The mundane badness of Trump and Putin
Politics makes strange bedfellows, and no public menage in our time is odder than the one in which liberals have united with far-right online LARPers in pretending that both President Trump and Russia's Vladimir Putin are ferocious reactionaries.
There is nothing reactionary or particularly supervillainous about Putin or his regime. Far from being a kind of theocratic neo-tsar who seeks to revive the glorious dream of the Rus' in the hearts of his post-Soviet countrymen and bring the decadent neoliberal West to heel, he is actually a cheap grifter, the head of an international mafia of oilmen and mineral tycoons who starve their fellow citizens in order to purchase luxury condos in the various major cities of Western Europe. Instead of serving as the secular enforcer of the spiritual authority of the Russian Orthodox Church, this divorcé has reduced the venerable Moscow patriarchate to a shabby front organization for Russian intelligence. His foreign policy is aggressive, but this has nothing whatever to do with Putin's allegedly right-wing attitudes and everything to do with the consistent policy of the Soviet Union throughout the last century. If the man at the Kremlin is a reactionary, so was Stalin.
The same is true of President Trump. For years now he has occasioned the most far-flung and lunatic speculation about his views on abortion and even contraception and extramarital sex. How anyone can believe that this twice-divorced, serially philandering, porn star-boinking, philistine manwhore, the only living head of state (to my knowledge anyway) who has appeared in a commercially distributed pornographic video, cares a fig about the Christian virtue of chastity is beyond me. Probably the same absurd things would be insisted upon no matter what Republican was in the White House, but there have to be limits even to exaggeration.
At least it is easier to make sense of the caricature of Trump as a kind of Buchananite populist who has broken with the post-1989 neoliberal consensus and wishes to replace it with some kind of quasi-Falangist economic nationalism. But this, too, is absolute nonsense. Trump's views on trade are barely more radical than those of Ronald Reagan and totally in line with those of Senator (though not of course President) Barack Obama. His economic policy has come straight from the GOP playbook: lowering taxes, increasing GDP without regard for wages or other even less tangible factors such as the dignity of work, and boosting the Dow Jones Industrial Average to unsustainable highs. Love or hate all of this, it's painfully ordinary Republican stuff.
None of this has prevented cynical politicians and their counterparts in journalism or, on the other hand, a pseudonymous army of post-teenaged Xbox players with Twitter usernames like @constantinoplevictory343, from living out their dark fantasies of a world on the cusp of a return to the Middle Ages. It is easy to understand why the latter group likes to indulge in these games. It is simply an extension of what they are doing with the rest of their time. But everyone else? Perhaps the answer is that in an age in which wealth and leisure are, for a certain class, world-historically abundant and entertainment is a ubiquitous feature of life, all politics has become a form of role-playing.
I am not immune to this temptation. Part of me wishes that I could believe for even a moment that Trump is a Butlerian jihadist intent on ushering in a world or even universe-wide Dark Age with the power of the American sword. Such a fantastically remote contingency would be, at any rate, less boring than the normal business of government, with its perennial mind-numbing debates about rather boring, straightforward subjects, like the best means of providing American citizens with health care.
Trump isn't a reactionary of any kind, and neither is Putin. The content of their summit, which is taking place amid the announcement that 12 Russian intelligence officials have been indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller in the course of his investigation of the 2016 election, will not be the horror of abortion or the evils of dog yoga or Trump's next directives as a Putin-controlled Manchurian candidate or even the downside to globalized free trade, but the same things that American and Russian leaders have discussed for years: the manifold tensions between the de facto head of NATO and the successor of the communist dictators whom the last century's longest lasting alliance was designed to overthrow and their numerous consequences, among them the hacking of the Democratic National Committee's emails.
None of this should be taken to suggest that these men are not bad or dangerous. But the real world is not a lame Hulu show or your favorite role-playing game. Here bad people are bad in humbler, less exciting ways.