A few months ago, I stood in front of a classroom full of Ukrainians. They were there to study so that they could leave their country. But what they wanted to talk about was why they liked Donald Trump.

I was in Ukraine on a Fulbright grant; before that, I had lived and worked in Russia for several years. In my time there, I watched Trump’s popularity grow. And with Russian-American relations at a new low, that Russian support for the man who is now president-elect of the United States might mean the difference between the next Cold War or not.

Part of Trump’s appeal to Russians clearly is politically motivated. Russians see Trump as being more supportive of Russian geopolitical and economic goals than Barack Obama. Putin and Obama tolerated but clearly did not like each other. Less benignly, some Russians see Trump’s volubility as a sign that he will be easy to manipulate. Loudly expressing emotion, as Trump does, is a sign of mental instability for Russians.

However, I’ve mentioned that many Ukrainians also like Trump, and friends of Putin tend not to be popular in a country currently being invaded by Putin. So Russians are also drawn to Trump for reasons that transcend politics. He appeals to their vision of what makes a good leader. Russians particularly like his image of ruthlessness and dominance.

The threat of invasion haunts the Russian collective memory. While less deadly than the invasions of World War II, the breakup of the Soviet Union in the 1990s also felt like an invasion for Russians. The West, they said, forced capitalism on Russia, with disastrous results.

Perhaps as a result of feeling under constant threat, Russians link the ability to dominate and control one’s neighbors with Russia’s power on the world stage. Putin sympathizes with Trump’s call to “Make America Great Again” because that is what he is trying to do with his own country.

As for Trump’s wall, it’s not something Russia hasn’t already tried. In the largest country in the world, access to resources, jobs and money is determined by how well you can fight for them. In the struggle for survival, ethnic tensions flare and Russians do not shy away from identifying and condemning those groups they find to be a threat. It is “us against them,” a mantra echoed by Trump.

In the tradition of Russian pessimism, Russians think it unlikely that such tensions can be resolved peacefully. A pale intellectual named Alexei tried to explain why Russia needed a leader like Putin. In such a big country, with so many different peoples, only a man with an iron fist could be in control, said Alexei – who then turned to me and murmured, “Like America, no?” Trump certainly promises to be that iron fist.

The president-elect’s behavior is familiar to Russians. They watch reports of his extravagance and shrug. While Americans try to hide the connection, in Russia, wealth and government go hand in hand. A popular joke portrays the politician as one who steals his millions and then goes into politics to make his stealing legal.

As for the outcry over Trump’s avoiding taxes, Russians are amused by American naïveté. They assume that all politicians are corrupt. As 18-year-old Artyom, laughing, told me several months ago, “Of course Putin is corrupt, but he is corrupt for Russia. And that is good.”

The traits Russians find familiar in Trump reflect a cynical view of government. Ravaged by famines, purges and war, Russians have learned to regard government with apprehension. For them, government follows the whims of those in power, not of those who are governed.

However, Trump will not be the next president of Russia. Whatever your feelings about Trump, he won by receiving the majority of electoral votes, not through voter fraud.

The accusations and propaganda of the campaign obscured a very precious privilege we have as Americans: We believe that government exists to represent us. We heartily and almost arrogantly demand that our voices be heard, regardless of what we are saying. Russians do not get that luxury.

I personally did not support Trump, but I can understand why other people did. He promised change to white, middle-class Americans. They perhaps forget that they are but a small percentage of all the people Trump’s election will affect. A significant number of those affected will be Russians, Ukrainians, Syrians and all the others caught up in the Russian-American relationship.

In order to maintain the uneasy balance of that relationship, Trump will have to capitalize on Russian support, but he will also have to learn how to play the political game quickly. Putin is a trained and experienced politician, motivated not by vendetta but by empire building. More dangerous still, rules and loyalty count for very little to a man who will always be “corrupt for Russia.”

 


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