Street art by Linas Linkevicius in Vilnius, Lithuania. Photo: Wikimedia commons
While analyzing all that is happening today in the United States, I’ve often noticed the striking similarity between the behavior and propaganda of Trump with his entourage and Putin’s Russia. The similarities are so obvious that sometimes it seems that Trump and his team’s methodologies were written in Moscow.
Renown Russian opposition politician and former world chess champion Garry Kasparov recently described the typical game plan that an autocratic leader follows when he gets caught “red-handed.” This is what it looks like:
- Deny, lie, slander.
- Claim that it was a misunderstanding.
- Boast and jeer: “And what are you going to do about it?”
Now I will try to illustrate the similarity in the propaganda strategies of “Putinism” and “Trumpism” using specific examples.
1.1. Denials and lies
This is the first reaction of any criminal caught at the crime scene. It should be noted that both Trump and Putin are constantly trying to hide their actions, and conducts their affairs with mafia-like secrecy – be it the deployment of “little green men” in unmarked uniforms to Crimea, or secret meetings with Russian Ambassador Kislyak, getting paid by “Russia Today,” or conspiring to obtain compromising information about political opponents (most likely not a selfless plot as it became evident later). In all these cases, when the truth came out, the responses of Putin and Trump (as well as their propagandists) typically came down to this painfully familiar phrase: “That’s not what happened.”
In all these cases, when the truth came out, the responses of Putin and Trump (as well as their propagandists) came down to this painfully familiar phrase: “That’s not what happened.”
Remember how the members of the Trump team one by one denied their meetings with the Russian Ambassador Kislyak, only to have no choice but to admit them later? In a similar manner, they denied other contacts between members of his campaign and the Russians, the very fact that these talks happened, attempts to influence the investigation, the transfer of secret information to “Russian partners,” etc. The latest example is the information about the second, secret meeting between Putin and Trump during the G20 summit in Hamburg, where Trump’s first impulse was to vehemently deny it, again calling the media that published these facts “fake news.”
A little later, the White House was forced to admit that this meeting really did happen; however, now the Trump administration tried to minimize it as “only a short conversation at the end of the official dinner.” In this regard, let us recall Putin’s fiery assurances that the Russian military was not in the occupied Crimea, before being replaced by statements that “they are merely there to ensure an orderly referendum.” The apogee of this story was the film “Crimea. The way home,” directly demonstrating the entire process of the annexation of the peninsula. And these are just some of the many examples of falsehoods coming from the administrations of Trump and Putin.
Again, this behavior is most prevalent in the criminal world, where the best defense is the offense. This tactic is one of the most dangerous and malicious, extremely degrading to the moral state of our society, and therefore worth discussing in more detail. Both Putin’s and Trump’s propagandists use the following kinds of slander:
– The simplest and most primitive way is to discredit the reputation of an individual by a blunt lie. Not long ago, I mentioned one example – how immediately after the Senate hearings, local Trump fans started spreading unsubstantiated anonymous slander about “the Comey brothers working for the Clinton Foundation.” They didn’t even stop to consider that the former director of the FBI, James Comey – by the way, a staunch Republican – enjoys great respect among people of all different political views. The statements of the FBI veterans, both in the media and on social networks, make it clear that this man has an impeccable reputation as one of the most honest and professional leaders of this organization. And the Comey case is just a partial example of how the Republican media and pro-Trump trolls on social networks sling mud at everyone who dares to speak out against their “leader.”
Needless to say, this method is regularly used in Russia. Numerous “investigative” NTV films, propaganda on social networks, sexually incriminating materials, harassment on federal channels – all of this is aimed at thoroughly discrediting in the eyes of the population the opposition leaders or people who have undeniable moral authority, but who oppose the regime’s crimes, like for example the Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Aleksievich.
– Conspiracy theories. This point is derived straight from the following. The best way to discredit someone is to weave him into a conspiracy theory linking him to an entity that has long been a subject of irrational hatred. In the Russian tradition, this entity has been the CIA, the West, and the United States. Among conservative Americans, this role is played by the thoroughly demonized images of Obama, Clinton, and the Democratic Party as a whole, and, of late, the mysterious “Deep State.” Both here and there, there are accusations of being paid off: in the Russian case – by the CIA, and in the American – allegedly by George Soros (sometimes – personally Hillary Clinton). Thus, having no real arguments on the substance of the issues under consideration, the Putinists as well as the Trumpists resort to the simplest and only means available to them: vilifying their opponent as much as possible.
One of the latest, most odious conspiracy stories is the one recently promoted on Fox News that claims that the Democratic Party hired Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya to offer Donald Trump Jr. compromising material on herself! How can we not be reminded of Putin’s famous statements about “ritual sacrifices,” oppositionists who kill themselves, and Ukrainians who bomb their own cities?
