Vladimir Putin is not merely the leader of Russia, “he’s king of reality,” and US President Donald Trump is attempting to copy the Kremlin’s methods in his efforts to control the American political narrative, according to journalist Masha Gessen, a leading practitioner of the resurgent art of Kremlinology.
Gessen examined the political tactics of Putin and Trump during a recent event in Cambridge, Massachusetts, hosted by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.
Habitual lying by both Putin and Trump is a means to a political end. “We have to understand how Trump uses lies, how he uses language – which is weirdly similar to the way Putin uses lies and language – and that is to assert power,” Gessen said. “His [Trump’s] main goal is to assert his power over reality, which is a basic bully tactic.”
Citing the incredulity which greeted Trump’s campaign pledge to build a wall on the US-Mexico border, Gessen said “the problem living in a degrading regime is that there are lots of points of no return” – things that once seemed outlandish become the new normal.
In Russia, that point was reached, she said, when the new president ordered a raid on the media holding company for which Gessen worked. Within a year, she said, the Kremlin had taken over “all broadcast television.”
Gessen cautioned against an excessive focus on the Russian hacking incident and its influence on the US presidential election. “An obsession with Russia is not conducive to protecting our politics,” she said, adding that those fighting to protect constitutional order in the United States should not bank on the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Trump’s Russia ties to stymie the White House’s efforts to circumvent the system of checks-and-balances. “Russia is not a silver bullet,” she said.
“I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be a Russian investigation, I’m just saying it should not be the main focus of people who are concerned about protecting democracy under Trump,” Gessen said. “I think that the defeat of the healthcare legislation was actually a victory for meaningful politics, because the substantive disagreement that occurred among Republicans was proof that politics still happens.”
Gessen’s forthcoming book, The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, is an exploration on the nature of totalitarianism. It also takes the pulse of contemporary Russian society, focusing on the stories of four people who came of age during the turbulent decade that followed the Soviet collapse. All four participated in the wave of opposition protests against Putin’s return for a third presidential term in 2012, and all saw their lives change drastically as a result.
Gessen described the 550-page book as “the Russia book to end all Russia books,” before adding, to laughter from the audience, “someone writes one of those every two years.”
Matthew Luxmoore is a journalist and a student at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University.