In the earlier months of the Donald Trump campaign, many people I knew asked me to comment on the similarities between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Recently I have been asked to comment on direct connections between Trump and Putin. And now, with the release of nearly 20,000 emails apparently stolen from the Democratic National Committee’s email server by Russian hackers, has come the suggestion that Putin may actually be interfering in the US election to help get Trump elected. These ideas—that Trump is like Putin and that he is Putin’s agent—are deeply flawed.
Imagine that your teenage child has built a bomb and has just set it off in your house. The house is falling down all around you—and you are blaming the neighbor’s kid, who threw a pebble at your window. That’s what the recent Putin fixation is like—a way to evade the fact that Trump is a thoroughly American creation that poses an existential threat to American democracy.
Though no direct connection to Putin, let alone Trump, has yet been shown, the hacked DNC emails have played into a growing theory in the American media that Trump is an instrument of Putin. In recent days and weeks there has been a series of articles that seek to link Trump to the Russian leader. In Slate, Franklin Foer described Trump as Putin’s “plan for destroying the West” and listed all available evidence of Trump’s ties to Russia: he has pursued a series of aborted construction projects there; he has attracted dirty Russian money; and two of his operatives, campaign manager Paul Manafort and adviser Carter Page, have connections to Russia (Page has business interests there and Manafort has worked for the ousted pro-Moscow Ukrainian president). Foer did not claim to show that Putin actually has a hand in Trump’s campaign: he was merely listing the connections that align with Putin’s evident interest in seeing Trump become president. But if one looks at these connections within the overall activities of Trump and his advisers, activities that would include all of Trump’s other unsavory partners and Manafort’s other unsavory clients, it would look like a mere subsection of a tycoon’s checkered international business career.
In The Washington Post, first Josh Rogin and then Anne Applebaum wrote about the Manafort and Page connections and noted that Trump’s people have apparently been indifferent to the party platform but focused on exactly one point: blocking an amendment that would pledge weapons to Ukraine. Arguing that the issue was of supreme importance to the Kremlin, Applebaum called Trump a “Manchurian candidate.” But this theory ignores the fact that the same passage in the platform contains the following sentence: “We support maintaining and, if warranted, increasing sanctions, together with our allies, against Russia unless and until Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity are fully restored.” That just happens to be the plank that Russians had hoped to see gone. In fact, earlier this month Page was in Moscow giving a lecture that was publicized by Putin’s press secretary and attended by journalists who asked Page to promise to advise Trump to lift sanctions; in what was clearly a rehearsed performance, Page in response pulled out a Putin quote and read it in broken Russian: it said that countries should not interfere in one another’s affairs. With this in mind, the incident with the blocked amendment begins to look like Page’s attempt to curry favor with his business partners in Moscow by giving them what he can, which isn’t what they asked for.
In The New York Times, Paul Krugman called Trump the “Siberian candidate” and, rehearsing all the known connections, wondered if Trump was more than just a sincere admirer of Putin: if there is “some specific channel of influence.” Finally, Josh Marshall, editor of Talking Points Memo, weighed in with a piece called “Trump & Putin. Yes, It’s Really a Thing.” To the usual list, Marshall added that Trump’s
most conspicuous foreign policy statements track not only with Putin’s positions but those in which Putin is most intensely interested. Aside from Ukraine, Trump’s suggestion that the US and thus NATO might not come to the defense of NATO member states in the Baltics in the case of a Russian invasion is a case in point.
This is precisely what makes the Trump-as-Putin’s-agent line of reasoning so unhelpful. Trump’s foreign policy statements are perfectly consistent with his character and thinking. The man is uninterested in anything he doesn’t understand. He is incapable of strategic planning, and he has a particular distaste for paying debts. Of course he doesn’t see any reason for the United States to fulfill its obligations to other countries and organizations—just as Trump personally wouldn’t fulfill his obligations to other people, or to organizations. Yes, that happens to be exactly what Putin would want him to say. But the idea that Putin is somehow making or even encouraging him to say these things is a work-around for the inability to imagine that the Republican Party’s nominee is saying them of his own accord.
Trump is not a foreign agent. This gets me to the second common trope: that Trump is like Putin. Yes, he is. As Timothy Snyder has pointed out, Trump seems to want to be Putin: “Putin is the real world version of the person Trump pretends to be on television.” That may well flatter Putin. More to the point, Putin is on record as hating Hillary Clinton and blaming her for much of what ails Russia, so there is little reason to doubt that he would prefer to see Trump win the election. But that tells us nothing about his actual ability to influence the election or Trump himself. Trump is also like Mussolini and Hitler. All of them are fascist demagogues who emerged from their own cultures and catered to them. In fact, Trump is less like Putin, whose charisma is largely a function of the post to which he was accidentally appointed, than he is Mussolini or Hitler.
In the middle of the last century, a number of thinkers whose imaginations had been trained in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany tried to tell Americans that it can happen here. In such different books as Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom, Theodor Adorno and his group’s The Authoritarian Personality, and Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, the great European exiles warned that modern capitalist society creates the preconditions for the rise of fascism. America doesn’t need Putin for that.
