Why Is Trump's Bromance With Putin So Troubling?

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Vladimir Putin at a press conference in Naantali, Finland, on July 1. Dalibor Rohac writes that the alignment of Donald Trump’s views on foreign policy with the Kremlin and the allegations of Russian involvement in Democratic National Committee hacks—or its use of troll factories to boost Trump’s Twitter presence—are troubling. Lehtikuva/Jussi Nukari/REUTERS

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

The Reverse Mussolini Fallacy, coined more than a decade ago by Eugene Volokh, consists of believing that because Mussolini made the trains run on time, making the trains run on time is in itself bad.

According to some, this error of reasoning is making a comeback this election season. The Reverse Putin Fallacy posits that Donald Trump has disqualified himself as a candidate for the presidency because his views are closely aligned with those of Vladimir Putin—or because the Kremlin seems to be trying to advance Trump's candidacy.

Following last week's reports of Trump's campaign removing the pledge of lethal aid to Ukraine from the GOP platform and Trump's comments about Estonia and NATO, Anne Applebaum drew parallels between Trump's candidacy and the 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate, followed by a handful of other writers.

In response, Masha Gessen wrote that the effort to find foreign explanations for Trump's rise was "unhelpful" and "blinding us to the real threat he poses." Over at The American Interest, Jason Willick called the search for a Putin connection a distraction from the much more serious and purely domestic problem of the decay of liberal democratic order in America—of which Trump's candidacy is merely a symptom.

The exchange has been interesting, if a bit perplexing. Even if some commentators are guilty of the Reverse Putin Fallacy, there is no contradiction between the following three propositions, each of them important in its own right:

1. The brand of authoritarian populism that Trump represents is a homegrown problem, responding to domestic grievances.

2. Trump is systematically wrong about foreign policy and ignores the benefits to America that U.S. leadership and alliances with other liberal democracies generate.

3. The alignment of Mr. Trump's views on foreign policy with the Kremlin and the allegations of Russian involvement in Democratic National Committee hacks—or its use of troll factories to boost Trump's Twitter presence—are troubling.

Claims (1) and (2) do not make claim (3) irrelevant any more than does Jeremy Corbyn's incompetence make his troubling friendships unimportant to British voters. And neither should voters in countries such as France, Austria or Slovakia be oblivious to the Russian funding directed at nativist parties in their own countries.

Studying the possible role played by Russia in the current election season as well as the conflicts of interest that might be present within Trump's campaign is a worthwhile endeavor.

It does not detract in the slightest from the need to confront the substance of the arguments that Trump is making about NATO and about America's role in the world.

And neither does it serve as a substitute for the need to think carefully about the drivers of support for authoritarian populists such as Trump, and the appropriate policy responses.

Dalibor Rohac is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is concurrently a visiting junior fellow at the Max Beloff Centre for the Study of Liberty at the University of Buckingham in the U.K. and a fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs in London.