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Who is evil now? How Russia came back to haunt Trump’s America

Casting aside a longstanding tradition of American exceptionalism, Trump is remaking the United States into a more consumer-friendly version of autocratic Russia. This is alarming and deeply demoralising. But it could also suggest that the American and Russian societies now simply share the same underlying plight.

April 24, 2017 - Patryk Babiracki - Articles and Commentary

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Historically, Americans talked and thought about Russia a great deal, but the process often served to articulate and define a vision of America. Especially during the Cold War, in an effort to understand the USSR, many scholars and journalists have gotten used to the Manichean premise about Russia as America’s other. There was rarely room for grayscale in talking about the two superpowers. Western academics and commentators of Russia more generally saw themselves living on the more enlightened side of the Enlightenment: of capitalism and respect for private property, of truth, of freedom, of individualism and choice, of higher spiritual values that were often linked to God. Those Americans who were looking up to the heavens, and those looking down on Russia had many reasons to believe that the US was a simply a better place than the USSR.

That America was a place palpably different from the spaces that the Kremlin ruled over: a communist world powered by coercion and deception, disrespect for the individual and private property coupled with materialism that implied spiritual void; all undergirded by the assumptions about Russians’ innate propensity for tyranny, their unrealised craving for democracy, free markets and consumer goods. Get over the contradiction, if you will.

Of course, such clear distinctions were not always true; nor were they understood as such by everyone at all times. Scores of Westerners revered Stalinist Russia for its extraordinary economic performance in the 1930s, when Stalin’s industrialisation drive left the depressed Western economies in the dust. The numerous Western intellectuals who were so impressed by the feat often knew about Stalin’s mass murder that accompanied and paid for the amazing growth. But they chose to ignore them on the grounds that the price was still worth what they thought they were getting in return: the good society that communism had promised, and which Stalin claimed he began to build.

A more nuanced version of this inverted Manicheanism arose in the academe. In the 1960s, a wave of social historians came to see the USSR more sympathetically; driven by their reaction to the systemic inequities in the United States, and by the US government conduct of the Vietnam war, they set out to correct the apparent exaggerations of the Cold Warriors, often by describing the USSR as merely a different incarnation of the norm. All things considered though, that debate remained somewhat arcane, confined to historiographic debates and radical journals. The official terms of the Cold War was what largely defined the popular thinking about Russia and America, also shaping the Americans’ popular imagination of their country. And if Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” speech clearly spoke to that high-contrast understanding of the world, then the East European revolutions of 1989 and subsequent dissolution of the USSR have helped to solidify it ever since.

America’s post-Cold War triumphalism failed to shake up the terrain of Russia-mediated US self-indulgence throughout the 1990s and the 2000s. The evident bankruptcy of the Soviet system fed into that sense of confidence. So did Western scholars who peered into the “newly declassified documents” of the former communist regimes. Singling out Stalin’s peculiar understanding of security as territorial expansion, his paranoid personality and his near-absolute political power as the sine qua non of the Cold War, those historians concluded that Russia was to blame for the outbreak of the global conflict. And outside of the ivory tower, the interesting scholarly discussions of Soviet Union’s own ultimate economic and social suicide remained overshadowed by the powerful imagery of Reagan’s challenge to his Soviet counterpart: “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Subsequently, as Russia turned inward to cope with the legacy of communism and the chaos of reform, the Cold War itself became history, thus helping to decouple the Russian past from the American present. In 1998 eminent historian John Lewis Gaddis quoted Groucho Marx to underscore the benefits of the new vantage point: “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend,” he wrote, whereas “Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” Humour also served to convey Russia’s irrelevance in America’s post-Cold War popular culture. Remember Linda Litzke (played by Frances McDormand), from the 2008 Cohen brothers’ film Burn After Reading? When she turns over classified CIA documents to the Russian embassy, the CIA chief himself seems taken off-guard upon finding out about whom she approached. “To the Russians?” he confirms, squinting from incredulity. “To the Russians?” “The Russians” themselves were utterly unconvinced, sending a lowly assistant cultural attaché to meet the unexpected guest. All this is to say that new evidence and fresh perspectives about Russia energised the discipline of history, but in removing the distance from the present, it also reduced Russia’s role in defining America.

