Trump's suspected Russian connections have generated a small flurry of interest over the past few days, in the wake of the reports that Putin's agents may be behind the DNC e-mail hack. It is nearly certain that this mini-scandal will fade within the next few days as Americans, living in the eternal present, lurch on to the next shiny thing.
I would like very much for this story not to recede. Trump has today both announced that he has "nothing to do with Russia whatsoever," and then in a public speech a few hours later made a jaw-dropping request to Putin to help in finding Hillary Clinton's 30,000 missing e-mails. Commentators are wondering whether this constitutes treason, but we can anticipate that the evidently sarcastic tone of the request will provide plausible deniability. Haven't we learned by now, anyway, that Trump can say anything?
Prior to today's events, Masha Gessen, the English-speaking world's most lucid critic of Putin, published an article in the New York Review of Books denying exactly what I've spent the last two days trying to argue (e.g., here) --that Trump is, in a broad sense, an agent of Putin-- but I'd happily concede that point to someone who has "spent a good third of [her] professional life working to convince the readers... of both Russian and American publications that Vladimir Putin is a threat to the world as we know it." I think though that she creates a false dichotomy when she says that fixating on Trump as an agent of Putin is a "way to evade the fact that Trump is a thoroughly American creation that poses an existential threat to American democracy." I see it more as a way to make that same case, and to place it in a global context, which includes not only Putin but, only somewhat more distally, ethnonationalist autocrats like Erdogan and Modi. The point is to understand the genus that is casting forth all these new species in different national habitats, not to blame any one of them for the others.
Clearly, whatever your theory of the DNC hack, when Trump says that he has "nothing to do with Russia whatsoever," this can't be true. His multiple, publicly acknowledged ties with Russian business and with pro-Russian lobbies do not count as 'nothing'. So, once again, he's lying. Putin wants him urgently to be president of the US. Whether or not he is directly an agent of Putin, he is our national mutation of a rapidly speciating genus that includes Putin, indeed that includes him, I would say, as its type species. The fact that 'it can happen here', or that 'we have our own home-grown troubles to worry about', does not mean that there is not a global context for these local troubles that must also be understood. The fact that the global context of this particular trouble is one that reveals strong affinities, whether elective or not, between our home-grown politician and ethnonationalist autocrats in Russia, Turkey, India, and elsewhere, is one that it seems to me might be salient in conversation with friends and relatives who are operating under the illusion that there is something patriotic about voting for Trump. And yet so many people I have read or spoken with are downplaying or denying the Russian connection, even calling it red-baiting. As if there were anything red about the Putin regime: it is an ethnonationalist autocracy! Even if you think patriotism is vulgar, surely you can understand how, by making this Trump-Russia association stick (again, a real association, whether he is Putin's paid agent, useful idiot, or just a species of the same genus), we might hope to help reorient those people who believe patriotism is noble and believe they are acting on their patriotism by supporting Trump.
The recent talk of Trump's relations with Russia reminds me of Obama's attempt to roast the Republican candidate at the most recent press correspondents' dinner by observing that his experience in the domain of foreign relations consisted in bringing the Miss Universe contest to Moscow. Trump himself has boasted that this work indeed gives him special knowledge of Russia. What Obama's joke misses, and what our mockery of his boast misses, is that in the Russian mafia regime the event presided by Trump qualifies as a high-level affair of state. Ceremoniously judging women, and projecting one's power over them to the entire empire, while simultaneously torturing or threatening to torture the men, just is governance. Consider for example the activities of Ramzan Kadyrov, who is technically some kind of regional governor but in fact is a common warlord implanted in Chechnya in exchange for his promise of fealty to Putin. Kadyrov apparently serves on various committees (e.g., the Advisory Commission of the State Council of the Russian Federation), but the actions in virtue of which he maintains his power are things like shooting guns in the air, collecting sport cars, throwing money at women dancers during parties, showing off his own talents in dancing a lezginka, and maintaining active and plausible rumours of the existence of torture chambers in his realm. Notoriously, Gérard Depardieu sought to signal his je-m'en-fichisme towards the French Republic and toward Western high-mindedness in general by himself displaying fealty toward the Chechen warlord, even dancing a lezginka of his own.
Trump is one of these people. In his unhinged displays, in his flirtation with the Russian mafia state and all it symbolises, he is more like Depardieu than like any conservative politician the United States has ever known. It misses the point to call him a 'vulgarian'. Lyndon B. Johnson was a vulgarian, and he was also perfectly competent to serve as president of the United States (however awful his aggravation of the Vietnam War). Trump is, rather, someone who doesn't simply like wrestling and beauty contests, but who has no moral or intellectual ability to comprehend a vision of politics that is not fundamentally modelled on these base spectacles. He is an aspiring warlord, an aspiring mafioso, an aspiring vassal of Vladimir Putin, who for his part must at present be delighted and stunned to see the United States collapsing in just this way.