August 2016: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump arrives for a campaign rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina. (c) Evan Vucci / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Just a few months ago, when most of my friends were still saying that there was no way Donald Trump would get the Republican nomination, I already had that sinking feeling — the same feeling I get in the pit of my stomach when I watch Russian president Vladimir Putin speak.
Beyond silly nicknames such as “the Siberian candidate” and even sillier accusations of Trump’s direct collusion with Russian security services over the DNC hack lies a simple truth: both Trump and Putin appeal primarily to people who are angry, often justifiably so, as well as fearful, resentful and with no more patience for facts. Simply put, the phenomenon that is “Trumputin” appeals to the irrational part of the human psyche.
We’re used to throwing “irrational” around as an insult, but it has power — especially in times of economic and social upheaval. Russia has been stumbling from upheaval to upheaval for years now. As for the United States, we are now finding out just how fragile our democracy, and democracy in general, really is.
America’s great expectations vs. Russia’s disappointments
In order to understand what Trump and Putin have in common, we must first acknowledge that these are two very different men, from two very different countries.
Russia has never had a stable, working democracy where power-sharing exists and is effective. It’s a huge country dragging the weight of a long and bloody history.
The 20th century was catastrophic for Russia, with millions lost to war and bloody repressions. As I’ve argued before, Russian society suffers from collective post-traumatic stress disorder it cannot begin to acknowledge. Russian society is also hyper-sensitive to its standing in the world and is forever resentfully comparing itself to American society. As Arkady Ostrovsky points out, American gloating over winning the Cold War in part set the stage for Russia’s current, aggressive stance toward the United States.
Putin himself is a product of the USSR’s diminishment and decline. Coming from a modest background, and from a part of the country that was especially devastated by WWII, Putin was bitterly disappointed when the system he and everyone he knew worked so hard to prop up collapsed.
For a journalist covering this election, it can be startling to see just how much the boundaries between reality TV and the Trump campaign have broken down
This is why Putin was so good at harnessing the resentment of his countrymen in his eventual quest to concentrate all power in the hands of the Kremlin — he genuinely felt it himself. He knew that millions of people were frustrated enough to be willing to roll back freedoms just to get a system that works, or seems like it’s working.
The United States, by contrast, is a young, rich, powerful country. It is not in a position to elect a demagogue. Or is it?
A few years ago, my old boss, Russian journalist and Harvard Kennedy School grad Nabi Abdullaev, made a wise, and, as it turned out, prophetic statement: “When average Americans realize just how far their country’s potential exceeds the benefits of being American today, they are going to get very, very angry.” The weight of great expectations can be as burdensome as the weight of a history full of disappointments.
In that sense, Trump’s slogan, which promises to “Make America great again” is eerily similar to rhetoric about “Russia getting up off its knees” that has flourished under Putin. Both slogans acknowledge disappointment and promise an end to it.
And, in disturbingly Putin-like fashion, Trump got up at the Republican National Convention and promised that he alone could achieve tremendous change — not bothering to include the American people in his plans.
People who have lost faith in institutions have lost faith in institutional change. This makes them especially vulnerable to promises made by firebrand demagogues
Now, at the time Nabi made his prediction, we were talking about systemic problems that don’t really matter to the Trump campaign.
The lobbying that stripped all legal protection for student loan borrowers — something that seems to have ruined my own financial future, if not my life. The lack of legislation on paid parental leave, a shocking oversight for a wealthy country.
Then there is the country’s aging infrastructure. And the institutional racism that, let’s face it, left millions of people seething simply over the fact that a black man was elected to the country’s highest office.
All of these problems do not exist in a vacuum. Corporate lobbying has done much more than screw over student debtors like me, for example, it also helped give rise to NAFTA, a huge issue for the Trump campaign. Parental leave is just one aspect of a bitter culture war in which motherhood is presented as something unnatural, just an alternative lifestyle choice, or The Meaning of Life for All Women (a mindset that demands that abortion be banned, which is what Trump’s running mate wants).
Infrastructure woes are both a sign of a deadlocked government, unable to compromise with itself, and our legislators’ shifting priorities toward special interests, as opposed to the public good — the public knows this, hence many support an outsider like Trump. And racist backlash against Barack Obama is a godsend to Trump who, as clever as any con man, knows exactly which buttons to push.