– Labeling opponents. Unlike the previous methods, this one doesn’t involve personal attacks. Nevertheless, this type of slander is especially dangerous since it takes hold insidiously and ends up completely distorting reality. For example, at the very beginning of Trump’s election campaign, his agitators tried to bet on patriotism, emphasizing that they were “true American patriots,” whereas the Trump opponents were, in Soviet terms, “rootless cosmopolitans” who secretly hate their country and periodically burn the American flag.
Notably, the Kremlin mass media operating in Russia has been particularly successful in this type of propaganda. Over many years, they have succeeded in convincing the population that “by definition a liberal cannot be a patriot.” At the same time, such clichés have become so ingrained in society that they have been implicitly accepted even by the Russian opposition, who obediently call Putin’s supporters “patriots,” and thus play into the hands of the Kremlin.
American society should be commended for not falling into this trap, and for not repeating the mistakes of the Russian opposition by ceding the concept of patriotism to the pro-Trump propagandists. On the contrary, people of different views opposing Trump (and this, we recall, is the majority of American society) emphasize that their motivation is based on patriotic motives, above all, the untenability of the situation in which the president of their country acts in the interests of a hostile state.
However, Trump supporters have succeeded in spreading other clichés, in particular attributing certain political views to all his opponents. The ultra-partisan Republican media makes it clear how they view their opponents. Thus, in the article justifying the attempt at collusion between Donald Trump Jr. and Veselnitskaya, anyone opposing it is stigmatized in the very first paragraph as the “left” and “Democrats.”
In fact, there are at least three false statements in this paragraph. First, the Democratic Party is a broad coalition of people of quite different views, and its far-left wing is not very large. Moreover, people of radical leftist views don’t join any party more often than not and distrusted the state even under the presidency of Barack Obama.
Second, it is absolutely wrong to reduce anti-Trump mindsets strictly to partisan differences. The behavior of the incumbent US president is perceived as unacceptable (and especially unacceptable for America) by people of different views, primarily by national security specialists and special services officers, who, due to their work, have no political affiliations. Moreover, a significant portion of the Republican Party (especially if we are not talking about their top politicians but about rank-and-file members, party intellectuals, and even ideologists) categorically rejected Trump.
It is for this very reason that some of the formerly loyal Republicans broke away from the party and created an alternative conservative movement, acting exclusively from patriotic impulses. Evan McMullin, a former CIA officer, became the leader of this “Stand Up Republic” movement. It is important to note that in America, where the bipartisan system has dominated for centuries, the opportunities for any “third choice” to break into the political Olympus have in fact been reduced to zero, even though the third party is badly needed right now. Thus, McMullin’s position clearly does not bring him any political dividends and is dictated only by his principles.
The third lie is an attempt to present Trump as the embodiment of capitalism, although many analysts have repeatedly noted that his ideology most closely resembles the coming to power of the Bolsheviks in Russia, and has nothing to do with classical capitalism. At the same time, it is amusing that accusations of “socialism” come primarily from beneficiaries of social programs. Trump’s main constituency is retirees who receive their pensions courtesy of the taxpayers, and use medical insurance imposed by the Obama administration. In addition, most of them are residents of poor states that depend on subsidies from the federal budget at the expense of Western states known for their highest GDP in the US and advanced technology (Silicon Valley).
– An old KGB tactic known as whataboutism. This is an attack on an opponent with questions in the style: “But what about…?.” It’s designed to prove that the enemy did exactly the same and even worse things in the past. This tactic employs misrepresentation of historical facts, demagoguery and distortion of the issue at hand. Today, it’s one of the most popular methods used by Russian trolls. When faced with the evidence of, say, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, they start recalling wars in which the US participated (most often Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Libya).
This tactic is no less popular among the defenders of Trump. While the United States is discussing Donald Trump Jr.’s willingness to use compromising material on his rivals provided by the Kremlin, pro-Trump propagandists are trying to prove that “the Democrats have sought Russia’s help on several occasions.” By the way, it’s not going well for them. Barack Obama‘s attempts to establish relations with Russia involved neither the use of the compromising materials obtained in violation of the law in exchange for political concessions nor slandering opponents with the information collected and often rigged by foreign special services.
Second, these attempts were made even before the annexation of the Crimea and the war in the Donbas, at a time when Russia had not yet openly called the US its main enemy and had not taken such obvious steps to damage American security. Thus, such comparisons, manipulations and attempts to justify current crimes with “historical analogies” are no more justified than a comparison of international efforts to resolve the Kosovo problem with the Russian armed occupation of independent states.
