Although Putin is not a perfect comparison for the U.S. president, examining the two leaders' shared autocratic traits is useful for understanding "who we are dealing with" in Trump, said writer-journalist Masha Gessen at a recent UCLA event.
UCLA International Institute, April 26, 2017 — Writer-journalist and LGBT activist Masha Gessen described a number of autocratic traits shared by Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump at a talk at UCLA on April 19. She cautioned against making an easy equivalency between the two leaders, however, explaining that the goal of elucidating these traits was to better understand Trump.
Continuing the theme of a recent article, Gessen enjoined Trump critics not to be absorbed by conspiracy theories and expectations of impeachment, claiming this focus distracted them from engaging in politics. Instead, she urged them to focus on preserving the real and still existing public space in the U.S. where opinions and ideas can be freely discussed and debated.
Gessen, who currently resides in the United States, has dual citizenship in the U.S. and Russia. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times and is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books (NYR), The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Vanity Fair and Slate. Her immediate post-election article in the NYR, “Autocracy: Rules for Survival,” became a viral hit. She is also the author of many books, among them, The Man without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin (Riverhead, 2012), Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot (Riverhead, 2014), The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy (Riverhead, 2015) and the forthcoming The Future is History.
The evening event was organized by RAVE (Resistance Against Violence through Education) and the Center for European and Russian Studies at UCLA, and cosponsored by the Burkle Center for International Relations, the departments of comparative literature and musicology and UCLA Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. UCLA Professor of Musicology Tamara Levitz introduced Ms. Gessen and led a question-and-answer session with her before taking questions from the audience.
Parallels between Putin and Trump
Noting with amusement that she seems to be enumerating many lists of late, Gessen outlined nine parallels between the current leaders of Russia and the U.S. The first, she said, is “the way they lie, which is all the time.” In contrast to President George W. Bush, who employed “lies of persuasion,” she claimed that for both Trump and Putin, “The goal is not to persuade you of something else… the goal [of a lie] is to assert his right to say whatever he wants whenever he wants.”
Repeated, outright lying (followed by saying the exact opposite at a later time, such as Putin did with respect to Russian troops in Ukraine) is a bully tactic, she said, and therefore “more about power than facts.” The leader is asserting that he is the “King of Reality,” she explained. Fact-checking, she added, is useless to counter Trump’s lies because it does not address this dynamic.
The second parallel is “government by gesture,” not government by policy, which Gessen described as “a game of signals, a game of messaging — it’s not actually the game of government.” Here she pointed to the example of Trump pressuring Carrier Corporation not to eliminate jobs in the United States, a one-off political gesture not tied to a corresponding plan or policy.
Third, the two men are driven by interests rather than priorities, meaning that they, in Gessen’s words, “engage only in what really interests them.” And what genuinely interests them, she observed, is not government, but things related to power. Here she pointed to Trump’s open admiration of the military.
Because Trump is generally uninterested in government, Gessen argued that he would allow other people to handle issues that didn’t interest him. “This is a very important piece of the puzzle,” she said, “because it bursts the impeachment bubble,” she said. “There are enough things that he’s not interested in that other people are going to be left to handle.” As a result, Republicans will get something they want: “They will be able to act politically to a certain extent, probably to a greater extent than if he had been interested in actual governance” she said. The space for political action, she implied, will eliminate a compelling reason why Republicans might otherwise eventually vote to impeach him.
Fourth, the leaders share a disdain for government, including a complete disregard for its institutions. “Trump is not just bored with government and not just disinterested in actual policy, he has disdain for the institutions of government,” she said. His campaign slogan of “draining the swamp” referred not to the need to clean up institutions so they function better, Gessen continued, but to his conviction that “the American government as currently constituted is rotten to the core and needs to be destroyed.”
In Russia, she noted, Putin has already succeeded in destroying the institutions of government. In the U.S., she observed, many cabinet members are opposed to the very missions of their respective departments and agencies and are tasked with dismantling them. Gessen found Trump’s disdain for government to be the most worrisome thing about the U.S. president and urged people to keep a close eye on his attempts to dismantle the administrative state — a goal that has been clearly enunciated by both Trump and his adviser Stephen Bannon.
Fifth, both men have a disdain for the public sphere. The speaker noted that both Putin and Trump intensely dislike public protests, which they perceive as threatening to government and an indication of chaos. Putin’s fear of protests goes back to the fall of East Germany, when he burned documents in the Soviet Embassy, recounted Gessen. Pointing to Trump’s fondness for rallies, she said that the U.S. president sees the public sphere as a “space for mobilization and unity,” not as a space for civil society and debate.
