Trump has been critical - even dismissive - of Reagan and George W. Bush, Obama and Clinton. Meanwhile, he's had nothing but good to say about Vladimir Putin. Trump's Secretary of State nominee, former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, challenged China's claims on the South China Sea in a way that led China's state controlled media to warn that this would led to war between the US and China. War. Mexico's peso has dropped since Trump's election. Trump has never said anything good about the Chinese or Mexicans or tried to appease them. Trump has had only good things to say about Putin and the Russians. Only good. The contrast between how he talks about American leaders and Russia's leader, between how he deals with China and Mexico and how he deals with Russia, could not be more stark.
So why does this matter? Isn't it true that it would be good for the US to get along with Russia, as Trump says? And isn't it an asset that Putin likes Trump?
In fact, it is alarming that Trump is so enamored of Putin.
First of all, Trump has expressed envy for Putin's ability to jail and kill political opponents and critical journalists. You might argue that there is no way that Trump can imitate Putin's dictatorial actions here in the US and I'll say that the very fact that he leans in that direction guarantees that he'll do things no recent president has done. But there is a deeper reason to feel revulsion towards Trump's adulation of Putin.
This is most succinctly captured in the Ukraine's situation.
Eastern Ukraine shares a border with Russia and many of its values. People there watch TV, are fond of strong leaders who don't confuse them with debates and subtleties, they're afraid of the disruption of capitalism and foreign trade and they distrust liberal values that challenge their religion, homophobia and misogyny.
Western Ukrainians aspire to become more integrated with Western Europe, are on the internet, like grassroots movements with all their chaos, uncertainty and debates, yearn for open markets and trade, and prefer science and minority rights.
Putin clearly wants the whole of Ukraine to again be under his influence. He's already invaded the Crimea, claiming that he has a right to do that because people there like him better. In July, the same month in which he won the Republican nomination, Trump stated that he would recognize the Russian "annexation" of Crimea, leaving the invasion unchallenged. A month later, the Trump team made only one change to the Republican platform, leaving everything else untouched. Their only change? They removed a pledge from the Republican Party to provide military assistance to the Ukrainian government against the rebels in the East, rebels supported by Putin.
Trump is doing everything Putin would want while continuing to praise a man Marco Rubio recently suggested was a war criminal (citing not only the massive number of civilians Russian bombs have recently killed in Syria but the 300,000 citizens Putin killed in Chechnya years ago). I actually think the notion that he's doing all of this because the Russians are blackmailing him over sexually compromising videos is one of the more generous interpretations of why he's so enamored of Putin. For people who really like the West and its direction over the last 500 years, the idea that our new president shares their appreciation for Western values but doesn't want people to know about his sexual perversions is a better explanation than that he thinks more like Eastern Ukrainians than Western ones.
I don't know if the Russians are blackmailing Trump. I think it's scarier if they are not, if the real explanation is that Trump truly prefers Putin's model of governance to that of Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Obama's. He's already shown contempt for a free press that would challenge him and expressed an on again, off again desire to "lock up" the woman who dared to run against him. He's got a narcissistic personality and sense of himself as uniquely special; these two qualities alone make him more like dictators than the traditional American president.
Will we ever find out whether Trump's actually being handled by the Russians? That outcome would actually make me feel more relieved than what I currently suspect: Putin doesn't have to do anything but be Putin to win Trump's admiration and friendship.
There is a Japanese proverb that translates to, "When the character of a man is not clear, look at his friends." Out of 200+ world leaders, Trump has already made it clear which one he feels a special affinity for. That should scare everyone more than sexual perversion.