Aleksandr Dugin, a far-right Russian academic and spinner of bizarre ideological treatises, has endorsed Donald Trump.
"Trump is a leader," Dugin wrote, according to Katehon's English translation. "We want to put trust in Donald Trump. Vote for Trump and see what will happen."
But this probably says more about Trump than it does about Russia. While some are treating this as an extension of Russian President Vladimir Putin's support for Trump, the fact is that Dugin speaks only for a fringe and increasingly marginalized segment of the Russian far right.
A few years ago, Dugin's writings and his far-right neo-imperialist ideology of "Eurasianism" were considered core to Vladimir Putin's worldview and his agenda. A March 2014 Foreign Affairs piece called Dugin "Putin's brain."
Here is a quick and dirty summary of Dugin's philosophy: Russia should lead a grand Eurasian empire based on ultra-Orthodox Christianity and conservative communitarian values. This empire must defend against, and will necessarily come into conflict with, decadent Western civilization.
In 2014, when Putin's Russia twice invaded Ukraine — first annexing Crimea and then fomenting a rebellion in eastern Ukraine — it looked like Putin's provocations were animated by Dugin's neo-imperialism. Putin used language reminiscent of Duginism, speaking of a need to protect all Russian speakers, of Ukrainians as part of Russia, and even name-checking the neo-imperialist buzzword "Novorossiya," which refers to a region of Ukraine once part of the Russian empire.
The ideological connection between Dugin and Putin looked even more likely as, throughout 2014, the Kremlin whipped up support among far-right nationalists and neo-imperialists, tacitly encouraging many to go fight in eastern Ukraine. Even more than that, since taking his third term in 2012, Putin had pursued limits on individual freedoms and conservative Orthodox social values, all of which also lined up with Dugin's worldview.
This is why the Weekly Standard, in writing up Dugin's Trump endorsement, calls the Russian writer "a key theorist of the ideological underpinnings of Putinism." The Weekly Standard article suggests Dugin is acting in his role of "organizing Eurasianist fifth columns supporting the Putin regime in western countries."
But when I met with Dugin's own allies in Moscow last spring, I found that they were isolated and despondent, and no longer considered Putin an ally — but rather saw him as their enemy.
It turns out that Dugin had been dumped by the Russian establishment in 2014, just as his usefulness ran out. Putin had stopped short of overtly invading Ukraine, infuriating Dugin and other far-right leaders who wanted Russia to take part or all of Ukraine. When those far-right leaders agitated for escalation, using their newfound public influence to pressure Putin, the Kremlin put them down.
In June 2014, Putin formally rescinded an earlier order that had granted Russia legal authority to invade Ukraine — indicating he would not invade overtly. The next week, as part of a larger crackdown on far-right voices, Dugin was expelled from his prestigious job at Moscow State University.
But in spring 2015, when I traveled to Moscow, I found the once-triumphant Duginists and ultranationalists no longer saw Putin as an ally, and even considered him a traitor to the cause. Some had been pressured by security services, which they took as a sign that their views were no longer tolerated. Meanwhile, Putin had largely dropped his grand Eurasianist rhetoric.
In retrospect, it seems likely that Putin's short-lived embrace of Duginism was opportunistic and superficial. In other words, Putin decided to invade Ukraine for narrow political reasons, then reached for Eurasianism and neo-imperialism in order to justify his actions and to whip up public support.
But when Putin's Novorossiya project floundered — his actions in eastern Ukraine succeeded in destabilizing the country but not in dominating it outright — he shifted strategies, seeking to maintain a low-level conflict rather than to escalate. The neo-imperialist ideological justifications no longer fit the strategy. And far-right movements, newly empowered, were pushing Putin to go further than he wanted to. So Putin turned on them.
It turned out that Dugin's apparent importance to the Kremlin's ideology had been overstated. This is not to criticize those who considered Dugin important — it was a reasonable conclusion to draw at the time — but rather just to say that we now know Dugin's ideas were never all that important, and that today he is at the nadir of his influence.
Therefore, we should probably not conclude that Dugin's Trump endorsement tells us anything useful about the Kremlin's view of the US presidential race. It's true that Trump has praised Putin and that Putin has returned the favor, but Trump likely appeals to these two Russians on different grounds and for different reasons. (Truly a man for all seasons.)
So what does this tell us about Trump? The GOP frontrunner has been praised by a number of other ultranationalists and hard-line sectarians, such as former Ku Klux Klan chief David Duke and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, as well as by those who oppose the political system as it exists. Dugin may simply be the latest far-right sectarian loony to see hope in Trump.
You can see the parallels right there in Dugin's endorsement:
There is Donald Trump, who is tough, rough, says what he thinks, rude, emotional and, apparently, candid. The fact that he is a billionaire doesn’t matter. He is different. He is an extremely successful ordinary American. He is crude America, without gloss and the globalist elite. He is sometimes disgusting and violent, but he is what he is. It is true America.
[...] He is trustworthy: the black peacekeeper promised to change everything, but was unable to change anything, nothing at all, and Hilary Clinton, with a quickly aging poker face, doesn’t promise to change anything, maybe Trump will be able to get America’s natural borders back.
If anything, this seems to line up with a general embrace of sectarianism politics and with trends that Amanda Taub identifies in this long and fascinating piece on what draws people to authoritarianism: a fear of social change, external threats, and "the other," all of which culminate in a desire for a strongman leader to smash the threats and protect the status quo.
And perhaps, much like the Washington Beltway columnists and talking heads who fetishize Vladimir Putin's "strength" and "leadership" as a means of expressing their disappointment with President Obama, perhaps Dugin is projecting onto Trump what he had hoped to see from Putin but never got.