The Time to Decide the Future is Now

The Putin gang and the Trump team will likely act on their common interests as authoritarian nationalists. What will they do and how can they be stopped?

The Trump brand of authoritarianism has ideological and personal connections with the Putin regime, and Trump has openly admired Putin, meaning that precedents set by Putin may be attempted by Trump, albeit in Trump’s personal style. Of course, the oversensitive and vindictive nature of Trump’s personality means that any foreign policy up to and including global nuclear war are possible. Apparent common interests do not always prevent conflict. However, looking at the connections between the Trump administration and the Putin administration is valuable.

It is in the common interest of authoritarian nationalists to undermine the current Euro-American order, which they see as corrosive to the nationally-oriented society rooted in their idea of traditional values. Trump has immediate benefit for Putin in that he throws the United States and its European allies into chaos. But Trump further undermines the existing order by encouraging nations to reject universalism, go their own way, and ignore Putin’s aggression.

In Russia, the work of twentieth century political philosopher Ivan Ilyin has seen a revival, with new print runs, references to his work by Putin, Ilyin’s archives imported from the United States, and even his remains repatriated from Switzerland. Timothy Snyder writes that “Ilyin believed that individuality was evil… According to Ilyin, the purpose of politics is to overcome individuality, and establish a ‘living totality’ of the nation.” [1] This is an extreme view to be sure, and it is hard to say exactly how far Russian leaders have bought into it. However, it really only differs in degree from the derision heaped on the “special snowflakes” who are protesting the Trump order, as if individuality were a moral failing or a weakness that will melt when exposed to the harsh world. Trump opponents are simultaneously treated as being obsessed with themselves, and being irrational for standing up for others. There is also a focus on national greatness with a very narrow view of what kind of individuals will benefit.

Neither regime is interested in supporting democracy in the Middle East, apparently banking on brutality holding the world together. [2] Such a strategy may feel good to those who want to wall off their civilization from the world, but it is highly unlikely to produce a lasting peace or keep Americans from risking their lives overseas.

A common interest in Trump and Putin policy that will probably develop over the next few years is the interest in undermining environmental protections, especially international agreements made to combat climate change. Russia is a state enriched by oil and natural gas that wants to extract more resources from a warming Arctic and increase shipping in Arctic waters. As Timothy Snyder explains,

A united Europe could generate an actual policy of energy independence, under the pressures of Russian unpredictability or global warming – or both. But a disintegrated Europe would remain dependent on Russian hydrocarbons. [3]

In addition to common interests, Putin and Trump have some important associates in common. Before Paul Manafort was Trump’s campaign manager, he made a living advising and polishing the image of Viktor Yanukovych, the corrupt Ukrainian president backed by Putin and eventually ousted after a popular uprising. [4]

Rex Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil executive picked by Trump to head the US State Department, has long been personally involved in the fossil fuel industry in Russia. He has made multibillion dollar deals and met with Putin several times. Tillerson has been personally affected by sanctions against Russia and has lobbied against them. [5]

Steve Bannon, Trump’s campaign advisor and now chief strategist, has stated an ambiguous view of Putin: on the one hand, Putin and his cronies are kleptocrats and imperialists, but on the other hand, Putin is a smart guy with a lot of appeal who can be useful in the fight against liberal internationalism and Islamic terrorism. Bannon has also shown awareness of Alexander Dugin, the Russian philosopher of geopolitics who has influence on Putin. Dugin was delighted by Trump’s victory. He went on to say “We need a Nuremburg Trial for Liberalism, the last totalitarian political ideology,” showing the selective memory of the authoritarian nationalist regime that celebrates the victory over the Nazis with little discussion of how Soviet collaboration helped the Nazis begin the European war in 1939. [6] Dugin was not the only one happy in November, as a number of Russian politicians as well as state television programs celebrated the victory of Trump. [7]

Bannon has said that he turned Breitbart News into a platform for the alt-right, a group of polished racists and fascists who know how to act well-mannered until they swarm in harassment campaigns. The alt-right tends to view Putin as an ally in the racial conflict, with Richard Spencer saying “We can look to Putin as someone we can admire and understand.” [8]

It remains to be seen how much influence the Putin crowd will have versus other Trump advisors who do not share a friendly view of Putin.

