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Donald Trump’s Russian cousins

Seeing The Donald as an isolated, ‘American’ phenomenon misses the point. 

Alexander Groce
5 February 2016
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"Trumputin." Flickr/Chris Piascik. Some rights reserved.The current media frenzy over the darling of the Republican anti-establishment, Donald Trump, seems to fit particular American stereotypes about our political propensities. We Americans like a scrapper, a stubby, come-from-behind, up-by-the-bootstraps, half-Rocky Balboa, half-Horatio Alger amalgam of anti-establishment and egalitarian tropes. In this iteration, Donald Trump is the self-made man that he wants to appear as, and we appreciate how compulsively he weaves this ostentatious narrative. 

Trump speaks truth to power, all the while a powerful and wealthy figure himself, the apotheosis of the schismatic dualities that we appreciate in our public figures. 

But seeing Trump as an isolated, ‘American’ phenomenon may miss the point and tell less than half the story about the global trends played out in his candidacy. Since the onset of the financial crisis in 2008 – and especially since the rash of fiscal crises in Europe, the aftershocks of which are now being coupled with the refugee problems of mass exodus from the Middle East – European politics has become more tempestuous and its politicians more unruly.

However, with the exception of a few aberrations like Italy’s comedian-politician Beppe Grillo, the pure X Factor quality of politics in Europe is more understated. 

In trying to peg Trump we may, disconcertingly, need to look further east.

The real story in Europe seems to be the possibility of popular ideological groundswells: Golden Dawn, and now, Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, UKIP and the SNP in Britain, Pegida in Germany. These movements reflect Europe’s long-running political settlement: polarised electorates tend to result in polarised ballots at the polls, with parliamentary systems and traditions of coalition governments.

The expansion of the margins, then, tells us that Europe is experiencing a similar crisis of trust in political leaders, but it tells the story in a substantially different way.

In trying to peg Trump we may, disconcertingly, need to look further east. The more striking resemblance may be the one that Trump shares with two Russians: a consummate political entertainer, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. Unfortunately for America’s political elite, the resemblance between Trump and the two Russian politicians may be indicative of more widespread systemic similarities.

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Zhirinovsky just before an activist threw some sauerkraut at him in Kyiv, shouting, ""Ukrainophobe! Chauvinists, get out of Ukraine!". Demotix/Sergii Kharchenko. All rights reserved.Vladimir Zhirinovsky is a perennial presidential candidate, a member and former vice-speaker of the Russian Duma (Russia’s primary legislative body), and the unrivalled king of trash-talk politics, Russian style. Zhirinovsky’s outbursts have lit up Russian television screens since his first outing in electoral politics over 25 years ago. His first experience in democratic politics found him allied with the Democratic Union, a short-lived movement of dissidents and human rights activists that heralded the experimental politics of the coming decade, when Russia was awash with both the novelty of democracy and the roiling corruption of gangster capitalism.

Zhirinovsky quickly moved on to found his own party, the Liberal Democrats, in 1990, a precursor to his campaign for the presidency in 1991. He ran for that post over and over again, a perennial candidate with diminishing electoral chances but rising media visibility. 

Zhirinovsky’s party, and its notorious campaign tactics directly reflects his own insatiable appetite for notoriety and attention. When Zhirinovsky declined to run against Vladimir Putin in 2004, he ran his personal bodyguard in his place. Zhirinovsky’s real staying power, it turns out, is derived from his penchant for outlandish statements as well as vitriolic, even pugilistic, encounters with any form of journalist or politician. His most famous encounters are Russian Youtube viral sensations, featuring bombastic rhetorical performances and sometimes profanity-laced outbursts. 

Vladimir Zhirinovsky is the unrivalled king of trash-talk politics, Russian style.

