Asked about Donald Trump’s connections to Russia, of all people, the least concerned group is right-wing voters. For decades, right-wing voters were especially worried about Russia, hunting down anyone who even hinted to be a communist sympathizer. Now the same people whole-heartedly support a president who lauds the Russian leader and most likely received Russian help during the election. Even when high-ranking members of the Trump team lied about meetings with Russian agents, this support remained strong.
Why is this? Political scientists would expect right-wing voters to be outraged about a president with strong Russian connections. If left-wing groups ignored Trump’s Russian ties, we could argue that they might still have a more benign picture of the former communist country, but the connection between right-wingers and Russian acceptance seems baffling. Where is the outrage? What overwrites the decades-old hatred against Russia?
Why do right-wing voters ignore Trump’s Russian ties?
Asked about Trump’s Russian ties, most of his supporters respond with a mix of two explanations:
- Russia is no threat to the U.S.; the problem is limited to Europe.
- Promising to put America first, Donald Trump was the worst thing that could happen to Russia. Vladimir Putin had no interest in supporting Trump.
To understand the thought process of right-wing voters, let’s take a closer look at these claims.
Is Russia a threat to the U.S.?
The idea that Russia’s interest is limited to Europe is a misconception. Conflicts such as the one in the Ukraine are symptoms of the deeper, systematic problem that expands to the United States.
The pillars of Western-Russian peace have eroded. For example, Russia ignores many of the systems established by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), including accepting the sovereignty of other countries and reporting large troop movements.
Instead, Russian politicians often talk about spheres of interest in which they want to be allowed to influence the policies of other nations, and the military argues that large troop movements consist of many small movements that are below the reporting limits. As a result, Russia make large maneuvers at the borders of countries whose policies it wants to influence. A dangerous scenario that is the tip-off for the change in Russian policies.
Additionally, Russia routinely tries to influence the policies of other nations. The country has established a system of online warfare that floods critical journalists in the West with negative comments, trying to intimidate and irritate them. Hillary Clinton’s timely email leaks are likely a result of these efforts, too.
Finally, Russian media increasingly propagates hatred against the West. The state media claims that Russia has to defend honesty and goodness against the morally corrupt West.
There seem to be two reasons why Putin acts increasingly hostile towards the West:
- Putin believes that Russia is the patron saint of Russian speaking people. In Putin’s view, the collapse of the USSR was the greatest tragedy of the 20th century. He seems to truly believe that Russia must defend goodness against the decadent West. Since Russia is unable to accomplish this goal in the current political situation, he wants to expand the country’s spheres of interest and influence.
- Putin wants to distract from his country’s own domestic problems. The Russian economy is in recession, inflation is high (around 10 percent annually), life expectancy is low (71 years), and the quality of life is decreasing. To prevent protests and, potentially, a revolution, Putin must distract people from these problems. He does this by pointing to foreign policy, claiming that a little suffering is necessary to achieve the higher goal of re-establishing Russian leadership.
The first of these points is common in many politicians. Just like we all believe that our opinion should have more weight at work, most presidents, chancellors, and leaders believe that they should have more influence. As long as these tendencies are balanced with a sense of the limitations of politics, they pose no threat. Unfortunately, Putin’s fear of a revolution destroys this balance.
Every society changes. To remain constructive, governments need to adapt to these changes. Policies evolve, new structures emerge, and old ones go away. In governments that lack the ability to change, problems accumulate and eventually lead to revolutions. This dynamic destroyed the USSR and many other states of the Eastern bloc, and Putin is painfully aware of it.
Currently, Russia neglects the minimum of change that would be necessary to avoid a revolution. Putin spends a lot of money on upgrading the military, especially the nuclear arsenal, but he shows little interest to invest in the economy. Russia remains dependent on exports of natural resources, and the low prices of oil and gas are significant problems for the Russian economy.
Putin uses the conflict with the West to distract from these problems. He implies that the West is responsible for the problems and that Russia needs his strong leadership to solve them.
This is the reason why Russia is a threat to the U.S. When Putin targets the West, the United States is the main victim of his propaganda. This rhetoric is certain to lead to actions against the U.S. whenever it serves Putin’s goals. Putin has to use this option, whenever necessary.
Additionally, the American way of life is the main rival to the values propagated by the Russian government. Destabilizing this rival reduces his own population’s desire to rise up in its favor. This is why Putin’s online warfare team supports destructive Western politicians.
Is a president Trump good or bad for Putin?
Because peace and understanding between the NATO and Russia are in danger, president Trump and his promise to put America first is an advantage for Putin.
The safety of Eastern European states and peace in Europe and the world, depend on NATO. As long as there is absolutely no doubt that an attack on one NATO member will provoke a complete and full-scale retaliation of all members, Russia has to respect the sovereignty of each state. This pillar of peace is unattractive, but it is the only one left.
When Trump publicly questions whether he would help his allies in the case of an attack if they failed to spend 2 percent of their GDP on the military, he weakens the only remaining pillar of peace and erodes America’s ability to join meaningful alliances. Just like it is difficult to have a trusting relationship with an egotistical person, allies can no longer rely on America’s commitment to their wellbeing.
Trump’s policies are short-sighted. The American defense budget of $523.9 billion in 2017 is significantly higher than the GDP of most Eastern European countries, for example Poland ($467.6 billion), Bulgaria ($52.4 billion), or the Czech Republic ($193 billion). Whether or not these countries spend the intended 2 percent of their GDP on the military is an important issue, but it makes little difference to the United States.
For example, when Bulgaria increases its military spending by 1 percent of its GDP, this difference is the equivalent of 0.1 percent of the U.S. military budget and 0.0028 percent of its GDP. Even if all NATO members doubled their military spending, the U.S. would be unable to cut its military spending by more than 1 or 2 percent.
