Vladimir Putin arrived late for his meeting with Donald Trump.

That's what strongmen do: it sends a message to keep your rivals waiting.

I can imagine a future Chinese, Russian or American summit where literally no one shows up for fear of being the first one there.

Trump, however, seems willing to forgive Putin for anything, even interference in US elections.

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Why?

Some Democrats appear convinced Trump is a secret Russian agent, or else Moscow has dirt on him.

If that's the case, he's the greatest waste of roubles Moscow has ever spent.

President Trump has increased US defence spending, expelled Russian diplomats, fired missiles at Russia's Syrian ally and sold arms to Ukraine, which, along with Georgia, hopes to join Nato.

So there's a glaring contradiction between what Trump says about Putin and what he actually does.

What explains it?

Is it sheer psychological attraction: two manly men drawn to each other, regardless of their strategic differences?

Perhaps, but there's philosophy involved, too.

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Some conservatives now believe they have more in common with Russia's traditionalism than with the "suicidal liberalism" they see in the West.

Trump used an interesting word at his Chequers meeting last week: civilisation.

"Freedom, sovereignty and the true rule of law," he said, are Britain and America's "priceless inheritance to a civilisation".

The language sounds Reaganite but there is a subtle difference.

The Ronald Reagan school of conservatism taught that American ideals can be applied the whole world over.

This apparently benign notion is one of the reasons why America has historically plunged itself into other people's business with little understanding of the potential consequences - leading to the Iraq invasion of 2003.


Trump is more of a stay-at-home kind of a guy.

What unites Britain and America, he said at Chequers, aren't just values but something more rooted in time and place: "a common historic heritage, language and heroes".

Civilisations have a geographic and cultural character. They have boundaries.

To Trump, American civilisation is not only confined to the borders of the US, it is also defined by those borders, which is why he is obsessed with policing them.

"A nation without borders," he famously said, "is not a nation."

And by that logic, America without borders would be, well, Mexico.

Russia has an important role to play in this world view.

Reagan's universal idealism was popular on the American right when the US was in a global war with Communism, but when the Berlin Wall fell, some conservatives decided it was time for the US to stop being the world's policeman.


They wondered if America had in fact won a battle but lost a civilisational war at home. Crime was up; marriage was down; immigration was reshaping American identity.

Russia, by contrast, seemed to rediscover its sense of purpose. Stripped of its own brand of universalism - Communism - it had returned to flag and faith. It had become a player in the clash between Christianity and radical Islamism.

In Poland last year, Trump used the civilisation word a lot, adding: "The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive."

What he meant was that while Islamists threaten the West from the outside, liberals are eroding it from within, by destroying old values and even (a popular topic among civilisational conservatives) killing the family.

Russia's birth rate is of great concern to Putin.

He has issued prizes to get women to breed, but the rate remains low - perhaps, ironically, a product of the very chauvinism some non-Russians respect. Despotism leads to corruption and economic stagnation, which kills hope. Without hope, people stop having babies.


Conservative admiration for Putin is a symptom of its own loss of hope in what were once boilerplate American ideals.

Conservatives are becoming sceptical of free trade. They question the integrity of their own security apparatus. They don't think the US has a mission to remake the world. So, why not talk to Orthodox Russia?

The problem is that Trump's realism only goes part of the way - it projects Western cultural debates onto Russia and doesn't extend its vision to the reality of Russia as it really is.

This is a state that has invaded and divided the sovereign country of Ukraine; where journalists and critics wind up dead; and where military hardware somehow got used to bring down a civilian airliner, killing 298 people.


And, yes, faith and patriotism enjoy a tantalising renaissance there, but they are also being manipulated by a very cynical regime.

Manipulation is a Russian art, and Putin must now see that in Trump he has a willing victim.

The ultimate reason why Trump cannot accept the scale of Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election is because it would tarnish the legitimacy of his win.

Democrats cannot accept that he won at all, so they cry conspiracy to cover up for the fact that they ran a dreadful campaign.

Beyond philosophy and politics, so much of world history comes down to this: pride.