Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to be exactly the kind of man that Donald Trump and his followers wish they could be. Putin is an authoritarian and a demagogue, who rules largely uncontested in a nation with an increasingly thin veneer of fake democracy. He imprisons, and sometimes kills, political foes and others deemed troublesome.
Putin treats his critics in the media and across civil society who do not support him as de facto enemies of the state, and suppresses free speech and human rights without apology. He is a kleptocrat and political gangster and an enemy of women's rights and freedoms, who also oppresses LGBTQ people, racial and ethnic minorities, and other groups seen as opposed to his project of restoring a Russian empire.
Beyond Putin's most obvious supporters, who include Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, Tucker Carlson and other right-wing leaders, public opinion research shows that rank-and-file Republicans (and especially Trump supporters) are also attracted to Putin's authoritarian values and behavior.
White right-wing evangelical Christians, for example, are among the most influential members of the Republican base and Donald Trump's most loyal supporters. They are especially enamored with Vladimir Putin, as Anthea Butler, one of America's leading scholars of religion and race, explains in a new essay at MSNBC. She observes that evangelical leaders "have embraced Russia — and, more specifically, Putin," but now find themselves caught in a bind after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has turned public opinion around the world strongly against the Russian leader:
But whether or not American evangelicals try to distance themselves from Putin in this current news cycle, they have long gravitated toward the Russian president for his hard-line stance against Muslims and, most importantly, his anti-LGBTQ agenda. Putin's rhetoric about the nation, the family and the church (in this instance, the Russian Orthodox Church), has captivated many and spurred them to embrace similar kinds of political action here in America. Consider all of the anti-gay and anti-transgender laws that are cropping up in states like Texas and Florida. These laws are part of a constellation of family-focused conservative religious ideals also embraced by Putin and other Eastern European leaders who have clung to a hard line against any so-called "anti-family" ideology.
For members of the religious right, alliances with these leaders present a new frontier in their hope to achieve a theocracy in America. According to journalist Sarah Posner, those on the religious right see Eastern European countries that embrace the Orthodox Church and its family values as the way forward. Because of these interactions between Eastern Europe authoritarian leadership and religious and political leadership of the GOP in America, clampdowns in the U.S. on abortion rights, trans children's rights and gay rights are therefore all coming back full force on the state level. We can't of course forget that Trump's consistent and solid support of Putin is also a significant factor.
Putin's war in Ukraine has forced many Republicans and other right-wing leaders and spokespeople to try to remove the stink left by their years of support for the Russian regime. That is no easy task, considering that some former members of the Trump administration are saying the quiet part out loud: Trump was doing Putin's work by weakening America's ties to NATO alliance, thus, in effect, creating a zone of permission for Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
As John Bolton, Trump's former national security adviser, explained in a recent interview with the Washington Post, if Trump had followed through on his threats to remove the U.S. from NATO — an outcome Putin longed for — Russia's invasion of Ukraine would have almost certainly occurred even sooner than it did.
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To discuss these matters and others, I recently had a conversation with Dr. Justin Frank, whom I have interviewed on several previous occasions. Dr. Frank is a former clinical professor of psychiatry at the George Washington University Medical Center and a physician with more than 40 years of experience in psychoanalysis. He is the author of the bestselling books "Bush on the Couch," "Obama on the Couch" and, in 2018, "Trump on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President."
In our most recent conversation, Frank explores how Vladimir Putin functions for Donald Trump: as a type of big brother and role model, perhaps even a father figure. Putin is a projection of Trump's deepest fantasies and wish fulfillment, Frank argues, a killer, warrior and political strongman who has the power to act with impunity against his personal and political foes. Frank also offers the opinion that fundamentally Donald Trump is a weak and cowardly person who is attracted to violence and mayhem, but relies on others to act on those antisocial and evil desires on his behalf.
Trump's repeated threats of murderous violence against Hillary Clinton and other leading Democrats, Frank argues, as well as Trump's impulse to call for a "race war" are very serious, and not the idle threats that many among the American news media and political class would like to believe. Toward the end of this conversation, Dr. Frank suggests that Vladimir Putin is ultimately a superhero figure for Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson, other Republican fascists and members of the larger white right who yearn to replace democracy with authoritarianism. For them, Putin is a type of protector figure and idol, acting out his worst impulses with near-total impunity — at least prior to his setbacks in Ukraine, which have made him appear vulnerable in the face of world opinion.
During one of our previous conversations, you warned that Donald Trump would only become more like his true self as he got older. It would appear you were correct. Trump continued to praise Vladimir Putin, right up to the moment of the Ukraine invasion, and Trump's rhetoric continues to suggest that he is trying to incite a "race war" and continuing to scheme about how to regain power.
What we are seeing now is Trump's true self. He is a paranoid, frightened man, driven by a lust for revenge. One of the things that he shares with Putin is that they both want to get revenge for the slights and hurts they believe they have suffered. And it's one of the things that the two of them have in common that is quite striking and startling to me. I believe that Vladimir Putin was humiliated by the dissolution of the Soviet Union. He wants revenge against NATO and the United States. But Putin did not have to act while Donald Trump was still in office. As long as Trump was in office, Trump could damage the United States without Putin's direct help. Trump was already destroying many American political and societal institutions. Putin was able to sit back and enjoy it.
What about Vladimir Putin does Trump admire the most? For Trump, what is that relationship like?