The Putin model of governance pushes a steady escalation of authoritarianism. The world of Vladimir Putin is one of power, deception, and misdirection. Freedom of assembly is suppressed and voices that do not support the regime are marginalized. “Managed democracy” has become a term for Putin’s regime. [9] The regime withstood large protests that erupted in the wake of manipulated elections in 2012, branding protestors as national enemies and even claiming that Hillary Clinton, then US Secretary of State, “gave the signal” for protestors to take the streets. [10]

Expect the Trump regime to go after independent media and keep pushing its own alternative facts. Trump’s obsession with his loss of the popular vote is likely a sign of voter suppression to come. After all, if demographics are not on your side, manipulating vote counts is a logical choice for an immoral regime obsessed with the personality of the leader. Those who protest will soon be labelled enemies of the nation.

Expect the administration to make big shows of helping some people to distract from the more numerous people the administration is harming. A blueprint will be the pronouncement of jobs “saved” at the Carrier factory where many jobs were still transferred to Mexico despite a large taxpayer subsidy. [11] It is perhaps a less poetic image than photographs of a shirtless Putin enjoying the beautiful Russian countryside while the rush for fossil fuel and mineral wealth poisons the environment.

Putin’s Russia has a complicated relationship with ethnicity. Russia is a multiethnic state. It positions itself as defender of Russian ethnicity in Ukraine, where it encourages ethnic divisions through propaganda campaigns. It appeals to Russian speaking people in the Baltic with Russian language media. In Chechnya Putin has the flashy Ramzan Kadyrov living like a king and having opponents tortured and assassinated, so long as the ethnic Chechen leader keeps Chechnya under control and helps trash talk the West. [12]

The culture of authoritarianism is possibly more harmful than any particular policy the administration could be successful with. The encouragement of bullying to put people back in their place will be used as a tool of control and it will have severe consequences.

In Russia, enforcers outside of official channels are deployed for a variety of ends. Cossack groups are used to intimidate people, including ethnic minorities living where the authorities do not want them to live. As a local official said, “What you cannot do, a Cossack can.” [13]

The Night Wolves motorcycle club pushes nationalist propaganda and fights opponents in the former Soviet empire, including in operations with pro-Russian militias in Ukraine. The leader of the Night Wolves, a man known as The Surgeon, said of the fighting in Ukraine:

For the first time, we showed resistance to the global Satanism, the growing savagery of Western Europe, the rush to consumerism that denies all spirituality, the destruction of traditional values, all this homosexual talk, this American democracy.

The motorcycle club has close ties to the Russian government, receiving government grants for events and even riding with Vladimir Putin on several occasions. [14]

If things get too out of hand, the regime can use extreme tactics of propaganda and hybrid warfare. The Baltic states were once officially Soviet republics and are now relatively free, successful, and stable nations. In 2007, a memorial to Soviet soldiers in Estonia was removed. Estonia was then hit with cyber attacks, Russian government propaganda targeted its Russian-speaking minority and encouraged sabotage, and deliveries of petroleum and coal were cut off. [15]

Russia’s attacks on Ukraine in 2014 have been characterized by Western analysts as “hybrid warfare.” Andrew Monaghan describes the concept of hybrid war as follows:

In sum, Russian hybrid warfare as widely understood in the West represents a method of operating that relies on proxies and surrogates to prevent attribution and intent, and to maximize confusion and uncertainty. Conventional force is often obliquely mentioned as a supplementary feature, but the main feature of hybrid warfare is that it remains below the threshold of the clear use of armed force. Hybrid warfare is thus tantamount to a range of hostile actions of which military force is only a small part, or “measures short of war” that seek to deceive, undermine, subvert, influence and destabilize societies, to coerce or replace sovereign governments and to disrupt or alter an existing regional order.

Monaghan is critical of the concept of hybrid warfare, suggesting that it was a useful concept for understanding Russian actions but has outlived its usefulness as Russia has engaged in conventional military actions such as operations in Syria. However, hybrid warfare may continue to be a useful concept for understanding an ideological war against an opposing worldview in a divided population. [16]

It will be useful to keep in mind the rules Masha Gessen lays out in Autocracy: Rules for Survival.

Rule #1: Believe the autocrat. He means what he says. Whenever you find yourself thinking, or hear others claiming, that he is exaggerating, that is our innate tendency to reach for a rationalization.
Rule #2: Do not be taken in by small signs of normality.
Rule #3: Institutions will not save you.
Rule #4: Be outraged.
Rule #5: Don’t make compromises.
Rule #6: Remember the future. [17]

We must tell the truth, defend those under attack, and recognize attacks on freedom as soon as they come.

