This article appeared in the July 02, 2019 edition of the Monitor Daily.

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‘He looks like a world leader’: Why Russians admire Donald Trump

Susan Walsh/AP
President Donald Trump shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Osaka, Japan, June 28.

Welcome to your Daily. Today we look at the quieter moves of the high court’s term, a surprising salmon-habitat solution, Ireland’s rethinking of sexual assault trials, Hawaiians’ take on Independence Day, and a wounded Green Beret’s will to come back stronger.

First, consider a question: “What do you think of Donald Trump?”

Just about anywhere in the world, it’s a conversation starter. In Moscow, the reactions can be priceless. Last Friday, after a week in Russia, I asked my cabdriver to share his thoughts. Andrei didn’t hesitate.

“Trump is a strong uncle,” the driver said. “He drinks the blood of babies.”

Andrei meant this as a compliment, in an allusion to tales of how Russian czars got their energy.

More on President Trump: “He looks like a world leader. He has money; he has everything.”

I just attended my seventh Dartmouth Conference since 2015, a dialogue for prominent Americans and Russians to brainstorm ways to improve a bilateral relationship that has steadily worsened. Arms control, regional conflicts, and cultural matters were on the table. Our joint recommendations were then shared at senior levels of both governments.

But it’s the peripheral interactions – the meals, the excursions – that give the process its juice. By now, core participants greet each other as old friends. New participants with new ideas are welcomed. We also watch proudly as Dartmouth veterans are called to official service, as with U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey and leading Russian academic Vitaly Naumkin, both envoys on Syria. We can’t help but think that their Dartmouth experiences have informed their diplomacy. 

Then there’s Andrei the cabdriver. Understanding him and other average Russians puts the rarefied Dartmouth discussions into a larger context. Andrei’s reaction to Mr. Trump came as no surprise. When I ask about Vladimir Putin, Andrei is noncommittal – “maybe good, maybe not,” perhaps a reflection of the Russian president’s softening popularity. “But Putin is eternal. Nobody can replace him.”

When I broach the turmoil in Ukraine – Andrei’s native country – he dismisses the new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, as a comedian and doesn’t even mention President Putin. He looks again to a leader he clearly admires.

“If Trump was president,” he says, “he would restore order.”

In this part of the world, the love of perceived strongmen lives – especially from afar.

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This article appeared in the July 02, 2019 edition of the Monitor Daily.

Read 07/02 edition