– Another example of “whataboutism” is the exploitation of the myths of the Second World War. In fact, the entire Russian propaganda campaign against Ukraine was built on it. Trumpists are also not averse to using this technique. Instead of recognizing the real problems that are caused by their hero’s recent actions, they spread the myths about how “George Soros cooperated with the Nazis” that were originally created by the Russian propagandists working with the special services, and only in the last year translated into English.
2. Admitting that the act took place
The second stage is the admission that the act took place, but presenting it as a minor misunderstanding or rationalizing it, simply put, normalizing the abnormal. Thus, the Russian leadership no longer denies the presence of the Russian military not only in the Crimea, but also in the Donbas, but still invents some excuses for their presence there. With the same tenacity, the new administration of the White House finds excuses for all the negotiations between Trump and his team with the Russian leadership, meetings with Russian ambassadors, secret meetings, etc that keep coming to light. A vivid recent example of such tactics are the abovementioned statements from the White House about, as it turns out, “a short conversation at the end of the official lunch” that after all did take place.
3. Presenting a fait accompli as a virtue
The third stage is the presentation of a fait accompli as a virtue, something that is worthy of praise, and a cynical admonition to the opponent that revealing the truth is still useless because it won’t change anything. This bravado, with the invariable addition of the phrase borrowed from the criminal underworld, “Prove it!,” unfortunately, at the moment describes the environment in both Russia and America. Even in the United States, where a free press and independent courts really do exist, new revelations that seemingly come to light every day have not led to any legal consequences.
However, an important difference between the United States and Russia, in addition to a mature civil society and democratic institutions, is the healthier state of society as a whole. Thus, according to the latest survey data, Trump is supported by about 36% of the population, and not 86%, as in Russia. The use of threats, hatred, and slander only leads to the marginalization of their bearers, but, fortunately, at the present, they haven’t been embraced by a wider section of the society than those who were already on Trump’s side during the election. On the contrary, the polls show that Trump’s popular support is slowly eroding and, as before, the vast majority of Americans do not approve of his policy.
One positive phenomenon that came out of the resistance to Trump’s presidency is the consolidation of society on the basis of patriotism and the formation of a broad coalition ready to defend American principles and democracy. This can be seen in the comments of ordinary Americans under the Independence Day greeting published on the official FBI Twitter account. People, while expressing gratitude to the FBI agents for their work, were asking them to complete the investigation of the ties between Putin and Trump, and even to arrest the latter. Such solidarity between ordinary people and law enforcement agencies in the fight against possible crimes “at the top” is also inconceivable in Russia.
Unfortunately, this national mood is not truly reflected in American politics. The disconnect between the American political parties’ agenda and the needs of the society is a worrying sign, and it was responsible for the victory of a Kremlin-supported Trump populism.
However, despite certain positive trends, it is important to note that the spread of propaganda, lies, hatred and persistent denial of reality has already infected American society with its own virus of moral degradation. The “Trump minority,” which was living in the illusory reality of conspiracy theories and non-existent threats from its fellow citizens even before Trump, has already developed immunity to any facts and is in the habit of obscuring, justifying and supporting absolutely unacceptable things. And, as we can see from the Russian example, it is almost impossible to reverse the moral degradation once it has taken hold. In addition, the Republican Party is currently in power, and many American commentators point out that it has turned into a “Putin party” over the past few years, which cannot but cause concern.
It is also important to note that Trump gets away with actions that are much more dangerous than Putin back in 2000, when he first came to power. Even in Russia in 2000, it was impossible to imagine that the president of the country and his closest circle would openly brand the press as “enemies of the people” and his opponents as “not even people.” Early Putin did not advocate violence against the media, did not declare war on the judges, did not appoint his children and in-laws as advisors, did not insult public figures, did not brazenly lie to his people, did not launch a propaganda machine at the level of the modern Kiselev and did not promote the interests of a hostile foreign state.
The establishment of dictatorship in Russia took several decades, while Trump tried to turn America into today’s Russia in literally just a few weeks. The only force that prevented him from doing this were American institutions: both governmental and civil. It is these institutions that the Republican propagandists are attacking today in America. At the same time, as we have already discussed above, this struggle is conducted in full accordance with Kremlin propaganda methodologies and, not coincidentally, with the full support from Moscow.
- A guide to Russian Propaganda, part 1: Propaganda prepares Russia for war
- A guide to Russian propaganda, part 2: Whataboutism
- A guide to Russian propaganda, part 3: Rapid fire conspiracy theories
- Trump’s victory: how scandal gave way to conspiracy theories
- The most comprehensive guide ever to MH17 conspiracies
- Soviet myths about World War II and their role in contemporary Russian propaganda