There is a crude classification for what motivates someone to work for a hostile government. It goes by the acronym MICE, which stands for Money, Ideology, Coercion, and Ego. There are other reasons, eg. excitement, revenge, or sex in the sense of a reward or an enticement. But I will skip them because I don’t think they are as relevant here. Maybe they also play some role, but probably only a minor one. Most cases will obviously be a mix of different motivations, and it is hard to tell what it is.
Surely, one could start from the supposition that nothing has yet been proved about a connection between Donald Trump and the Kremlin. But I will not do this because I think the evidence that has accumulated is already strong enough to conclude that there is something. Trump behaves in ways that could not be more suitable for Putin:
Attempts to lift sanctions unilaterally, thwarting the implementation of new sanctions, stirring problems within NATO, trashing allies, undermining the EU, handing out secret intelligence in the Oval Office, a consistent inability to utter the slightest criticism of Putin, lavish praise instead, and so forth.
What is certainly unclear is what the exact relationship is. It is in principle conceivable that Trump acts autonomously. But it could also be that he receives concrete orders. Or something in between. We don’t know either if actions were illegal although much points in that direction.
What I found frustrating especially earlier this year was how the media — not all of them, but almost a consensus in my view — pursued certain explanations to the exclusion of others. It seemed as if coercion played a major role and ego as well. Money also came into consideration, but ideology was mostly discarded.
That was often intertwined with reporting that paints Donald Trump as stupid, irrational, sometimes on the brink of dementia or of mental illness. I don’t think that is true and will argue the case in some other post. In my view, the first assumption should be that Trump is a rational actor and intelligent, which does not preclude that he makes mistakes or has weaknesses.
Let me now run through the possible motivations for what we have to suspect: collusion with the Kremlin in one or another way.
Coercion was perhaps the favorite explanation earlier this year. My impression was that this framing was mostly driven by sketches on Saturday Night Live as inadequate as that would be for a journalistic analysis. Those portrayed the relationship between Trump and Putin as one where a bare-chested Kremlin leader pulled out a tape and the US president then immediately caved in.
Here is why I think coercion does not play a major role: It is a rather crude means. You can force someone in this way not to do something. “If you do X, I will release the compromising material.” But what seems hard to do is to force someone to fully cast himself into a stressful election campaign, work in many ways without supervision, and still stay on track.
Trump could simply have messed up the campaign on purpose or he could just have slacked. In office, he could have turned around and put pressure on Putin with all the might of a US president to coerce him not to use any “kompromat.” Especially, with a moody person like Trump that would have been a big gamble for Putin.
In addition, Trump has survived so many scandals until now that my hunch is that even the release of a tape filmed at the Ritz-Carlton would not do him in. He’d shout it down as “fake news,” and his defenders would chime in. As the saying in German is: “Ist der Ruf erst mal ruiniert, lebt’s sich völlig ungeniert.” (Once your reputation is ruined, you can live with complete abandon.)
A tape would certainly be a problem for Donald Trump, but perhaps a rather minor one compared to others. Trump would get flak for a few weeks for being un-Puritan, the wrong reason in my view. But Roy Moore could survive acts that were far worse because if proven they would be crimes.
If I understand the Steele dossier correctly, Putin signaled to Trump that he has “kompromat,” but would not use it. That’s the nice wording of a true blackmailer: “I worry that something could happen to your children.” But then I think the threat is in the background, more an insurance for Putin if things go completely wrong, not something that he can manage Trump with on a continual basis. It is simply black or white: either you use it or you don’t. No fine tuning possible. And then, as noted, there is the problem that Trump might just go postal.
I could imagine that coercion played a role at a very different point of the story, though. Trump was apparently engaged in dealings with Russian oligarchs that may have been borderline legal or outright illegal, money laundering and such. I would think that Putin who wants to keep track of where all the money goes had Trump on his radar sooner than later, perhaps a decade or more ago. It is conceivable that he could also get his hands on incriminating evidence.
Unlike a tape from the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow, which is mostly a PR problem for Trump, proof of illegal activity would be really dangerous. Perhaps that played a role in what is described in the Steele dossier: Trump helped Russian intelligence with information on oligarchs and what they were up to in the US. But even if coercion played a role there, my impression is that Trump does not seem like someone who is under a threat, but like someone who is enthusiastic about what he is doing.
The second motivation that the media have often focused on is Trump’s ego. Obviously, he has a big one, a bigly one even. However, I do not think either that this plays a major role. Feeding Trump’s vanity may be a good idea to get him to change his mind when it is a close decision. But that would need continual interaction to get him to pursue a course over a long time. And then what has Putin said that would thrill Trump so? That he is smart.
I am sure many people who wanted and want something from Trump have said that, too. But I am equally certain practically all of them went nowhere with this. Trump is surrounded by yesmen. One more would not change the calculus all that much. Hence, like with perhaps a little coercion in the background, also flattery could play a role, but only a subordinate one.
If I am right about this, much of the reporting we have seen this year was focused on the wrong motivations. My guess is that “coercion” was good to add drama, and “ego” brought out the inner psychologist of so many. It also meshed well with storylines that diagnosed some mental illness.
What has been overlooked is ideology in my view. There was a line of explanation that Trump was and is surrounded by people who are pro-Kremlin and who feed the respective propaganda to him. I think that is true, and it is an avenue that makes sense if you want to influence Trump on a continual basis. The general assumption was that he is very impressionable and that he tends to echo what the last person has just told him.
I am not that certain. I think there are other explanations here. Trump might grope around for confirmation for what he already believes. He then filters those people out who will support his foregone conclusion. They help him to get over his indecision and are also potential scapegoats if something goes wrong. So shortly before a major move, you will find Trump with those who have the respective opinions. But it could be the other way around: He seeks them out because of his decisions before, and not: they sway him to their views.