Aiming to restore Russia’s great-power status and heal the injured sense of pride, Vladimir Putin has been doing much to recover that role. After 1991, many in the West, if they gave it a thought at all, had assumed that the pains of transition notwithstanding, Russia was on its way to becoming a liberal democracy. But, as Putin’s regime began to clamp down on the opposition movements, parties and media outlets, and to use the courts and the police to political ends, much of that optimism began to wither away. Under his administration, heavy anti-liberal rhetoric laced with sharp anti-Western, anti-American overtones began to creep out of Russia, forcing the contrasts and comparisons back into the minds of those who followed what was going on. The media and government officials resented America’s real and imagined interferences in Russian affairs, from fomenting anti-government protests in Russia or Ukraine to funding NGOs, to efforts to expand NATO. In the official discourse, America became once again Russia’s archenemy. And Americans, most ostensibly President Obama, angered Russians by refusing to recognise Russia as an equal partner that Russia so desperately craved to be.

We take Russia more seriously now. We do because in the last two years the Kremlin made clear its commitment to empire, and to the disruption of the Western liberal-democratic order. We pay more heed especially because Russia’s shadow looms so large over Donald Trump’s presidency, from allegations to the Kremlin’s cyber interference on his behalf to numerous connections between Trump’s campaign and Russia, links which range from inacceptable to unclear. It is no longer a Cohen brothers’ comedy flick that comes to mind as a cinematic backdrop to these developments; it’s the chilling 1962 picture The Manchurian Candidate.

Yet Russia’s presence in US politics and its impact on our future go beyond the obvious. Lost in the daily news cycle of Trump-related controversies and tweets, as well as this president’s constant reiterations of “America first” may be his persistent, historic, and profoundly troubling redefinition of America as Russia-lite. Surely, all too often US politicians evoked American exceptionalism to justify imperialist policies in many parts of the world. But let’s not forget that the country’s sense of uniqueness and special mission has also served to define America’s political “best practices”, official values, standards and aspirations against those of various authoritarian regimes. In abandoning that tradition, Trump tells the American people and the world that we no longer care.

Donald Trump rejects that tradition in his own words. Take his bizarre equivocation of America and Russia in a recent interview with Bill O’Reilly. Responding to the host’s comment that “Putin is a killer”, the president changed the tables around, announcing that “There are a lot of killers. We have a lot of killers”, adding “well, you think our country is so innocent?” True. Nevermind that odd leap into the critical history of the United States by someone who rose to power by uncritically portraying Americans as victims of the world. Nevermind even the moral equivocation between two governments that suffer from different sorts of imperfections: one that regrettably abandons humanitarian principles to protect its citizens (and regularly faces push-back from human rights organisations, advocacy groups and the media); the other relies on such methods to intimidate its citizens and to shut down any person or institution that dares to speak out.

Trump further redefines America through his actions, by imitating Putin’s style of governance. That style favours centralisation and personalisation of power at the expense of the other branches of the government and formal structures more generally; both phenomena have a long tradition in Russia but are unprecedented in scale in the United States. It also involves insulting and intimidating critics, a practice that’s regrettably normal by Russian standards, but which constituted an exception to the rule in the American democracy; secretiveness; an intense reliance on anti-liberal populism that feeds off of economic woes of the masses, racism, xenophobia, and their injured sense of pride; and a profound hypocrisy. Though claiming to fight for the common man, both Putin and Trump merely buy him off, while turning the state into a machine for generating personal gain. Putin profits as a curator of an entire corrupt, kleptocratic state. By refusing to divest himself of his businesses, Trump turns the state into a marketing office for his own brand. Not to belabour the point, but Russian rulers often viewed state property as their own. In failing to acknowledge his fundamental conflicts of interest, Trump violates the long-established rules, becoming, to use his language, the worst presidential “deal” America has ever had.

In US foreign policy Trump directly enables Putin and furthers his authoritarian agenda; that “deal” is even worse for America and for the world. So far Trump sowed confusion with his heavy-handed tweets, phone calls and public statements about the most delicate aspects of international relations, including longstanding conflicts in East Asia and the Middle East; questioned NATO, empowered European far-right set on dissolving the EU; and frightened others by, to quote the letter by the President of the European Council Donald Tusk to EU leaders “putting into question the last 70 years of American foreign policy.” He insulted at least one staunch US ally, Australia. Moreover, he validated ISIS claims about the alleged clash of civilisations by bashing Muslims and trying to ban them from the United States. As he continues to bewilder staunch US allies in Europe and create new enemies in the Middle East, Trump is playing directly into Putin’s hands. Instead of defending democracy and international cooperation, as American leaders tried to do for much of the twentieth century, Trump is playing a Russian roulette with the world.