When Trump looks at Vladimir Putin, he sees an older brother. Trump also sees in Putin a man who has the courage of his paranoid thinking. Trump would never lead an army into war; he dodged the draft with fake bone spurs. Putin is not like that. Putin is a former KGB agent who has likely killed people personally. Trump admires that. Trump looks up to Putin and sees him as a type of ideal. Trump likes the fact that Putin is a killer who has the courage to act on the things that Trump just talks and fantasizes about doing.
Trump is obsessed with violence. When he threatens violence and mayhem he is not kidding. None of it is hyperbole or some type of joke. So few public voices are willing to state that basic fact consistently and with clarity.
He is very sick and dangerous. He is the type of person who instigates the violence and then hides out in a bunker and watches it happen. Many of the Republican Party's leaders are cowards. But they do have people who act on their behalf, like those right-wing street thugs and the other people who attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6. Those people are not cowards. They are dangerous and destructive people who are capable of killing and other violence.
Those street thugs and other people who participated in the Jan. 6 insurrection represent the deepest wishes of who Trump wants to be. Trump wishes he could have that strength and that courage, or that capacity to be directly violent. He does not. Instead, Trump sues people and cheats them.
Why are so many Americans still in denial about Trump and the imminent danger he represents? I have received many emails from readers of my essays and people who listen to my podcasts who almost plead with me to stop warning people about Trump and his movement. They appear to believe that ignoring the problem will somehow save them.
They want to stop thinking about it. Those people who email you because they don't want you to talk about Donald Trump are afraid of confronting their inner self. They do not want to face who they are deep inside. Such people also don't want to think about the other real nature of America — that we also have fantasies of violence and revenge
Given what is now publicly known about Trump and his cabal's coup plot, what has been most surprising or disturbing for you?
Everybody has a part of their personality that hates reality. Hopefully, that is a small part of their personality. By comparison, Donald Trump hates reality. He attacks reality. Trump also hates critical thinking. He has this ability to tap into a part of the human mind that wants to live in a fantasy world. That is why so many of his followers truly believe in the Big Lie and Trump's other lies about the 2020 election. They see him the way they see themselves — as victims.
At one of his recent rallies Donald Trump used language that suggested he was trying to incite a "race war" and other acts of violence. He has also continued to publicly threaten the life of Hillary Clinton. I am one of the few people who have written about that. Why is there so much denial among the mainstream news media and others who are supposed to keep the American people informed?
It is a very scary thing to be forced to confront our own violent and destructive impulses. That is especially true in this country, because many Americans don't want to confront the fact that it is their fellow Americans who are making such threats. It is a deep type of denial and fantasy. That also explains why so many people in the American news media won't talk about Trump's threats of violence and killing and destruction. It scares them too, so they normalize or even dismiss the deadly seriousness of his threats.
What is Trump's emotional relationship with Putin and these other strongman-type leaders?
It's an unconscious love of somebody who can be more violent than you are. It is the love of a person who can do the things you are afraid to do. Political strongmen also provide a type of illusory protection for feelings of hatred and violence. That's why Trump's rallies were so powerful. He told his followers to act on their hatred and violence and that he would pay their legal fees if they got in trouble.
How would Trump respond if his violent threats and fantasies were to come true?
Donald Trump does not feel guilt. He would say, "I didn't really say such a thing." Trump would deny his murderous threats, both to the public and to himself. Trump wants to overthrow the United States' system of government, but he also would deny those thoughts and behavior the same way.
Would Trump feign guilt? Would he be remorseful?
Again, Trump would deny that he ever wished such a thing. You could play a video recording of Trump saying such things and he would deny it. Trump would say it was all fake and not real.
If you were conducting some type of group therapy with Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, how would you direct the conversation?
With Trump, I would say, "How does it feel to be a con artist? What's it like? Who actually loves you? Who do you love? What's it like to just fool people all the time?" I would ask Vladimir Putin, "How does it feel to kill people?"
What would you focus on in terms of their relationship with each other?
I would say, "Not only are you a coward, Donald, you love to make Putin strong so that you can vicariously feel like you're a killer. You embolden Putin to be more of a killer because you are too afraid to do it yourself. And you push your murderousness onto him, psychologically. Donald, that is why you idealize these killers and totalitarian dictators."
What about the Republican politicians and Tucker Carlson and other prominent right-wing figures who are enabling that relationship? They have been all in on supporting Putin, at least until now.
They love his violence and power. It is all an example of what is known as "identification with the aggressor." Tucker Carlson idealizes people who he can't be like in real life, but Tucker wants to be on the same side they are. The Republican Party's leaders are the same way. You can identify with them so you can hide your own aggression behind them and feel safe. It is the same reason why people ally with bullies: They don't want the bully to turn on them. In their minds, as long as you idealize Vladimir Putin or Donald Trump, they are never going to turn on you. Trump has the same dynamic with Putin. Trump feels stronger when he loves Putin. He feels stronger around dictators. It makes him feel like more of a man.
Vladimir Putin is a type of superhero for Donald Trump and the Republicans and the Tucker Carlson types. The psychological dynamic is: "He will make me feel safe from some authority figure or stronger person who might want to kill me. He will make me safe and powerful I don't have to worry about risking my life." That is why Trump and the Republicans and so many on the right idolize Putin.