Facts are boring
Trump comes from a wealthy background and became a star businessman because he both embraced all kinds of publicity and, ultimately, realized how easy it is to lie on TV — and to lie in general, as Peter Pomerantsev has noted. The “structured reality” of wildly popular shows like “The Hills” demonstrate how a real person can become the star of a fictional drama. It’s fitting that Trump’s own popular reality show, “The Apprentice,” acted as a kind of precursor to the smashing success of “The Hills.”
For a journalist covering this election, it can be startling to see just how much the boundaries between reality TV and the Trump campaign have broken down. Trump calls on Russia to hack Hillary Clinton — an unprecedented event in the history of U.S. electoral politics — and crowds go wild. They should be booing him, but what he’s saying is fun. Not only that, but he’s also, once again, giving a middle finger to the political establishment that his voters, often quite correctly, blame for all their woes.
Facts are boring. This is something that Putin learned long ago as he set to turn Russian state television into the Kremlin’s tireless PR machine
Facts are boring. This is something that Putin learned long ago as he set to turn Russian state television into the Kremlin’s tireless PR machine — and succeeded. Russian propaganda today is a far cry from staid USSR propaganda; it’s dramatic, it’s flashy, it gives you enemies to hate, people enjoy it.
Trump understands the power of spectacle too, which is precisely why his campaign is a circus full of great, if insane, soundbites. Those of us who were making fun of his antics in the run-up to the Republican primaries forgot that these antics work.
And Trump’s timing couldn’t be more perfect. Perhaps one of the most telling lines about Trump supporters was recently published by conservative writer David Frum, who quoted this line from his discussions with fellow Republicans who are set to vote for Trump: “You believe in institutions because they work for you… But our people don’t believe in institutions any more.”
People who have lost faith in institutions have lost faith in institutional change. This makes them especially vulnerable to promises made by firebrand demagogues. And it places them further beyond the reach of facts or logic.
A narcissist with nuclear codes
This is why Trump supporters are so reminiscent of Putin supporters. This is the source of that familiar sinking feeling I get having spent years in Putin’s Russia. I know that rational arguments won’t work on those who support Trump.
Arkady Ostrovsky argued that the west should not have gloated when it won the Cold War. I similarly want to caution Clinton supporters from gloating should their candidate beat Trump at the polls.
This is not about winning an election anymore. The Trump phenomenon has exposed deep fissures in our society and political system. It has exposed the fact that an unwieldy, inflexible two-party system no longer adequately addresses the interests of millions of Americans. It has exposed the fact that many voters have lost faith in traditional legislators. It has exposed the fact that our citizens are fearful and mistrustful of each other.
Putin may be a cynical opportunist, but cynical opportunism is a game that’s played according to its own rules. Narcissists know no rules
As George Lakoff has argued, when cold, hard facts don’t work, values, empathy and positively-framed truth do much better. Simply relating to each other better as human beings works.
This is why I don’t have any hatred for Trump supporters, even when they yell at me to “go back to Russia” on Twitter. I know they want me to hate them. But I don’t want to give them what they want, nor do I want to play their game. It’s not a game a rational person can win. Putin supporters, who’ll call you a “Russophobe” when you so much as question their leader, taught me that a long time ago.
In the long run, an impulsive narcissist like Trump is bad for everyone. And in spite of the fact that his appeal is broadly similar to Putin’s, Trump is ultimately bad for the Kremlin. If Putin thinks that he can have a buddy cop-like relationship with Trump like he did with Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, he has another thing coming.
Putin, who, once again, came from a modest background and had to fight to succeed in life, is likely unprepared for dealing with the kind of narcissism that, in Trump’s case, was buoyed and entrenched further by his parents’ money. Putin may be a cynical opportunist, but cynical opportunism is a game that’s played according to its own rules. Narcissists know no rules. The fact that Trump might be the man who ends up with nuclear codes should give Russia — and the whole world — pause.
The recent leak of emails from inside the US Democratic Party have led to allegations that Trump is a Kremlin agent. This is clickbait conspiracy at its best.