Yet Trump reframes America in ways that go beyond his synergism with Putin’s Russia. His administration’s modus operandi evokes methods of America’s chief Cold War enemy, the Soviet party state.

After the revolution in October 1917, the Bolsheviks went on ferociously to annihilate the old world in the name of a better, newer, braver one they vowed to build. To that end, they destroyed monuments, symbols, institutions and people who stood in the way. Then, from the 1930s on, under Stalin, they transformed rural and urban landscapes throughout the Soviet Union, they assaulted religion and arts, and they also launched an attack on entire classes of people who opposed their regime, who were considered enemies, or who were simply treated as such solely so that the bureaucrats responsible for “unmasking” wreckers or saboteurs could meet the desired quota.

Above all, the Bolsheviks aimed to destroy the conventional meaning of truth. They monopolised cultural production and the mass media, which allowed them to cover up their own mistakes and crimes, to gloss over the suffering of millions, and to mobilise the masses to sacrifice themselves even more in the name of a better tomorrow. All politicians bend the truth, but in Soviet Russia, mendacity was systemic. This is what John Le Carré meant when he wrote of “the classic, timeless, all-Russian bare-faced, whopping lie.”

Historians of Russia have made careers by juxtaposing two Soviet realities, the virtual and the real. It is important to give at least one example to understand our professionally motivated panic about 2017 America. Consider the ruthless drive to collectivise Soviet agriculture, which started in 1929-30. By spring 1930, hundreds of thousands of peasants suffered from violence sanctioned, encouraged or tolerated by the state, such as murder, deportation, rape, and stigmatisation as so-called “kulaks,” or peasant exploiters. Yet writing in Pravda in March, Stalin described the initiative as a great success. He cited impressive statistics about the rate of collectivisation and amounts of procured grain, leaving out any references to the accompanying death and despair. He used figures to claim that “a radical turn of the countryside towards socialism may be considered as already achieved”. Anyone who questioned that assumption faced imprisonment or death. And many, way too many failed to question. Some because Stalin empowered them, made them the beneficiaries of the crime – in part because millions firmly believed that happen what may, “the Party is always right.”

One cannot help but feel that Trump is also out there to destroy. Riding a wave of anger against the deeply flawed status quo, he dismantles the mechanisms that would have made possible the required repairs. He incapacitates government institutions, appointing their leaders from among those who are incompetent, or who don’t believe in their missions. He destroys society by exacerbating the deep divisions that sadly came to define it, by injecting it with vitriol, venom and hatred at a time when people should talk and heal. He vulgarises the public discourse, often attacking his critics and even judges personally; by violating diplomatic protocol and by insulting directly foreign leaders and nations he also imperils America’s relationships with the rest of the world.

Crucially, just like the Soviets, Trump aims to kill the traditional, evidence-based idea of truth. In that virtual reality that he, his advisors and spokespeople tirelessly craft, Donald Trump did win the popular vote, it did not rain during his inauguration speech, and the crowds in front of the Capitol on November 8th surpassed in size the showing for any of the previous forty four presidents. Sounds banal? Far more is at stake! In that imaginary space, the climate change is a Chinese hoax, Muslims are terrorists, independent judges who rule against Trump’s executive orders put the nation at risk, while any news networks that fail to perpetuate the outpouring of White House falsehoods are themselves instantly branded as “fake news.” Incidentally, that last move reminds of a mirroring strategy that the Soviets brilliantly employed during the Cold War. Think of Grigorii Aleksandrov’s 1949 film The Meeting on the Elbe which portrays the US troops liberating Germany as an undisciplined, drunken motley crew. In fact, as is well known, it was the Red Army soldiers who notoriously indulged in inebriation, theft and rape.

