Brian Howey: Taking measure of Vlad the Strongman
Friday, December 23, 2016 12:12 PM
NASHVILLE, Ind. - In the autumn of 2015, Indiana Republican National Committeeman John Hammond III was the first to broach the idea that Americans were open to electing a “strongman” as president, the observation coming as Donald Trump was rising in the polls. Voters were yearning for an American version of Vladimir Putin.
Why? America is becoming browner, older, while the workforce with a huge emphasis of “shareholder profits” is moving toward an era that will not sustain the middle class as we know it. A 2013 Oxford University study shows that some 47 percent of American jobs could be lost due to artificial intelligence and automation. Say goodbye to the branch bank and the grocery checkout clerk. A 2016 study from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates that 9 percent of jobs would be completely displaced in the next two decades.
These are seeds for political unrest on a scale far, far beyond 2016.
It was that sentiment that propelled Donald Trump into the White House on Nov. 8. One of Trump’s first excursions outside of Trump Tower came at the Carrier plant in Indianapolis, where he and Gov. Mike Pence triumphantly “saved” 800 jobs, heralding a coming $16 million company investment. But in a CNBC interview, United Technologies CEO Greg Hayes acknowledged, “We're going to ... automate to drive the cost down so that we can continue to be competitive. We will make that plant competitive just because we'll make the capital investments there. But what that ultimately means is there will be fewer jobs."
We’ve learned over the past few weeks is that the other “strongman” on the global stage, Russian President Putin, personally directed encroachments into the U.S. presidential election. That is the assessment of the CIA, FBI and 15 other U.S. intelligence agencies. It came after Trump during his last press conference on July 27 said, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”
Now, do I think Russia impacted the election, swinging it for Trump? No. The FBI bombshell from Director James Comey, the inept campaign of Hillary Clinton and frightened and alarmed American middle class voters elected Trump.
What is alarming is that not only has Trump carried on a bromance with President Putin, he flat out rejected the U.S. intelligence assessments. "These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” Trump tweeted. “They have no idea.” Actually, the intel agencies have a “high degree of confidence.”
For years, Trump has lauded Putin. In 2007, he said, “Look at Putin. He’s doing a great job in rebuilding the image of Russia and also rebuilding Russia period.” Last December, Trump told MSNBC’s Morning Joe, “He's running his country and at least he's a leader, unlike what we have in this country.” Reminded that Putin and his government is complicit in the murders of dozens of journalists and political rivals, Trump responded, "I think our country does plenty of killing also."
This past week, an Economist/YouGov Poll showed that 37 percent of Republican voters have a “favorable” opinion of Putin, up from 24 percent in September.
As we head into Christmas, Trump and Putin now appear to be renewing a nuclear arms race, with Trump tweeting, “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” It prompted Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institute to observe, “When it comes to nuclear weapons, Mr. Trump faces a steep learning curve. He had better start doing his homework. This stuff matters.”
Is Putin a strong leader? Annexing the Crimea, propagating civil war in the Ukraine and propping up a genocidal regime in Syria are classic ways to take measure of a strongman.
Celebrity Net Worth puts Putin’s wealth at $70 billion, while the CIA put it at $40 billion in 2014.
Former Russian oil executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an original post-Soviet oligarch until Putin wrested control of his Yukos oil company and imprisoned him, observed, “At first, he thought he could build sort of a democratic model that he could control. A model like this does not exist, so he started to slide towards at first mild totalitarianism, and then an increasingly harsh totalitarianism. If the situation develops further, he will reach a full totalitarian model. In reality, every authoritarian system is a kleptocracy.”
There are other metrics to weigh. YaleGlobal notes that the Russian fertility rate has plummeted to 1.7 births per woman. The Moscow girls that made us sing and shout are not leaving the West behind. The Russian male life expectancy is 64 years, compared to 76 in the U.S. and 75 in Indiana.
The Russian economy has contracted by 3.7 percent since 2014, according to The Diplomat, while the value of the ruble has fallen 127 percent.
Credit Suisse puts the median Russian income at $871 annually, compared to $1,000 in India, $52,000 in Indiana and $56,000 in the U.S. Frontline reports that 110 individuals, many Putin cronies, own 35 percent of the wealth, the most unequal nation on the planet. YaleGlobal’s estimated number of Russians living below the subsistence poverty line was 20 million last year, up from 2 million in 2014.
According to IHS Jane’s Defense Budgets Annual Report, military spending in Russia rose by 21 percent in 2015 while Putin’s people languish in a sagging economy. It has echoes of the end of the Cold War, when President Reagan development of Star Wars induced Soviet Chairman Mikhail Gorbachev to realize his economy couldn’t endure such an arms race. The Soviet Union collapsed a few years later.
Edward Lucas, a senior editor at The Economist, notes, “Putin was trained in the KGB to deceive foreigners. He has a very sharp eye for human weakness. He’s good at persuading people and intimidating them, and he’s been doing this with Western leaders, sometimes with charm, sometimes with threats. But boy, does he do it.”
Thus, the proverbial strongman is not always what he’s cracked up (and hacked up) to be.
Perhaps Trump is simply returning the favor.
The columnist is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.