What links Trump and Putin? Revenge

Ed Wasserman is a 52-year resident of Iowa and a professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at The University of Iowa. The views expressed in his piece are his own and do not in any way reflect those of his employer.

Observers often puzzle over the chummy connection between former President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. What links these two leaders to one another? Largely ignored among several possibilities is their common political philosophy.

In a column for the New York Times in February, Carlos Lozada sharply criticized Donald Trump’s ostensible lack of political philosophy: “The difficulty with Trumpism is Trump himself, who renders any coherent ism impossible.” His assessment echoes the widespread belief that Trump is utterly unschooled in geopolitical history or philosophy. Although few would disagree with Trump’s scholarly naïveté, I fear his political acumen may have been seriously underestimated.

Although it’s rarely acknowledged, Trump and Vladimir Putin espouse a real and formidable political ideology which appeals to their electorate—the ism in which both brazenly trade is revanchism.

Originally a French term, revanchism derives from a common word in French and English—“revenge.” Revanchism refers to a fervent spirit of revenge or retribution which serves to motivate and to legitimate a defeated nation’s aggressively recovering its lost territory. However, revanchism also applies to the forceful restoration of diminished political power. Here’s how revanchism links Putin and Trump.

Putin’s territorial revanchism

Putin’s revanchism is archetypal. The Russian president has called the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. In 2021 he further asserted that the collapse of the USSR represents the complete “disintegration of historical Russia.”

Those remarks roused grave concerns in the West that Putin was intent on pursuing a revanchist plan to reconstruct the Soviet Union, as he was concurrently positioning heavily armed forces along the Ukrainian border. The Kremlin swiftly rejected these anxieties as mere fear-mongering. Now, more than two years into Russia’s all-out and unprovoked military assault on Ukraine, we see the reality.

Furthermore, one shouldn’t believe that reannexing this former Soviet republic would signify the end of Putin’s expansionism. As Andrew S. Erickson, Gabriel B. Collins, and Matt Pottinger wrote earlier this year in a different context, history teaches us that “the leaders of revanchist powers are not known for appetite suppression.”

Trump’s political revanchism

An inclusive view of revanchism holds that it “reflects not only a desire to overturn current arrangements, but also a desire to restore a status quo.” Critically, that ambition is not limited to reclaiming lost territory; it also applies to recouping lost political clout.

Trump seems fully aware of the fact that white people (particularly white Christian men) initially exercised political dominance in the United States. Granting citizenship to all Americans after ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 and passing the Voting Rights Act in 1965 represented twin existential threats to white domination. Capping those threats was Barack Obama’s election to two terms as president, starting in 2009.

Trump’s own 2016 presidential campaign can therefore be seen as a revanchist effort to turn back the political clock to an era of white sovereignty. What could be a more fitting campaign slogan for him than “Make America Great Again?”

Additional factors endanger America’s white hegemony. Here, another originally French expression is germane—demography is destiny. For years, the U.S. has been rapidly transforming toward a “minority majority” nation, with people of color surpassing the white populace.

Add to this inexorable demographic trend the escalating numbers of nonwhite migrants entering the country through the southern border and one sees what may be the central tenet of Trump’s political philosophy: “racial revanchism.” It’s no accident that Trump launched his 2016 campaign by vilifying those migrants: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

Over the past eight years, Trump has commandeered the Republican Party and proposed a profusion of policies to constrain immigration through the southern border and limit access to the ballot box, especially in urban centers where most citizens are people of color. Many of Trump’s other revanchist priorities have avidly sought to rescind Obama’s legislative successes, especially the health care reform law commonly known as “Obamacare.”

2024: Road to retribution?

As the 2024 election approaches, President Joe Biden has disparaged Trump’s rhetoric promulgating an American tale of “resentment, revenge, and retribution.” Such rebukes are often dismissed as political hyperbole. In this instance, however, Trump himself has owned that very characterization, proudly and repeatedly declaring to his aggrieved acolytes, “I am your retribution.”

Beyond all of the other factors that may connect Trump and Putin, their revanchist philosophies should not be ignored. Those philosophies may lie at the heart of their political popularity.

Top photo originally released by the Russian Presidential Press and Information Office, available via Wikimedia Commons

About the Author(s)

Ed Wasserman

  • Very scary

    I guess we’ve seen Trump II coming since 2016. Had Trump not won in 2016, would he have commanded his loyalists (white angry men) to come to the Capitol and try to keep HRC from office? What we know about our democracy is the person that gets the most votes is supposed to win, except for that damn electoral college, which awarded Trump the presidency, and could do the same in 2024. The way to beat Trump is to “find” more blue voters, especially in swing states. Ed’s review of the dangers of Trump needs to be indelible in every American’s mind. Drag every blue voter to the polls.

  • I continue to encounter comments on some other sites...

    …along the lines of “history runs in cycles,” “what goes around comes around,” ‘this too shall pass,” etc. The idea seems to be that if Trump is re-elected, so be it, not a big deal, and at some point the political winds will shift again as they always do, ho-hum.

    Well, there are two things that definitely don’t run in cycles. One is climate change and the other is the human population. Both are expanding and affecting each other as well as the life support systems of this planet. Even the most brilliant, insightful, dedicated and caring POTUS would find the next few years incredibly challenging for those reasons alone. If only for the sake of my youngest relatives and everyone else’s youngest relatives, Trump should not be in charge.

  • @ PrairieFan

    Human population is about to decrease, from 2060 onwards. Birthrates are falling faster than expected, even in India and Mexico.

  • @Karl M

    The world faces the dual challenge of getting through the next few decades until the decrease starts to happen, and also figuring out how to build a new kind of economic system that does not depend on the endless growth of population and consumption. However, I saw a projection released two months ago that the decrease will not begin until 2080. So there may be some disagreement.