The Cold War ended in 1991, but the paranoia persists. Trump evokes it every time he speaks of America in decline and voices admiration for the Moscow's strongman Vladimir Putin.
The GOP presidential nominee's argument -- Putin is strong, Russia is taking over, and America must retreat -- seems inconsistent if you believe he's a regular American politician seeking to serve our democracy.
However there has never been anything regular about Trump's candidacy. He is not so much a Republican running for president as a demagogue seeking to build a movement based on fear, scapegoating (of immigrants, Muslims, women, etc.) and his own personality. The presidency may be out of reach, but Trump could create a reactionary splinter party organized by the expansion of Brietbart.com into a full-blown media empire delivering conspiracy theories and rage.
From the start of his presidential campaign, Trump has been more demagogue than statesman, signaling in his admiration for Putin that he is the first modern major-party candidate to prefer a strongman approach to governing. His policy for America is not to confront Putin, but to cooperate with him in foreign affairs and emulate him at home. He wants not to be the president, but to be America's czar.
Understanding why Trump would admire a man whose critics wind up dead
and whose neighbors wind up invaded requires focusing on Trump's lifelong passions and constant campaign themes. From the time he was schooled in the politics of power at a military school until now, Trump's purpose has been to dominate -- this is what he means by "winning" -- in every arena, from business to politics to even personal encounters. (For examples of this, consult the infamous audio of Trump bragging about sexual assault
and the multiple accusations that followed.)
At the first presidential debate, Trump bent toward his microphone and said, "It's called business" to explain why he rooted for the 2007 collapse in the housing market
, which drove millions of Americans into foreclosure and began the Great Recession. Only the so-called vultures of capitalism consider a housing crisis and a recession mere "business" and few of them would admit hoping for such an event so that they could take advantage.
Trump obviously sees nothing wrong with taking any advantage, including the use of the tax code
, to evade contributing something back to the country that has done so much for him.
Putin was first
On the global stage, the only leader to match Trump's predator profile is the Russian leader. Like Trump, who has always gamed whatever system he confronts, Putin seized Crimea, invaded Ukraine and used his air force to kill Syrian civilians at the behest of Bashar al-Assad simply because he could. Bullies always pick on the weak and fight dirty in order to delay a response by the strong.
The world's response to Putin has included crippling sanctions, which are slowly bankrupting the Kremlin. Unable to trade and deprived of oil revenues, Russians face a declining standard of living. The average Russian income is down to $450 per month
and the government's cash reserves, depleted by the high cost of war, are expected to be gone by the end of next year
. Nevertheless, Putin has remained popular with people who recall the former Soviet Empire and believe he is avenging the humiliation experienced when it collapsed.
This dynamic of humiliation-defeat-resurrection-revenge appeals to something primal in many people, especially when they feel aggrieved. In the United States, the most aggrieved may be white, working-class men who feel left behind.
Rising racial and ethnic diversity, global economic competition and women's equality have undermined the security once enjoyed by those who worked in manufacturing, mining, and other old-economy industries.
The resentment some feel is not unlike the resentment experienced by Russians, who miss the days when Soviet leaders controlled all of eastern Europe, beat the Americans into space and all-but colonized the island of Cuba, just 90 miles from Key West.
Trump's authoritarian dream
Russians are not unique in their authoritarian impulse. Something in the human soul is drawn to promises of safety and, ultimately glory, in moments of crisis. Of course America wasn't in crisis, or any real sense of danger, when Trump began his campaign. Instead it was recovering from the Great Recession, it was popular abroad, and could boast low rates of crime and violence.
Needing to create fear to justify the repressive leadership he proposed, Trump began his campaign with a book titled Crippled America
and a speech that suggested murderous hordes were rampaging across the country's southern border. Although more people were leaving the US than were coming in
, he proposed an extreme anti-immigrant policy that included a huge, multibillion-dollar border wall and a massive deportation force to round up 11 million undocumented immigrants and deport them.
From the false immigration scare, Trump moved on to a terrorism threat he deemed so severe that he suggested all Muslims be banned from entering the country. Insisting that only he, personally, could deal with these and other problems, Trump made his imitation of Putin complete by encouraging a cult of personality as the solution to all of America's problems.
It must have been a pleasure for Trump to do all this with other people's money, as political donors and the Republican Party funded his grand tour of rallies, his political advertising campaign and his development of a national network of operatives
who will remain loyal to his causes well into the future.
Always interested in personal power and essentially devoid of any commitment to democratic ideals, Trump is naturally inclined to be a strongman. But as a far more stable and far richer country, the United States is not as vulnerable to demagoguery style as Russia seems to be. Centuries-old democratic institutions and the politicians who value them do seem to be holding against Trump. And the polls indicate
he will be defeated comfortably at the ballot box.
An election defeat should end Trump's assault on the GOP and return it to the control of Republican leaders, who value the system of democracy and the rules that constrain presidents who would be dictators. But it will not mean the end of Trumpism.
When he made Breitbart executive Steve Bannon
head of his presidential campaign, the campaign itself took a turn toward the extreme that reveals Trump's true intentions. We should expect these two men to use their skills to amplify and exploit the paranoia and resentment of this campaign and create a permanent empire of rage.
The only question that remains is whether its end goal will be profit or a new political party that might one day gain real power.