Not that there are no lessons to be learned from Putin’s reign: there are, and these lessons concern the imagination. I have spent a good third of my professional life working to convince the readers—and often editors—of both Russian and American publications that Vladimir Putin is a threat to the world as we know it. I was not alone in this, of course: the task was taken up first by a few journalists and academics, then by a few more. Making the case was easy: in his speeches, decrees, and, most of all, in his actions, Putin provided ample and easily obtained evidence. And yet for years—while Putin started two wars, took over the media, canceled elections, seized and appropriated assets, amassed a fortune, sent his most prominent critic to jail, and had at least one person killed (and this was just the uncontested evidence against him)—many readers found this case unconvincing. To get from evidence to conclusion and understanding, one needs more than logic: one needs imagination. Both Russians and Westerners simply could not imagine that Putin was as bad as all that. He had to prove it over and over again.
Lack of imagination is one of our greatest handicaps as humans and as citizens. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of the richest men in the world, could not imagine that Putin would put him in jail, and this was one of the reasons he ignored repeated warnings and stayed in Russia. Then he spent ten years in a Russian prison. David Cameron could not imagine that his fellow citizens would vote to secede from the European Union, so he called for a referendum. Soon after the vote last month, pundits in both the UK and the US regrouped and started reassuring themselves and their audiences that the UK will not really leave the EU—because they can’t imagine it. I have spent much of this year arguing with my American friends about Donald Trump. Even after Trump had won enough delegates to lock up the Republican nomination, reasonable, well-informed people insisted that some Republican savior would swoop in and reclaim that party. There was little, if any, evidence in favor of that kind of outcome, but for a brief moment many Americans seemed to believe in the unlikely rather than the obvious. Why?
“I just can’t imagine Trump becoming the nominee,” many said at the time. But a lack of imagination is not an argument: it’s a limitation. It is essential to recognize this limitation and try to overcome it. That is a difficult and often painful thing to do.
Now that Trump has become the Republican nominee—and has pulled even or even slightly ahead of Clinton in the most recent polls—it is time to force ourselves to imagine the unimaginable. Forget Putin. Let us try to imagine Donald Trump being elected president of the United States.
The day after the election, the stock market will crash. Then, there will be a lull. For one thing, Trump will not have taken office yet. But life will seem conspicuously unchanged. The stock market will recover some. On inauguration day, there will be large anti-Trump protests in some American cities. But in some others, including Washington, there will be large celebrations that will make your skin crawl. On the other hand, they will not be wearing black shirts, and that will make what has happened seem a little less real. In some cities, there will be clashes. The police will do their jobs, and this will be reassuring.
After all, you will think, the American presidency is a strangely limited institution. It doesn’t give Trump that many ways to radically alter the everyday lives of Americans. But that is exactly the problem. President Trump will have to begin destroying the institutions of American democracy—not because they get in the way of anything specific he wants to do, like build the wall (though he will probably have moved on to something else by that point), but because they are an obstacle to the way he wants to do them. A fascist leader needs mobilization. The slow and deliberative passage of even the most heinous legislation is unlikely to supply that. Wars do, and there will be wars. These wars will occur both abroad and at home. They will make us wish that Trump really were Putin’s agent: at least then there would be no threat of nuclear war.
There is no way to tell who will be targeted by the wars at home. Muslims and immigrants are, of course, prime candidates, but any group of people will do—including a group that is not currently constituted as a group. Notwithstanding the awkward outreach in Trump’s convention speech last week, my money is actually on the LGBT community because its acceptance is the most clear and drastic social change in America of the last decade, so an antigay campaign would capture the desire to return to a time in which Trump’s constituency felt comfortable. But there are also Jews, bicyclists, people who studied a foreign language in college—the possibilities are limitless.
Trump will pose an impossible dilemma for the institutions of democracy: because they are too slow and complicated for him, he will seek to bypass them. Still, there are many limits the American system imposes on executive power: Congress, regulatory agencies, the Supreme Court. And don’t forget the national news media. But imagine what will happen to it. First, Trump will ban The Washington Post from the White House pool. That will be ridiculous and even invigorating at first, but in a little while, once he has kicked out every media outlet that he perceives as critical, we will learn that there is no good way to cover a presidency that is a black box.
Still, it is unlikely (or I simply cannot imagine) that Trump will do enough damage to democracy in the course of four years to secure a second term. After he is defeated, institutions will begin to recover. Culture, however, will sustain much more lasting damage. Our failure to understand this—and our effort to find foreign explanations for Trump’s rise—may be blinding us to the real threat he poses.
Masha Gessen, Russian and American journalist and writer, is currently a Carnegie Millennial Fellow and a guest of the Russia in Global Dialogue research program at the IWM. She is the author of seven books, including The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy (2016), Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot (2014) and The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin (2013).
Copyright © 2016 by Masha Gessen.