As Putin understands perfectly well, the president of the United States has standing in Russia, and enjoys far superior power to the president of Russia, only insofar as he or she mobilizes the moral and political resources of a rule-of-law state.
Standing among the Russian intelligentsia, agreed. Putin understands that the US president has moral authority among the Russian intelligentsia on these grounds. For Putin himself, for his clique, and for the Russians who keep voting for him, the US president has superior power because, and as long as, the US has superior weapons and a superior economy. That advantage may have been due to the rule of law (or, say, to the Americans’ ruthlessness in dealing with native tribes) but that’s a consideration of the second order.
There’s also a flaw in Prof. Snyder’s methodology shared by some other observers of American politics. He’s taking Trump – a populist in the heat of a ferocious fight against his party’s entrenched cadres – literally at his word. But Trump comes from a big-mouth New York tradition where individual words mean nothing: it’s the whole picture – the deal that these individually meaningless words help shape – that really matters. It is but a moralistic Midwestern conceit that Trump’s fleeting half-praise for Putin revealed a previously imperceptible rot in his character or set in stone the course for his potential presidency.
A significant portion of Trump’s voters see Putin as a patriot defending his country against Muslim terrorists and interminable poison-tentacles growing straight out of George Soros’ head. Most of them are good-natured people who worship liberty, not tyranny, but for various reasons, mostly plain ignorance, are relying on a funhouse mirror for a worldview. It is them that Trump is wooing: why should he care about Putin at this stage of the campaign?
If Trump gets to be president, though, is there a greater honor than beating an opponent you once praised as your equal? If Trump were truly a narcissist, triumphing over Putin would give him the greatest satisfaction in his life, unlike, say, pouncing the king of Saudi Arabia into sand. This is not to deny that Hillary Clinton is much more experienced and perfectly merciless. The question, though, is whether she will be motivated to use a greater range of means with greater vigor against the invader of Ukraine than has Obama. There is also the possibly debilitating Benghazi legacy exacerbated by the email server disaster.
Besides, situational alliances are sometimes just that: marriages of convenience. Not only Israel, which cannot afford to be picky, but the US is still cordially attached to Saudi Arabia. It is an ugly alliance that does not disqualify Israel or the US from being liberal democracies. De Valera’s shade of sympathy for Hitler was hardly a valid argument against Irish republicanism. Aneurin Bevan’s claim that the British, in 1942, had “more confidence in the sagacity of Voroshilov and Timoshenko than in that of Winston Churchill” did not expose the NHS as a Communist plot. The interesting part will be not so much the composition of the temporary new alliances, whether in US or international politics, as the eventual outcomes of these new realignments.