Astounding and troubling in all this is the Trump team’s consistency in spreading the untrue; their extreme sensibility to a slightest critique, their impulse to respond to satire with rage, rather than deflect it with self-generated humour, their persistence in defending false claims when confronted with evidence that belies them, the omnipresent exaggeration – more, a pronounced tendency to define our complex reality in absolute terms. As in: “All the dress shops are sold out in Washington”, just before the inauguration day, or “I alone can fix it”. There is nothing understated about Trump’s apocalyptic vision of today’s America outlined in his inaugural speech, crowned with the hyperbolic reference to: “this American carnage”. Sealing off America from the world with blanket immigration bans and a border wall likewise implies a range of references to the absolute; they can feel comforting in these uncertain times, but are highly misleading. Taken individually, these could be figures of speech, excusable errors, or slips of the tongue. But together, they form a pattern, a “bare-faced, whopping lie” akin to the one that Le Carré ascribed to the Soviets.

So what to make of this newly reconfigured Russian-American nexus? At least two tentative conclusions could be drawn.

First, we must recognise that with its firm democratic and individualistic traditions, America may be immune to many of Russia’s ills. Yet it must also be acknowledged that given Trump’s determined destruction of this country’s legal and political norms, it seems complacent and dangerous to give him the benefit of the doubt, as many educated Americans seem to be willing to do. If only, because there is a reason to fear that if all things fail for Trump, he might try boost his popularity by rallying the nation around a war – just like Putin did when his approval ratings began to sink after the oil prices started to fall.

Second, we should ask: could Trump’s retreat from longstanding American exceptionalism vis-a-vis Russia mean that the Americans and the Russians who support their homegrown strongmen no longer really inhabit those antipodes that we continue to imagine?

The answer is that they do not, in many ways. True ideological or economic differences no longer divide the two societies as much as they used to. Quite the opposite, many Russians and Americans hold decades-long common grudges against democracy and capitalism that betrayed them.

In Russia, former communist elites and criminal gangs robbed the society of its capital, savings and social safety net, leaving the weak to fend for themselves in the new “free-market” ecosystem. In the US, scores fell victim to decades of economic deregulation, Wall-Street recklessness, gung-ho globalisation, fundamentally anti-democratic pay-to-play practices such as lobbying or political campaign funding, all justified by an overarching faith in trickle-down economics, the magically mobilising power of “incentives”, the utterly rational movements of the invisible hand, as well as the exceptional resilience and entrepreneurial instincts of the rugged American individual.

The Russian authorities use the law arbitrarily to sustain the country’s bandit capitalism, corruption and social inequality. In America, neoliberal economic principles have enabled special interest and legislators to enshrine selfishness and inequality in law. It is the resulting hopelessness here and there that, in big part, shapes the political choices of so many Americans and Russians. Which also is why the Russian word “Putin” translates so easily as US-English “Trump.”

It hardly matters that neither Putin nor Trump are fighters for the downtrodden; all that matters is that the masses see them as their best bet. Donald Trump the president is but a symptom of a larger American malady; empowered by popular desperation, he feels emboldened to court and copy Vladimir Putin at will.

Let’s, then, pose a question that Russians have often asked in troubled times: What is to be done? We must certainly push back forcefully against Trump’s rapprochement with Russia on Putin’s undemocratic terms. We need to resist vigorously his attempts to redefine America around practices and values historically embraced by this country’s authoritarian anti-hero, the Soviet Union. But as we struggle against Trumpism, we should also try to understand something else, namely: why do millions of Americans feel so at ease with this president’s blurring of the lines between formerly opposing sets of values, identities and ideals?

The reason may be that the American and Russian societies, inhabiting the same capitalist space, share similar social and economic structural problems. In short, Trump’s effort to do away with US exceptionalism may be rooted in the fact that on a deeper level, America simply is no longer as exceptional as it used to be.

Patryk Babiracki is an Associate Professor in Russian and East European history at the University of Texas at Arlington and editor of the University of Edinburgh-based journal Cultural History. He earned his PhD at the Johns Hopkins University in 2008. His book, Soviet Soft Power in Poland: Culture and the Making of Stalin’s New Empire, 1943-1957 was published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2015. He also co-edited two collections of essays devoted to transnational history of socialism, and authored several articles on the subject. Babiracki’s work has been supported by the Fulbright-Hays Program, IREX, SSRC, Mellon and Volkswagen Foundations, and by residential fellowships from the Kennan Institute in Washington, DC, CEU Institute for Advanced Studies in Budapest and the IWM in Vienna. Most recently, he won the Humboldt Fellowship for Experienced Researchers to be undertaken at the Berlin Center for Cold War Studies in 2017-18.

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