Sixth, both men share a disdain for the media. This is ironic, she said, as both Trump and Putin, albeit in different ways, are creatures of the media and see it as a mirror. Gessen claimed that the Putin persona was created by the Russian media, or in cooperation with it, whereas Trump became a media creature through active self-promotion and cultivation.
Neither Putin and Trump are exposed to views other than their own, observed the speaker. “That’s what Angela Merkel meant when... she said [about Putin], ‘He lives in his own reality.’” Rather than implying Putin was crazy, Gessen said Merkel meant that “he lives in a reality of his own making.” Although Putin controls the media in Russia in a way that Trump does not in the U.S., Gessen argued that the U.S. president had insulated himself to a similar degree by putting himself at the center of the “Breitbart media bubble.” An analysis of 18 months of Trump’s tweets by Buzzfeed, she noted, concluded that the president derived the bulk of his information from Breitbart News in that period.
Gessen claimed, however, that it was is a fallacy of the America left to assume that everyone in the U.S., left and right, lives in their own media bubble. “There is a far-right media bubble and that is Breitbart,” she said, “and by bubble I mean people who are never exposed to views that are not their own.” But she argued that for most of the country, the mass media reflects a wide spectrum of views from the center left to the center right.
“We need to really remember that we do have an imperfect but healthy public sphere in most of this country,” she said. Consequently, she insisted, “The media and journalists need to conceive of ourselves, first and foremost, as guardians of the public sphere — as people whose job it is to make sure that the… the engagement of people with different views continues.” She urged people who feared the consequences of a Trump administration to concentrate above all on preserving the public sphere in United States. “Our job is to protect what we have and not burst the Breitbart bubble,” she remarked.
Gessen noted that a crucial difference between the media environments of Russia and the U.S. is that journalists in this country do not fear for their lives. Consequently, she predicted that intimidation, loss of access and a campaign to make the media irrelevant would constitute greater threats to the U.S. media than outright violence. Trump, she explained, renders the media irrelevant both by constantly demeaning it and by circumventing it through Twitter.
Seventh, the two leaders share a disdain for moral authority. Gessen claimed that moral authority is the only effective weapon against autocracy. It is an authority that cannot be taken from someone; it accumulates over time and is recognized, not awarded, she noted. It was the moral authority of John Lewis, she said, that some 59 other legislators to join him in a boycott of Trump’s inauguration and that prompted Trump’s criticism of him. “We need to remember what moral authority is and how effective it is, and to recognize it and to discuss it in public,” she said.
Masha Gessen. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.)
Disdain for excellence was the eighth similarity on Gessen’s list. Putin, she said, had followed the Soviet tradition and destroyed the very vibrant media and literary scenes that existed in Russia in the 1990s, replacing excellence with a corrosive rule of mediocrity. Today, she said, “Everybody in Putin’s government has a Ph.D. and every single one of them has a plagiarized dissertation” — a fact that evidently neither discredits nor embarrasses them. Trump’s inauguration cake is an excellent metaphor for the U.S. leader's own disdain for excellence, she continued. The cake, a less expensive reproduction of the cake prepared for Obama’s 2008 inauguration, was mostly made of Styrofoam.
Ninth, the two leaders share a belief that they have been chosen and have a mission. For Gessen, this belief is rooted in the fact that both men are “accidental presidents”: one picked from obscurity by Yeltsin, the other unexpectedly elected. Rather than making them humble, their unanticipated arrival in power strengthened a belief in their special destiny as leaders. For Putin, she specified, that mission is to save Russia and the Russian state, a mission he believes only he can fulfill.
Over the course of the evening, Gessen made a number of compelling observations about language. She noted, for example, that in the totalitarian system of the Soviet Union, words were used to mean their precise opposite for generations, a practice that eventually rendered the words meaningless. As a result, she said that journalists in the immediate post-Soviet era chose to use down-to-earth, direct language that communicated exactly what was needed to be said. “Language is a treasure that we need to carry through this [Trump] era in order to be able to use it when we come out the other side,” she said.
“We need to use language that is precise and that reflects our reality so we can preserve the public sphere,” she added. In particular, she counseled against the use of false equivalencies and phrases such as “false news” or “alternative facts” because they are meaningless. “There is no such thing as ‘false news,’ it’s just as nonsensical as an ‘alternative fact,’” she said.
“There is news, and there are lies. There are facts, and there are lies,” she added. “So don’t use phrases that don’t make sense,” she urged the audience.
Published April 26, 2017; corrected May 1, 2017.