back to

Masha Gessen on the Putin-Trump connection


Over the last week, Trump’s cabinet nominations have given us an irksome feeling that he indeed has close ties to Russia, if not through obvious business connections then by leadership style. But how exactly is Trump connected to Putin? How does he emulate him–through bold-faced lying, circumventing the media, etc.? And how are they decidedly not alike? Masha Gessen writes a crystal clear analysis of the connection between Putin and Trump, in partial below, in full via the New York Review of Books.

Over the last few days, concerns about some kind of a hidden alliance between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin have exploded. There is the president-elect with his apparently fawning regard for the Russian leader. There are Trump’s top cabinet picks, with their unusual Russian ties: as national security advisor, Lt. General Mike Flynn, who has met Putin and done paid events for a Kremlin-sponsored TV station; and as secretary of state, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, who has done billions of dollars of business in Russia and received an award from Putin. And then there is the revelation, from the CIA, that Russia may have actively interfered in the US election to get Trump elected.

Of course, Putin may well have reasons for wanting Trump to be president—not least Trump’s apparent skepticism toward NATO and his lack of opposition to Russia’s military interventions in Ukraine and Syria. But a more important connection between the two men may be their common approach to leadership, which will almost certainly outlast any friendship that may form between them. During his campaign, Donald Trump repeatedly expressed admiration for the way Putin governed. “The man has very strong control over his country,” Trump said at one point. “He’s been a leader far more than our president has been a leader.” That revealed a lot about Trump’s concept of the presidency—he seems to believe that effectiveness is measured by the extent to which the leader “controls” the country. But how might that play out in practice? To what extent can Putin provide insight into Trump’s understanding of power?

There is still much we don’t know about how Trump will rule. But in the month since his election, some characteristic patterns have emerged—and they bear some instructive similarities to the style Putin has practiced over many years. Here are a few of them:

Lying is the message. It’s not just that both Putin and Trump lie, it is that they lie in the same way and for the same purpose: blatantly, to assert power over truth itself. Take, for example, Putin’s statements on Ukraine. In March 2014 he claimed that there were no Russian troops in newly annexed Crimea; a month later he affirmed that Russians troops had been on the ground. Throughout 2014 and 2015, he repeatedly denied that Russian troops were fighting in eastern Ukraine; in 2016 he easily acknowledged that they were there. In each case, Putin insisted on lying in the face of clear and convincing evidence to the contrary, and in each case his subsequent shift to truthful statements were not admissions given under duress: they were proud, even boastful affirmatives made at his convenience. Together, they communicated a single message: Putin’s power lies in being able to say what he wants, when he wants, regardless of the facts. He is president of his country and king of reality.

Trump has exhibited similar behavior, apparently for the same reason: when he claims that he didn’t make statements that he is on record as making, or when he claims that millions of people voting illegally cost him the popular vote, he is not making easily disprovable factual claims: he is claiming control over reality itself. Those puzzled by Trump’s election-fraud tweets, because they seem like sore-loser behavior on the part of the winner, or by his dismissing out of hand the CIA’s findings about Russian interference—against the views of many leading Republicans—are missing the point: Trump was demonstrating his ability to say whatever he wanted about the election, precisely because he had won it.

Both Trump and Putin use language primarily to communicate not facts or opinions but power: it’s not what the words mean that matters but who says them and when. This makes it impossible to negotiate with them and very difficult for journalists to cover them. In the wake of the election, many American journalists felt devastated not only because a terrible candidate had won but also because his victory seemed to be a verdict on their work. All the fact-checking in the world, all the well-documented calling-out of hypocrisy, all the effort that went into The Washington Post’s exposure of the flagrant misuse of the Trump Foundation or The New York Times’s obtaining Trump’s twenty-year-old tax return and the excellent explanatory reporting that accompanied both, could not keep Trump out of the White House. It felt like we had entered a world in which the media no longer had a job to do, or in which its relevance as a check on power had been entirely neutralized.

After the election, the media’s ability to do its job has been undermined even further. The standard model of reporting requires journalists to give the president-elect say in any news story about him. Thus we now have a series of stories in which reported facts are juxtaposed with a quoted Tweet that dismisses or contradicts the facts themselves. Even a factual narrative can no longer be aired without an immediate challenge contained within the news story itself—and without demonstrating that Trump has once again asserted his power to say what he wants, facts be damned, when he wants, convention be damned, and how he wants, logic and the English language be damned.

It is time to raise the stakes from fact to truth. With a president who lies in order to demonstrate power, fact-checking is indeed useless if it’s the entire story. The media have to find a way to tell the bigger story—the story about the lies rather than the story of the lies; and the story about power that the lies obscure. For mainstream media with long institutional histories, this is even harder than it sounds. The objective style in American journalism often means that nothing can be asserted unless someone in a position of authority utters it. Take Ukraine again: American newspapers have been reluctant to call a war a war because the US administration was not calling it a war. Words like “military adventurism” and “insurgency” had to stand in for the truth. But unless we are willing to live in a world that is not only post-fact but also post-truth, journalists will have to stand up to the soon-to-be president by exposing not only his lies but also other people’s truths.

*Image of Putin and Trump via NY Books