In a recent speech to the assembled elite of the Russian capital, speaking before Vladimir Putin, Zhirinovsky revelled in his status as the idiot savant, ticking off a list of playful, but mostly incomprehensible, pronouncements about the dilapidated state of Russian culture. He suggested that literary creativity is born of the combination of long years of hard labour in prison camps (a trope in the biographies of famous Russian writers like Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn) and of belonging to a persecuted sexual minority, handily combining the two ‘muses’ in a prescriptive programme for the reinvigoration of Russia’s literary industry. This was not the harmless babbling it might otherwise have seemed, given the recent spate of persecutory anti-homosexual legislation passed in Russia.

Zhirinovsky, whose father was Jewish, has also openly made anti-Semitic remarks, and is well-known for his misogynistic views regarding polygamy and the role of women in modern Russia. He recently said that women who drive cars are more likely to commit adultery, and, on another occasion, urged his bodyguards to sexually assault a pregnant female reporter who had the audacity to ask him a tough question.

Such statements seem to be beyond even Donald Trump. What they both share, however, is the showman’s appetite, which seems to drive the media frenzy that has inevitably formed around the two unorthodox figures. Trump’s fluid segue into politics seems to confirm the new dominant axis of American political life: the politico-entertainment complex, where the trend towards endless information overdrive converges with an increasingly fluid understanding of the boundary between entertainment and politics.

The format that best suits Trump’s didactic bombast, the scripted ‘reality’ setting of blockbuster shows like Celebrity Apprentice, creates an image of the businessman as a fresh paragon of management and leadership in the entertainment age. Everything about the setting is designed to enhance Trump’s credibility as a leader without dulling his edge with the tired diplomatic attributes of moderation and circumspection.

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NBC said "you're fired" to Trump after xenophobic statements about Hispanics. Demotix/Richard Levine. All rights reserved.In this, Trump’s image-building hews closer to that of Russian president Vladimir Putin. The visual dynamics of Trump’s virtual boardroom are powerful. The television version is replete with baroque finishes pilfered from cinematic dreams of Wall Street. The same visual dynamics dominate Putin’s frequent public briefings with ministers. In these spectacles, Putin, slouching in a plush executive chair, faces down his ministers and frequently excoriates them with barely hidden contempt.

Putin is equally ombudsman, executive, and martyr. He exploits Russia’s historical tendency to focus national hopes on a semi-omnipotent autocrat, but, at the same time, to create compensating narratives which frame that autocrat as the victim of the extensive physical limitations related to governing a vast empire, and of attempting to contain the perceived greed of the necessarily expansive, and expensive, bureaucracy.

Similarly, Trump’s image as a competent authority is actually enhanced by continuous angry outbursts and the use of social media as a weapon against enemies. His apparently simple moral code – reward loyalty and punish disloyalty – becomes a dichotomy that seems, in the simplified symbolic world of reality TV, a sufficient metric by which to determine optimal outcomes. Trump has noted that his main political shortcoming may be that he “trusts people too much.”

The visual dynamics of Trump’s virtual boardroom are powerful.

The problem of the American dupe has become a problem concentrated similarly at the top, where the most vocal and divisive politicians are given the benefit of the doubt and voters’ attitudes towards government are lined with caveats about the nefarious potential of the bureaucracy to pursue self-interests against the national good.

The boardroom, a favourite trope for conservatives fed up with technocratic incrementalism, is seen as a model for replacing Congress and the Oval Office. Such a model would, presumably, involve the concentration of more power in the executive and a reversal of the tendency towards executive delegation. However, in Russia, at least, where these things have largely come to pass, the result hasn’t been a more robust and honest appraisal of the autocrat. 

Putin, who runs his country like a veritable Trump Casino, is overseeing widespread economic chaos, worsening relations with European neighbours, and a costly series of military adventures whose outcomes have failed to secure even the measly diplomatic concessions once thought possible. And yet his approval ratings hover above 85%. Donald Trump would’ve given his left arm for Nielsen ratings like that, maybe even his hair.

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