Both suffer delusions of grandeur, yet differ dramatically, while mirroring enduring domestic values
Historians will ponder how two such similar, yet quite different personalities simultaneously dominated two-thirds of the top world order. A model of macho posturing, Putin remains the old-style, grinding commandant dreaming of Russia hegemony. He’s wily enough to rig and steal elections so he never loses. To Russians, he must represent strength, law and order, whatever the human price.
The oft-bankrupt, inept clown, Trump is a much weaker desperado so pathetic he can’t abide losing (or that others exist), failed badly by bumbling an insurrection, now capped with a slew of laughable endorsements and asinine, brand-shredding comments. One is a potent thunderer, leveraging his second-level power to disrupt a region and world markets; Trump is merely a broken barnacle on the backside of a backward party.
1) Professional liars, so enamored with their own brilliance, both isolate themselves by trying to remake reality in their own image. While Putin hugs big lies, distorting history at will, Trump lies about everything, from the profound (the whole idea of elections is to decide winners) to the trivial (deal-making, tax audits, crowd sizes).
2) Both are fluent deceivers because they inhabit their own small worlds, filled with terrified, non-confrontational lackeys. Both qualify as malignant narcissists, with feints towards psychopathy, immune from feeling the widespread misery they cause. Their lives are wholly about self-aggrandizement, insatiable for validation, forever trying to fill infinite voids. They will die in that condition.
3) Because both are by fiat incapable of error, neither has to admit mistakes, large or small. Even to imply error insults their divine mission, parentage, ancestors, sexual prowess, everything. They thus compose the tiniest mutual-adoration society because only comparable masterminds confirm infallibility. No honor among narcissists, each one imagines himself shrewder, forever winning the manipulation sweepstakes. While Trump seeks domination over one country (by acclimation), this Vladimir yearns to outdo Vlad the Impaler, yearning to be the next Napoleon, Mao or Alexander the Great. Just as Trump saw his inherited millions as confirming entitlement, so Putin abandoned atheism for divine endorsement. With God in your pocket, why not invade Afghanistan, Chechnya, Georgia and Belarus – while arming the Syrian nightmare? None of this, for Putin apologists, proves imperial expansion or empire-building – instead, call invaders “peacemakers,” then install toadies to keep damp down colonial disorder and move the mayhem elsewhere.
4) Both are capable of extraordinary gaffes because they obsessively manufacture alternative realities. A more accomplished, less buffoonish liar, Putin erred in Afghanistan just like everyone else, though unlike the US cut his losses. Poisoning pigeons (read: domestic irritants) in the park is not Putin’s smartest move, though abusing locals hasn’t shaken his throne. So far Ukraine seems a great over-reach, the wrong tantrum to dramatize his demand for border breathing room. He could lose everything by demolishing Ukraine, with very high costs and unclear returns. He risks the hard-sought fame and glory when deemed global pariah, and blunted invasions lessen the homage.
Trump’s manifold disasters are already matchless. As incumbent, the political wet dream that was Covid, finally with an invite to national leadership, and he monumentally flubbed. Later, having lost, had Trump wanted a mob protest to attack the Capitol, what dimwit would not have outsourced this task? Anything but standing out front as stage-manager/inciter of a mob protest doomed to failure. And No. 3 unforgivable transgression: the crude, whacko “stop the steal” Big Lie. All in all, what mic-friendly, TV-capable incumbent ever blew so many chances, whether from ego or neurosis, ignorance or willful blindness – or all four?
5) Neither Trump nor Putin have developed self-checking, protective feedback loops. Bad when you major in paranoia. Trump’s always been his own worst enemy, not only blundering but without widening appeal and clueless how to make amends. “In for an inch, in for a mile” is a dreadful political guide. Ditto, Putin’s instant nuke threat appeared deranged (which he rarely is). That he amassed such troops, then failed to lever the high diplomatic pressure, left him no choice but follow through on his criminal invasion. Understandably, Putin feels encircled by European and American power but mistaking Ukraine as Crimea-like walk-over exposes his insularity. The energy-dependent Russian economy will stagger long after western markets and states regain footing – and nothing like an outrage to cause a new oil drilling stampede that will lower prices, Russian income and leverage.
6) Both are belligerent bullies, though Putin does not bluff or indulge in blustery Trump gestures. Putin telegraphs, then follows through on threats. Trump’s a lightweight threatener, doing PR and audience sampling with the same mud throw. His greatest flops are instant humiliators, worsened by failing to deliver on key promises – his doomed immigration wall, worse, not more affordable, better health care for all, no Democrats in jail; finally, he has lost every absurd, self-inflicted confrontation since the election debacle.
7) Neither IMO is clinically insane but both qualify as deranged and steadily worsening. Trump is more self-deluded and out of touch than Putin, your old-time dictator whose ruthlessness will push the limits, then reconfigure as necessary. Trump will go into his grave thinking the 2020 election was stolen, being the greatest, most aggrieved political victim in history. There will be no apologies or comprehension. If Putin fails, he will regret his failures and that his genius was thwarted.
1) Putin, the ex-KGB operative, is coldly calculating, with a far superior political skill-set (thus his duration and dominance) – smarter, better informed, thus more dangerous. He’s not a creature of impulse or gut instinct but figures out the context, the options and risk-reward trade-offs. He plays chess while Trump stumbles at checkers, a badly-educated, willfully ignorant (billionaire) hustler just good enough at lying to sustain his name brand. Whereas Putin will rewrite annoying laws, Trump is a spoiled rich kid who scorns all limits as personal slights. He doesn’t know enough to smartly skirt tax or disclosure laws without exposure, the classic dumb criminal neurotically looking to be caught (for the attention?). So far, he hasn’t shot anyone on Fifth Avenue or okayed poisoning, making Trump’s more the thief and conniver than killer. But there’s still time, though his ineptitude will get in the way.
2) A much better learner, Putin knows the ropes and how to pull the right strings. He grew into the job as full-fledged dictator, amassing power, handcuffing enemies, and locking up the military. Trump is more the lazy pleaser, with delusions of using charm to look good; Putin is fearless and no one can or will indict him. For Putin the end justifies all means, far more skillful than Trump at linking the nastiest of ends with craven means. Trump got clocked by a predictable pandemic; Putin should outlast even this appalling invasion.
3) Whereas Trump enviously loves the idea of dictatorship, Putin loves being a dictator and commands the full skill-set. Putin can handle whatever comes his way, the fearless, agile general. He won’t end up murdered like Qaddafi or Saddam Hussein, more likely retire in comfort. Trump’s “retirement” will be consumed in battling law suits and endless book-length character assassinations (like Bolton’s and Barr’s). Their personalities and very different strengths and weaknesses will determine their fate and final standing. Russians will probably sanctify Putin; Americans will look with horror at what they unleashed.