Ideology still seems like an unlikely candidate that motivates Donald Trump perhaps. He is a deeply unintellectual person and hostile to any mental effort. As it seems, he wants to follow his guts and navigate a situation purely with his intuition.
But then the correct word would be perhaps not an ideology, but a worldview. I have written about what I mean by this in my post: “Worldviews, Narratives, and Ideologies.” My distinction is between an ideology, which is a logical and causal theory, and a worldview, which is a panoramic understanding of how the world works. An ideology is on an intellectual, a worldview on an intuitive level.
Donald Trump does not have a coherent ideology as far as we can tell. There are fragments he has perhaps picked up from talking to Steve Bannon and others. His speeches during the campaign and also at the inauguration probably came from the same sources. And that means he has learned a few arguments. But it does not seem like he could verbalize an ideology himself.
What he certainly has, though, is a worldview. I would think of it as some kind of folk Darwinism where only the strongest prevail and winning is morally good, while losing is morally bad. Another part of his worldview is a certain type of folk economics where making deals is “pulling the other side over the table” as one would say in German (die andere Seite über den Tisch ziehen). Trade is a zero-sum game for Trump where one side wins what the other loses. And hence he views it as morally good to apply the power of the US to make others lose because that implies Americans win.
A worldview is a rather constant framework. So this can explain how Trump acts consistently over time. One explanation would be that he looks at authoritarian leaders like Putin, Erdogan, or Xi as fellow “Übermenschen” like himself. They should have a free rein, but have gotten a raw deal in the past. There is a conspiracy of the losers out there who all keep them down. And so Trump’s motivation could be a twisted sense of fairness and solidarity with the other “Übermenschen” to help them out against the same hostile forces.
If you add in an environment that is saturated with people who hold similar views, especially regarding Putin who was “unfairly treated” by Western countries and so forth, it is conceivable why Trump might act as he does. It is also plausible why he views a feudalistic Russia as a Darwinian mirage where the strongest can fight their way to the top without being kept down by “unnatural” rules, separation of powers, laws, and elections. That could explain Trump’s instinctive penchant for authoritarian pronouncements and his admiration for strongmen all over the world that noone else could put in his mind one quote at a time.
While I think ideology, in this interpretation as an intuitive worldview, is underrated as a motivation for Trump’s actions, I also believe it is only a part of the explanation. It might mean that he acts rather autonomously, driven by his own perverted morality.
Putin could have had a hand in shaping Trump’s worldview over time by infiltrating his inner circle. But it is no explanation for concrete decisions on a short time scale. Overall, I would think that it can motivate Trump indirectly. He feels he is doing the “right thing” although objectively he behaves like a traitor.
Which leaves us with money as the main motivation and the way how Putin can handle Trump. Of course, this has gotten quite a bit of scrutiny over the past year. Still I think it deserves even more of it compared to what I view as a false focus on coercion and ego. And I would also say that much of the scrutiny went in the wrong direction. The thrust seems to be to look for a “smoking gun,” some grand bargain where Trump and Putin have negotiated a quid pro quo once and for all. I am agnostic here. Maybe something like this happened. But maybe it did not happen, and so the search could be futile.
What also went wrong in my view is that the proof for monetary incentives was often based on a false analysis how certain business deals work. I have written about this in my post: “Who has leverage over whom?” My basic point is that loans, investments, and sales of condos and the like do not prove in and of themselves what many in the media and in the public think they prove. For the most part my take is that others are on the hook and not Trump. So this does not show leverage over him. Much of this has been barking up the wrong tree in my view. Often it is embarrassing how business transactions are completely misinterpreted.
The mistake is similar to the overblown stress on coercion. I don’t think Trump is pressured into his behavior by deals, investments, and loans that have already gone through. Instead it is plausible that he is enticed to please Putin because he expects further deals, investments, and loans in the future, maybe because he desperately needs them. This is not a stick, but a carrot that Putin can use. And since Trump has an interest himself in the matter and knows that he has to earn Putin’s goodwill, he behaves as he does.
If that is so, it can easily explain why Trump acts with such consistency, which is untypical for a volatile and short-sighted person like him. It would also imply that there doesn’t have to be some tight management by Putin. Trump could act quite independently. Putin only has to signal what he wants and that he can reward it with something else, and Trump will do his bidding almost by himself.
To handle Trump, Putin would only have to structure his side as a series of deals with implicit quid pro quos that are maybe not ever openly negotiated although that may be the case. On a subjective level, it would feel to Trump like he is doing business with a reliable counterparty and is not just a stooge. That would tie in well with his general worldview how it should be.
It may also mean that the hunt for a “smoking gun” could prove elusive. There was perhaps no single event where a grand bargain was struck. Maybe much of it was only a tacit understanding. And that would also make it hard to prove anything in a legal sense. There could only be circumstantial evidence, no direct proof.
My take, which is admittedly speculative and which I will develop in further posts, is that the main components might be these:
- Trump’s financial situation was never as great as he has boasted in public. He may even have been in dire straights at certain times, and his general position could still be shaky.
- Putin tested him and found out about it. He gaged how rich Trump really is and designed a series of carrots for him.
- My hunch is that the main carrots were: the Trump Tower project in Moscow from 2013 on, the obscure partial privatization of Rosneft from 2016 on, and lately perhaps the partial privatization of Rostec. On a different level, it was also general support during the primaries and the campaign.
As I said, I want to explore this in further posts. This article was only meant to explain my focus and why I think coercion and ego have gotten too much attention as an explanation. Money seems like the main driver to me. Ideology, understood broadly as including also an intuitive worldview, is underrated and deserves also more scrutiny.
Stay tuned …