What does it mean if Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, likes you? Is it auspicious to be embraced by the Russian bear? Ask Donald Trump.
Putin has recently made very complimentary remarks about the Donald’s persona, describing Trump as “undoubtedly a very colorful talented person” and “outstanding.” Quick to return the “kiss,” Trump responded that it is a “great honor” to receive such a remark.
The similarities of the two men are quite evident. Both enjoy being on display 24/7. For Putin, stripping to the waist with a hunting rifle, voyaging in a bathyscaph, affixing electronics to a sedated tiger, and firing an arbalest at a whale are meant to come naturally with aplomb and show the world who is in charge. For Trump, being macho means telling it like it is, trashing PC, and having a hairdo as a platform to launch a thousand attacks on rivals and adversaries. Neither one suffers fools or takes prisoners. Each is a businessman: Putin knows his oil oligarchs and Trump knows his real estate. Each has a mentality of realpolitik. There is no room for nuance or nonsense — nor should there be.
Both Putin and Trump are expert at strategy and brand positioning. Both seem to love their countries and make no apologies. Putin projects utter clarity of intentions: Ukraine has Russian minorities who need protection and Russia needs a naval base at Sebastopol. Similarly, Syria has Russia’s only naval base on the Mediterranean — a small one for logistics and supplies. Syria has been a Russian client for decades, and the current regime continues to receive military support to assure a degree of Russian influence in the Middle East. Further, calling the collapse of the USSR the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century, Putin has expressed his yearning to reestablish the position the Soviets once held — and he sees opportunity to better it with relations with Iran and Syria.
While the United States and the West may not like Putin’s aggressive intrusions, which include provocations by his air force, it is hard to doubt the intensity of his focus and drive. The Russian brand is forged as tough, with clearly defined objectives and unabashed self-interest. Putin’s pronouncements are succinct and straightforward — quite unlike the nuanced, wordy explanations of President Obama who is masterful at setting up straw models that he attributes to his adversaries, and then speciously attacking them.
Although he is not subverting neighboring countries, and whether the Republican establishment likes him or not, Trump is similarly a branding genius. The name “Trump” projects massive financial success, real estate monuments to personal glory, competence, and stunning business acumen. His ability to capitalize on the profound anger of much of the American people at Washington and the political class is the essence of the brand. While a real estate mogul, Trump nonetheless likes to come across as a man of the people, festooned in our national colors — blue suit, red tie, and white shirt. The ball cap inscribed with “Make America Great Again” is a succinct tag line that evokes positive emotions, like a fine product. Coke, Nike, Apple, and Trump – ready to meet a need, they all stand for something clear that people want.
Both Putin and Trump are men of action, not words. Unlike the White House, they do not confuse motion with traction. President Obama’s reset of relations with Russia has failed miserably, with nasty surprises for the U.S. in Ukraine and Syria, as well as a more aggressive Russia vis-à-vis NATO.
Both men are obviously very different, too. Trump is the quintessential capitalist, masterful at the art of the deal (with a book with such title). Putin is former Lt. Colonel in the KGB, at one time based in Dresden, and presumably schooled in raw methods. But even so, and to paraphrase in Rudyard Kipling’s “The Ballad of East and West,” the differences of geography, nationality, and antecedents are inconsequential “…[w]hen two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth.”
Whether Putin and Trump will face each other remains to be seen — but the strength projected by each may well offer the real reset.