A mural of Putin and Trump in Vilnius. Image: Facebook/Keulė Rūkė
As the presidential election in the United States approaches, the anxiety of political commentators and ordinary Americans grows.
The unexpected success of Donald Trump has raised concern not only in the Ukrainian Diaspora and among Russian dissidents, but also between many American intellectuals. Journalist Vladimir Abarinov warns:
“Trump will bring down all the currently existing system of international security; at the same time he will rely, as in the XIX century, on distancing himself from the troubles of the world with a border wall.”
And indeed, his possible victory seems to scare the Baltic States more than the Americans disliking Trump, especially after the Republican candidate has promised that his country will refuse obligations under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. And anyone can see with the naked eye how happy the success of Trump makes Vladimir Putin and all of his supporters.
Observers continue witnessing with surprise that a prosperous society is being openly sympathetic to a radical and populist figure. Experts agree that Trump plays on voters’ irrational instincts and desires. However, I would even venture to suggest that these instincts are not always as vile as the critics tend to assume. Unfortunately, the reality is that the most absurd decisions are often made under quite understandable and psychologically explainable emotions.
For instance, when the events related to the Russian annexation of the Crimea started, I tried to explain to my friends that an invasion of the territory of a foreign state could lead to a war – in fact, to a global war – as this event is associated with the dismantling of the existing world order. I remember being struck by the answer of one person, an older gentleman, known to be refined and not noticed in any militarist predilections. “Maybe it’s for the better?” he then suggested. “All the same, the existing world order has become unbearable. Anything else would be better.”
The question arises – what made this average, not associated with politics human being, who was leading maybe an imperfect, but a decent and peaceful life in Nizhniy Tagil, to become so discontent with the existing world order? How did this sense of the absurdity of the world order wake up a wish for the most destructive and irrational changes? I think the reason resides in the tragic combination of several factors.
First, people often do not appreciate the quietly arranged life, once it becomes too familiar and predictable. Remember the famous phrase from the song: “It is much harder not to go mad from boredom and withstand a complete calm?“ However, by itself, “a complete calm” will not secure the emergence of a “revolutionary” situation. It becomes much worse when there is a situation of stagnation, mixed with a latent regularity of a constant discontent.
However, as many might remember from the history of the Soviet Union, even the dull Soviet stagnation, with its poverty and tiresome ideological drills, lasted for a couple of decades. A mixture becomes truly explosive when a third component is added – an uncertainty about the future mixed with a lack of security and with the protracted sense of growing danger. It can be real or imaginary, but after some time it will project a feeling of an unbearable existence, that many are ready to end with the most irrational and destructive methods.
Russia in 2012-2013 entered a period of stagnation. The law on “foreign agents” was enacted, protests and activists vanished as did the hopes for any change in those who still hoped for change, and the majority of the citizens, frankly, approved of the government “crackdown.” However, even ardent opponents of “white-ribbon” rallies and Putin’s most loyal fans could not help but feel discontent over the growing level of local corruption, impunity, and arbitrariness of officials in the security forces. But as long as the general feeling of stagnation and quiet discontent was associated with stability, the majority of population did not fantasize about how to seize other country’s territory or to threaten foreign lands with war.
Of course, the levels of aggression and intolerance in society, artificially heated by Kremlin, were already high. Buses with Stalin’s portraits traveled the city streets, and Kurginyan on Poklonnaya Hill was shouting about the need “to destroy the liberal scum,“ while MP Fedorov prophesied about a world conspiracy against Russia and urged the public to go out and administer “the national liberation revolution.” However, the Russians, even the ones who voted for Putin and were sincerely dissatisfied with the neglectful officials, who Fedorov dubbed as “CIA agents,” stubbornly did not want to mobilize and take their dissatisfaction to the streets.
However, the paranoid fear of a revolution has played a cruel joke on Russian authorities. Frightened by Ukraine’s Euromaidan, the Kremlin propaganda began to raise the level of aggression and anxiety in an already divided society. The myth of America that “wants to destroy us and is creeping close to our borders” achieved its goal – the Russians became fearful of proposed enemies and got scared of a potential bloody coup, which would destroy their quiet life. And, perhaps, the combination of quiet dissatisfaction with the new era of stagnation, combined with a slight neurosis and growing anxiety created this irrational desire – to “break the cycle,” to check the credibility of the threat, to test the world on its strength, and to strike “a pre-emptive strike.”
Of course, latent imperial ambitions, a desire to be proud of one’s own country no matter what, and a longing for a sense of power was also involved; but I think that the most significant role was played by an inherent human instinct of destruction, which was provoked by a lingering unstable situation. In this case, this instability was created artificially, by maintaining a constant suggestible invisible illusion of a close threat, the invisible war, and an imminent danger. Because the real danger did not exist, it was impossible to fight a virtually created threat, which in turn only compounded the level of stress in society. Henceforth, perhaps, the inexplicable feeling of “intolerable” world order appeared, and it was strong enough to run the most destructive processes – the thirst for “a horrible end” with a direct collision, instead of a constant vague anxiety.
And in an American society, under the Barack Obama administration, there is a rather high level of dissatisfaction. Many are not satisfied with the unemployed, who live at the expense of taxpayers and receive a lot of state benefits, which in turn, deprive them of an incentive to seek work. The older generation of Americans is dissatisfied with the fact that patriotism recedes before political correctness, and in result, the country is losing its world leadership status. As a number of terrorist attacks keeps growing, the anxiety and insecurity within society increases – and unlike the situation in Russia, it is not imaginary, but very real.
Obama’s emphasis on peacefulness in the harsh circumstances of rampant terrorism was not seen as entirely appropriate. And the general understanding that an adequate response will not arrive only enhances the sense of hopelessness. It seems that the growing discontent in conjunction with worrisome feelings awakens in a large part of American society the same feelings as that of the Russians – a psychological need to escape from a state of prolonged discomfort. The more radical this process – the more desirable it is, simply because it gets in step with the desire to “run up and jump off a cliff,” to break the cycle, to obtain the result suddenly and swiftly. Trump was able to sense the mood of voters, Trump fits perfectly with their need “to vote with the heart.” And where the heart takes precedence over reason, no one thinks about the world order.