It didn’t take long for the volleys of mutual praise and admiration this week between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US presidential aspirant Donald Trump to be dubbed a bromance.
In the eyes of pundits who see a junior version of Mr. Putin’s strong-arm presidency in Mr. Trump’s “tells it like it is” presidential campaign, it’s a match made in heaven.
But there’s another way to look at the admiration society blossoming between a modern-day Russian czar and a brash American tycoon who would be president.
Having alienated many of their peers, Putin and Trump seem to admire in each other some of the very qualities that have caused others to shun them.
Putin, who has faced Western leaders’ cold shoulder (and opprobrium in the form of economic sanctions) over Russia’s actions in Ukraine, on Thursday pronounced Trump “a very outstanding man, unquestionably talented,” and the “absolute leader” of the US presidential race.
Trump – who has received few big-name endorsements and is ostracized by the Republican Party establishment – was roundly condemned by world leaders last week when he said in response to the San Bernardino shootings that as president, he would temporarily bar Muslims from entering the country.
So when Putin lavished him with praise, Trump bought it. “It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond,” Trump said in a statement shortly after Putin’s comments.
Then on Friday, Trump continued the love, calling Putin “a leader, unlike what we have in this country,” on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show. “When people call you ‘brilliant,’ it’s always good,” Trump added, “especially when the person heads up Russia.”
Both Trump and Putin made a point of highlighting the other’s popularity with everyday people as reflected in presidential preference polls (for Trump) and job-approval ratings (for Putin).
Some saw a rise of populist authoritarianism in the Putin-Trump flirtations, while others saw an opportunity to sow doubts about Trump’s qualifications to be president of the United States. “A true freedom-loving conservative wouldn’t be flattered by praise from a despot like Putin,” fellow Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush tut-tutted in a tweet.
But for others, the exchanges between Putin and Trump are less a case of intense attraction than a reflection of an impulse to team up with and defend someone in whom one sees similar qualities to one’s own – especially when the other is under attack for expressing those qualities.
“I don’t think there’s necessarily an attraction between the two,” says Paul Saunders, executive director of the Center for the National Interest in Washington and an expert on US-Russia relations. “But I think that for Trump and Putin both, if someone is critical of them there’s a tendency to double down and dish it all back with a little extra.”
There’s no dismissing the fact that the two men do share certain personality traits.
“They both have larger-than-life personalities and images, there’s no doubt about that at all,” Mr. Saunders says.
Both are fond of talking at length. Putin’s year-end press conference this week went on for just over three hours (actually a few minutes shorter than last year’s), while Trump is famous for talking right over journalists.
Both appear to crave the limelight and cultivate a macho image – Putin with his frequent man-versus-nature adventures and shirtless photo shoots, Trump with his what-are-you-lookin’-at, I-dare-you-to-mock-me comb-over.
But they have something else in common that doesn’t come across in the first impression, Saunders says: Both are pragmatic.
“Both are people who often say provocative things, but in their actions they are pragmatic people,” he says. “Putin is a pragmatic leader and Trump is a pragmatic businessman. And so both are seeing the other as someone they may have to deal with.”
Indeed, Trump has often spoken of Putin as someone he believes he could work with. In October, he told CBS News that he would “probably get along ... very well” with Putin.
Such words are probably music to Putin, who has a tense relationship with President Obama – and who has a rocky past with another presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Mrs. Clinton joked that as a former KGB agent, Putin “has no soul,” and more recently she compared Putin to Adolf Hitler over his annexation of Crimea.
Putin returned the favor by calling Clinton “weak” and “never too graceful in her statements.”
Little surprise, then, that once Trump spoke of the two getting along “very well,” Putin reciprocated, saying in his press conference, “He says he wants to move to another, closer level of relations.... Of course we welcome that.”