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Why Putin's Praise Won't Hurt Trump

Trump is running an anti-establishment campaign - his voters don't care that the establishment loves to be horrified by Russia president

Originally appeared at Forbes

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently had his annual news conference/telethon/stand-up comedy act. As usual, he held forth on a wide array of topics ranging from the obsequiousness of the Turks (perhaps they “wanted to lick the Americans in a certain place”), to John Kerry’s efforts to end the war in Syria, to an oblique (and extremely tentative) acknowledgement that there have been Russian troops in Ukraine “solving certain questions in the military sphere.”

What was really interesting, however, was that Putin went on the record with kind words for a certain GOP presidential candidate: Donald Trump. While stipulating that it was ultimately up to US voters to decide who would become president, Putin made clear that he considered Trump “the absolute leader of the presidential race” and a “very outstanding person, talented, without any doubt.”

Trump, for his part, professed to be “honored” by the compliments from someone like Putin who is “highly respected within his own country and beyond.”

Even though Trump is pretty well known for going off-message, this wasn’t some kind of rogue comment. In the past The Donald has been known to say that he would “get along very well” with Putin and suggested that, if elected president, he would be able to circumvent the tension and discord that has broadly defined US-Russia relations since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Exactly how Trump would fix the bilateral relationship is, of course, unclear. There’s just a vague sense that he respects Putin and thinks that Putin respects him.

But in a presidential campaign where virtually every other candidate in both the Democratic and Republican primaries routinely describes Putin as a thug, gangster, or dictator, and Russia as an international menace little different from the Soviet Union (or even Nazi Germany) Trump really does stand out for his seemingly positive views.

The most important question isn’t whether Putin and Trump would actually get along. Bloomberg’s Leonid Bershidsky has persuasively argued that, based on his past history of bringing oligarchs to heel, Putin would “eat Trump for lunch.”

Additionally it’s worth remembering that, at the end of the day, international relations are not just about personalities but about power and interests.

Even if he wanted to fundamentally transform America’s relationship with Russia, a president Trump would find himself under overwhelming pressure, from Congress, the military, and the intelligence agencies, to avoid doing precisely that.

But Trump, of course, doesn’t seem to play by the normal rules of politics. There have been literally dozens of different incidents that Beltway political analysts have predicted would be the death knell of his campaign, but Trump has marched on totally undeterred.

Will this be the straw that breaks the camel’s back? It is possible of course, but I think it’s unlikely. Why? Well Trumps’ campaign is built on concentrating contempt for the political elite. Trump constantly emphasizes the extent to which those in power are “idiots” and “losers,” who have “done an awful job.”

Trump, in other words, has quite deliberately capitalized on the public’s disgust with the Beltway elite, and promised to bring in different, far more talented, people to solve the nations problems. 

And if you’re looking for an opinion that is shared by virtually everyone who is anyone in Washington, it is that Vladimir Putin is an evil, evil man who needs to be defeated.

Putin’s endorsement thus doesn’t make Trump look weak or ineffectual, it heightens the differences with the Beltway elite against which his entire campaign is being directed. It makes him look like even more of an outsider.

If Trump were running a normal campaign Putin’s endorsement would be a catastrophe. Since trump isn’t running a normal campaign, though, it seems unlikely that it will have any significant impact, and what impact it does have is more likely than not to be positive.

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