For a president that wants to put American interests first, it is much more important to stabilize the world and prevent new conflicts that could become as expensive as those in Afghanistan ($468 billion total cost from 2001 to 2011, nine times the total GDP of Bulgaria) or Iraq ($1.7 trillion total cost, >30 times the total GDP of Bulgaria). The military spending of NATO allies might make for powerful campaign rhetoric, but it is isn’t worth risking the stability of planet Earth.
By making irrational comments about NATO, Donald Trump destabilizes the world. For Putin, this instability is an asset. To increase his own influence, he must first reduce the American ability to lead and unite the world, and no person has aided this goal more than Donald Trump. Based on Trump’s behavior during the campaign and in the decades before, it seems fair to assume that Putin knew that a president Trump would aid his goals more than a president Clinton.
What motivated right-wing voters to support a president with Russian ties?
So far, this article uncovers no shocking new facts. Anyone with access to Wikipedia can compare Bulgaria and the U.S. in size, population, and GDP, easily deducting the relevance of Bulgarian military spending to the idea of putting America first. An American president with Russian ties that destabilizes Europe because of such insignificant issues should seem like a bad idea to any voter with this goal.
The interesting question is why Trump supporters neglected to take this simple step. The answer to this question is the self-serving bias.
We all suffer from the self-serving bias – we distort reality in a way that is favorable to us. Just like we all think that we should get more credit at work, in our relationships, and for our driving skills, we believe that politics should more heavily focus on us. We feel as if as we are disadvantaged and someone else is getting what we deserve.
Donald Trump appeals to these feelings by providing scapegoats for our disappointed self-serving biases. Those voters who criticized the changing world, the large U.S. military expenses, or the way in which some countries questioned the American leadership were able to use Trump’s NATO comments to confirm their feelings – it was all the fault of the other NATO members.
Some people accepted this reasoning because it felt good. They never questioned whether the military expenses of other NATO members have any effect on the U.S., or whether weakening the alliance by questioning the U.S. commitment would be the best way to get them to invest more.
Trump’s reasoning shows the structure of destructive ideas:
- Division of the world into irreconcilable groups. According to Trump, the U.S. and the rest of NATO have inherently different interests. They try to leech off us, and we must protect ourselves against them. The scenario is a zero-sum game. The gain of one party is the loss of another; it is impossible to work together towards a common goal that benefits everyone.
- Forcing a binary argument. They are all leeches; we are the only one non-leeches. There is nothing good about the current situation. They win, we lose, and this has to change at any cost.
- Appealing to higher wisdom. Since we are the only ones paying our full share, we deserve the right to deny them our help. Their rights to security and survival depend on our convenience; old commitments are worthless when we no longer choose to honor them.
This reasoning established an infinitely evil threat – NATO members ruining the United States. Since all other politicians considered Trump’s stance unreasonable, he became the only person that could defend the U.S. against the infinitely evil threat – he became the white knight.
The fight against the infinitely evil threat by the white knight justifies all means because nothing could be worse than the infinitely evil threat winning. A president Clinton would have refused to fight the threat because she denied its existence. While she was right about that, it made it impossible for voters who believed in the threat to vote for her. They had to vote for Trump, even if he wanted to weaken NATO and had questionable Russian ties.
Cognitive dissonance misled people to find explanations that justified everything Trump said or did. The idea that Trump must become president to save the U.S. became the only important idea in their minds, overwriting even decade-old concerns about Russia and presidents with Russian ties.
How can we make better voting decisions?
The way in which Trump’s supporters justify his Russian connections is a perfect example of how destructive ideas can trick us into supporting causes that create the exact opposite of what we want. Ultra-conservative voters that are usually highly critical of Russia suddenly talk benignly about a Russian leader who wants to destabilize the U.S.-led world order and elect a president with strong Russian ties.
While democracies allow us to vote for whomever we want, their success depends on our ability to regularly vote for the politicians who best represent our interests. Voting decisions are important issues, and providing the public with the tools to make good decisions is an essential task of a functioning democracy. When we allow an idea to mislead us into supporting the very opposite of what we want, we often create destructive results and hurt our society, our country, and ourselves.
The Theory of Moral Duality can help us with this task. By understanding the structure of destructive political ideas, we can recognize and avoid them. Even if we like the idea’s intention, we can learn to pursue this goal in more constructive ways.
In the case of the military expenses of other NATO members, the first step is to recognize the insignificance of the problem to U.S. interests. While it is important that all members fulfill the required 2-percent rule, there is no sense radicalizing oneself or destabilizing an entire region. The negatives of these events outweigh the positives by far. We can best deal with the issue through quiet, diplomatic channels.
The Theory of Moral Duality helps us to understand why supporting Donald Trump is detrimental to the political goal of putting America first. For voters who consider this goal important, it is the most crucial step to making a better voting decision.
The truth is Clinton, Bush, and Obama all sought to put America first. But they understood that, sometimes, American interests match the interests of other countries, and that good politicians find and foster these common interests. What’s good for Eastern European NATO members is often good for America, too. Donald Trump seems completely incapable of understanding this basic political truth.
- To distract from domestic problems, Russia systematically tries to expand its influence by destabilizing Europe and the West.
- In this environment, electing a president with strong Russian ties and Russian government support plays into the hands of Russia.
- Ultra-conservative voters strongly supported Trump despite his Russian connections because they charged their ideas with a high moral quantity. Ideas with a high moral quantity trick us into supporting destructive political ideas. To make more constructive voting decisions, we must reduce the moral quantity of our beliefs.