beholden to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Yes, there are plenty of conspiracy theories and a strange number of connections between Trump and Russia, but a direct connection between Trump and Putin is highly unlikely. That’s been the lesser of two theories about why Trump has been saying such nice things about Putin for months. The more prominent theory is since Putin says potentially nice things about Trump (depending on how you read them), his self-centered narcissism compels Trump to return the favor. There’s a little truth to this, but it’s actually much deeper.
The reason that Trump continues to praise Putin is because average Jane and Joe Voter have conscious or unconscious respect for the Russian strongman. Most don’t like him. Most don’t agree with him. Most would be shocked if they did their research and discovered the depth of Putin’s depravity. With all this understood, they still respect him.
The American people view Putin as a strong, albeit evil, leader of his country. The media has hammered us in recent years with stories of Putin outmaneuvering and even bullying President Obama. We’ve been fed the propaganda meant for the Russian people with images of him striding triumphantly on horseback and working out like a prime physical specimen. We’ve seen world leaders condemn him and we’ve watched as he has refused to back down.
Beneath the surface, Putin is a petty authoritarian selling delusions on the world stage who is absolutely terrified of any form of political change. He wasn’t against the Arab Spring or any other revolts out of some deranged sense of love for dictators. He isn’t in Syria protecting Bashar al Assad because he likes him. Putin fears any successful revolt because he knows that his people could be driven to do the same if circumstances changed a little in his country. He is the epitome of contradiction on the world stage: wanting the status quo unless it’s he who is disrupting it.
Trump will continue to praise Putin and highlight how he is so much better than Obama. He will continue to praise Putin and point out that Hillary Clinton can’t handle him. He knows something about voters that pundits, wonks, and politicians don’t consider. He knows that by drawing parallels between himself and the evil dictator who wants to take us down, many Americans will view Trump as the one who can counteract Putin’s aggressiveness.
In essence, Trump wants the people to view him as the American Putin. They don’t have to like Putin. They just have to respect and even fear him. Trump’s praise reiterates the message that only he can face Putin head-to-head and come out on top. The sad reality is that he’s even less prepared to deal with Putin than Clinton is… which isn’t a lot.