In 2005, the brilliant Russian writer Dmitry Bykov published a collection of satirical political fables under the title How Putin Became President of the USA. The title story, written shortly after the 2000 election in the United States, offered a darkly whimsical fantasy version of the George W. Bush-Al Gore race that turns into such a farce that by the end of the campaign, “America was out of its mind from political correctness, debauchery and mutual mudslinging.” (Sounds familiar, no?) Finally, “The American people looked at all this and asked themselves, ‘Good Lord, what has happened to us? What sort of choice is that? Maybe they’re on to something in Russia, where the successor is appointed by fiat.” As a result, Vladimir Putin becomes President of the United States by special invitation. (Result: He screws up the economy but puts an end to political correctness.)
In a wry disclaimer, Bykov notes that the story is “factually inaccurate,” since “Putin did not, and probably never will, become president of the USA.” True enough — but who could have imagined that 11 years later, Putin would be widely seen as meddling in the American presidential election, either to sow chaos or to try to throw the race to his soulmate, GOP candidate Donald Trump?
The “TrumPutin” phenomenon has not escaped Bykov’s attention: He gave a lecture on “Putin as Russia’s Trump” at the University of Pennsylvania all the way back in April. And in a June article for the independent Russian magazine Sobesednik, he even facetiously wondered whether Trump could actually be a Russian sleeper agent under deep cover: “He’s got this peculiar combination of true-believer zealotry and cynicism, in the best traditions of our top special service [i.e. the KGB/FSB]. You can’t fake that.”
No, Trump is not a Russian mole or even a knowing tool of Putin — though many unanswered questions remain about his businesses’ and his campaign’s Russian connections. But that aside, the Trump campaign has already, to a disturbing degree, brought some of the worst traits of Russian political life (or what passes for political life in Russia) into American political culture.
The paranoia, for one. Sure, paranoid thinking has always existed on any political landscape; a book titled The Paranoid Style in American Politics appeared in 1964. But at least in the last 30 years, wacky conspiracy theories were largely confined to the margins. The Trump campaign has brought them into the political mainstream.
Trump himself is an enthusiastic peddler of conspiracy theories and paranoid fantasies — from “Barak Obama is a Kenyan-born secret Muslim” to “vaccines cause autism” to “Justice Antonin Scalia was murdered” to “thousands of Muslims cheered and danced on September 11.” He has also validated professional conspiracy cranks such as his passionate booster Alex Jones, the “journalist” and radio talk show host who believes that September 11 and the Oklahoma City bombing were engineered by the U.S. government and that Hillary Clinton is literally possessed by demons. (Coincidentally, Jones is a consistent apologist for the Putin regime and a regular on the Kremlin-sponsored propaganda network RT, formerly Russia Today.) Far from distancing himself from such support, Trump has appeared on Jones’s show and praised his “amazing” reputation.
This is very reminiscent of Russia, where feverish conspiracy theories including September 11 “trutherism” flourish in the mainstream media and at the highest levels of government. Putin himself has cited the popular Russian urban legend according to which former Secretary of State Madeline Albright once said that Siberia with its vast mineral wealth and natural resources is “too large and rich to belong to one country.”
The outlandish notion that American and Western politicians are out to steal Russia’s lands and natural riches echoes a leitmotif of Russian politics and state-run media under Putin: that foreign powers (aided by the “fifth column” at home) are constantly scheming to rob, exploit, weaken, and otherwise victimize Russia. The resemblance to Trump’s main theme — America the victim, always under attack from dark foreign forces and treacherous domestic elites, constantly ripped off, abused, and humiliated — is unmistakable.
As a remedy to this humiliation, both Putinism and Trumpism offer what is essentially strongman rule with democratic trappings: not strength as understood by someone like Ronald Reagan, but a might-makes-right attitude unencumbered by any moral framework. While Putin and Trump have extremely different personal histories (a career in the KGB is not the same as a career in real estate and reality television), both share a propensity for tough-guy posturing and crude bluster — and both have legions of fans who see this populist vulgarity as authenticity, as a mark of the “man of the people” (and the alpha male).
In 1999, as Prime Minister under Boris Yeltsin, Putin gained popularity by publicly pledging that Russia would hunt down terrorists and “whack them on the crapper” if necessary. As president, he mocked European monitors who expressed concern about fraud in Russian elections by saying that they ought to “teach their wives how to cook cabbage soup” instead of lecturing Russia. You could easily imagine such things coming out of Trump’s mouth. Small wonder that the two have something of a mutual admiration club going — or that many Trump supporters openly admire Putin as a leader who inspires fear and respect.
Another Putin/Trump commonality is a particularly brazen form of lying — be it Putin’s claim in the spring of 2014 that the Russian soldiers invading Crimea in unmarked uniforms were just local self-defense volunteers who could have brought their outfits from an army surplus store or Trump’s assertion that his crusade to compel Obama to produce his long-form birth certificate actually “did a great service to the President and the country” by laying the issue to rest after it was (supposedly) first raised by Clinton and her team. Of course plenty of politicians spin, equivocate, and lie; Clinton herself is hardly a model of honesty. But the Trump/Putin brand of the blatant Big Lie is not even intended to be believed: its purpose is to stun and clobber opponents into submission and disable people’s critical faculties, making it impossible for many to tell truth from lie.
Even if Trump wins, it is doubtful that he could effectively accomplish a Putin-style evisceration of democracy and constitutional rule in America, where political institutions are vastly more robust and grounded in both law and history than they were in turn-of-the-century Russia. On the other hand, Trump’s ability to inflict damage while losing the election should not be underestimated.
One of Putinism’s most toxic effects has been to persuade the average Russian, including millions of young people, that liberal democratic institutions in the West are a sham with elections rigged just as effectively as in Russia (just more subtly) and that the Western media are as much of a propaganda machine as their Russian counterparts. Today, millions of Americans have come to believe this as well. The failings of our political and media establishment certainly bear some blame for this. However, to equate these flaws with the workings of Russia’s corrupt dictatorship and its house press is a toxic lie, at the moment chiefly cultivated by the Trump camp. It is a lie that promotes a deep and dangerous cynicism and, in the long run, makes people more receptive to real authoritarianism.
The Russification of American politics needs to be stopped.