The Useful Idiot Running for the Presidency
Shortly after the Soviet Union was established, many Western figures openly admired and praised the first-ever Marxist state as a brave experiment. The American muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens envisioned the Soviet Union as a bright future for mankind. Steffens and his comrades soon began to excuse Soviet atrocities even as it became clear that the Soviet Union was a totalitarian state where the vast majority of the population lived in poverty. Intellectuals and artists like Jean-Paul Sartre and George Bernard Shaw excused Stalinist crimes and journalists like Walter Duranty covered up the massive (and deliberate) 1930s famine in Ukraine. An American ambassador to Russia, Joseph Davies, even praised the absurd show trials that Stalin used to eliminate any potential rivals as part of his massive and bloody purges. Leftist Westerners gradually became disillusioned with the Soviet Union after events such as the 1956 Hungarian Uprising, when the Soviet military brutally crushed the new reformist regime in their Hungarian satellite state. It simply became too logically ridiculous to deny that the Soviet Union was a brutally repressive dictatorship with imperial ambitions. Nevertheless, the early sympathizers of the Soviets have been permanently and rightly labeled as “useful idiots.”
Often incorrectly attributed to Vladimir Lenin, the term “useful idiot” has become a label attached to foreign sympathizers of brutal regimes who try to excuse away the regimes crimes. The term has most often been used to describe the Western leftists described above who defended the Soviet Union. However, the term is still useful in describing the motley collection of individuals in the West who currently sympathize with and praise Vladimir Putin and his regime in Russia. European political parties on both the far Right and far Left look up to Putin as a role model in combating Western liberal values. In France, Marine Le Pen of the xenophobic right-wing National Front speaks highly of Putin while at the same time the National Front receives loans from Russian banks. The hard-Left Syriza government in Greece flaunts its links with Putin and his regime. Even in the UK, the leftist Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has appeared on Russian propaganda news networks and slams the West for being too confrontational with Putin. While Corbyn, Le Pen, Syriza and other European extremists have never met an anti-American figure that they didn’t like, Putin’s fan club has spread to the United States despite Putin’s role as America’s main geopolitical threat. And Putin’s most famous useful idiot is now the Republican nominee for President of the United States: one Donald J. Trump.
Trump has had nothing but praise for Putin going back for a decade. Putin was responsible for “rebuilding Russia” according to Trump in 2007. Trump praised a 2013 op-ed by Putin in the New York Times as a “masterpiece.” This was the op-ed where Putin justified his support of the war criminal Bashar Al-Assad and criticized American actions around the globe. For Trump, Putin is a strong leader who provides order. This order consists of launching brutal wars in Chechnya, eliminating any rule of law in Russia, stealing massive amounts of wealth and enriching cronies, making Russia a socially regressive country where homophobic laws are carried out to please a religious organization stuck in the 19th century, attacking the neighboring states of Georgia and Ukraine, destroying independent media and murdering or imprisoning your opponents. Putin runs nothing less than a gangster state. On the world stage, Putin has made clear that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest political disaster of the 20th century and that the United States is a global menace. Putin snarls that the US is an imperial power that interferes around the world. Of course, Putin at the same time threatens and bullies Russia’s neighbors. As stated before, extremist anti-American figures in Europe and around the globe have looked to Putin as a figure of admiration. Most disturbingly, the possible next leader of the free world admires Putin.
While it is usually difficult to assess whether Trump has any coherent foreign policy plans beyond a Twitter post, Trump’s ideas are certainly pleasing to the Kremlin. Trump has had nothing but contempt for the most successful military/political alliance in history, NATO. Trump blasts NATO allies as useless states who don’t pay their fair share. The truth is, however, Poland and the Baltic States are the nations that are most threatened by Russia and are currently doing the most to boost their own security. Trump, who probably couldn’t tell Lithuania from Louisiana, never acknowledges this inconvenient fact. Trump’s surrogate Newt Gingrich nonsensically dismissed Estonia as a suburb of St. Petersburg. These states are some of the most pro-American on the globe as well, and consistently support American foreign policy. Putin, who has bullied these states for years, (such as ordering a massive hacking of Estonian government offices in 2007) could not be more pleased. Trump also has repeatedly spouted Russian propaganda about Ukraine. Trump has said he would be open to recognizing the illegal Russian takeover of Crimea and removing sanctions on Russian officials involved, reversing an American policy widely supported by both Republicans and Democrats. Trump also bizarrely said that Putin is “not in Ukraine” despite Russian soldiers fighting over the past two years in the eastern Ukrainian region known as the Donbas. If we give Trump the benefit of a doubt that he is not spouting off Russian propaganda nonsense, he must therefore simply be astonishingly ignorant.
It can come as no surprise that Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, has spent years working for the pro-Russian President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. The corrupt and thuggish Yanukovych, before fleeing Ukraine (with the help of Russian special forces) following the 2014 Maidan Uprising, used Manafort as an important political consultant. Manafort, who also advised the Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the 1980s, is alleged to have received millions of dollars in illegal payments from Yanukovych. Following the 2004 Ukrainian elections, which Yanukovych unsuccessfully tried to rig in his favor, Manafort was hired to help Yanukovych appear as a somewhat respectable figure (as opposed to a gangster who worked for the Kremlin.) To repeat, Trump’s campaign manager has advised a kleptocratic ally of Putin’s in exchange for significant compensation (no doubt screwing over Ukrainian citizens in the process.)
Putin has made it clear which Presidential candidate he favors. I’ll give you a hint; it’s not Hillary Clinton. Putin has made it clear that he detests Clinton, bizarrely accusing her of managing the 2011 protests against his regime in several Russian cities. Just like a Russian tsar or a Communist Secretary-General, Putin is incapable of believing that people can think and organize for themselves independently without taking orders from some distant authority.
To damage Clinton, Russia has actively interfered in the American election. American intelligence agencies have determined that Russian intelligence linked figures have hacked into Democratic National Committee accounts as well as a number of accounts associated with Democratic Party organizations and Democratic lawmakers. Working with Wikileaks (whose founder Julian Assange also apparently has a vendetta against Clinton,) embarrassing DNC messages were leaked that clearly sought to sow discord at the Democratic National Convention. Trump has been downright gleeful at this disturbing turn of events, later encouraging Russia to hack into Clinton’s account (although he later claimed to be joking.) Clinton was no doubt “extremely careless” with her accounts, as FBI Director James Comey has stated. I am in no way defending Clinton’s poor judgment and paranoid habits. However, the truth remains that Russia has clearly been favoring Trump. Putin knows that a President Trump would quite possibly destroy NATO and undermine the entire American-led world order that has been in place since the end of the Second World War. Putin knows that this would be catastrophic for the West and therefore a huge gain for his regime. Putin most likely does not have any real personal regard for the buffoonish Trump. Instead, Trump is just another useful idiot for the Kremlin.