It is good to see that the media is not backing down from the threats that the Trump administration has made. A helpful feature is the Washington Post Trump Watch, a running tally of Trump administration policies, statements and executive actions affecting civil liberties.[18] It remains to be seen how far this fight will go. Cyberattacks by hackers employed by authoritarian nationalists are not out of the question. It is necessary to think outside of what seemed possible a year ago and prepare for the threats of the new environment.

Rallies and mass demonstrations build morale and are important symbols of opposition. People shut out of the country must know that they are not on their own.

As the federal government increases its hostility, it will be necessary to find or build alternatives to the federal government for everything from civil rights protection to funding of sciences and humanities. Establish the infrastructure of resistance.

It is good to have politicians and institutions that will impede attacks on freedom, but we cannot expect them to protect us on their own. Institutions are composed of people. They will face pressure to do wrong. They need pressure or support to do right. Politicians are people living in a world of moral ambiguity, competing interests, deal-making, and compromise. They must be reminded that unity and peace will not be found in repression.

I am not going to say that people who voted for Trump are all bad people, but there is no way around the fact that they voted for a very bad person, and they should also be mitigating the evil that his administration will do.

There will certainly be differences in the regimes of Trump and Putin. The political environment of the United States will almost certainly be a more difficult place to establish an authoritarian nationalist regime than that of Russia. The United States has a stronger history of nationwide activism and mobilization, and a civil society that has flourished in the relative freedom of liberal democracy. Disrespect for the president is a national pastime and a big business for sellers of shirts and stickers. The national story is generally one of rebellion, a series of triumphs against oppression, and a nation strengthened by acceptance of different people. There are problems with this story, but it does provide a lot of material for those who want to continue the march of freedom.

The status quo is not an option. From now we move either in the Trump-Putin direction or in a different direction. Saying “things were working okay before” is both boring and exclusionary. Saying “here is how we will make things better” is engaging when an inspiring vision is combined with practical plans.

When we fight for a world of respect, diversity, and connectedness, we make a world that is more interesting than any instructions the authoritarian nationalists can give us. Exciting possibilities are found in liberty, individual autonomy, cooperative association, and social solidarity. The mission to protect human rights is a glorious struggle that we can all feel good for playing some role in.

Why go through the drudgery of putting together broken molds to jam ourselves into when we have the opportunity to remake ourselves how we want? As Pussy Riot said, patriarchy is boring.

Likewise, why have a federal program to remake the economy in the mold of an idealized 1950s when there are better ways to create opportunities for fulfilling work? Instead of a Soviet Five Year Plan of big factories with little environmental or worker protection, or big walls and infrastructure projects built with prison labor, let’s look forward to education and cultural shifts that prepare the technicians and engineers for the economy of automation and greener energy, and imparts pride and social awareness to everyone from the plumber to the professor, where their gender, race, or orientation will not be used to hold them back.

The future will be Putin or the People, Trump or Liberty.

The future will be authoritarian nationalism or pluralistic liberty. The future will be populism manipulated by elites and social division by government command, or the future will be freedom of association, cooperative individualism, and universal human rights.

The world will not go back to the way it was. The future will build on the past to make something new. It is up to all of us to do some part in making sure the future moves forward from the best of what we have. Authoritarian nationalists are acting in their common interests and the free people of the world should do the same.

———-

Notes:

[1] Timothy Snyder, How a Russian Fascist is Meddling in America’s Election. Op-Ed in The New York Times, September 20, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/21/opinion/how-a-russian-fascist-is-meddling-in-americas-election.html

[2] Gregory Korte and David Jackson, Kremlin: Trump, Putin agree to coordinate on fighting Islamic State. USA Today, Jan. 28, 2017. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2017/01/28/busy-saturday-trump-call-world-leaders-and-sign-more-orders/97181086/

[3] Timothy Snyder, The Battle in Ukraine Means Everything: Fascism returns to the continent it once destroyed. The New Republic, May 11, 2014. https://newrepublic.com/article/117692/fascism-returns-ukraine
On Russia, fossil fuels, and climate change, see Paul R. Josephson, The Conquest of the Russian Arctic, Harvard University Press, 2014, 350-354, 370- 377

[4] Anne Applebaum, Stop obsessing over ‘secrets’ about Trump and Russia. What we already know is bad enough. The Washington Post, January 13, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/stop-obsessing-over-secrets-about-trump-and-russia-what-we-already-know-is-bad-enough/2017/01/13/1f6caf26-d9c8-11e6-b8b2-cb5164beba6b_story.html

[5] Julia Ioffe, What It Really Means to Be a ‘Friend of Putin.’ Politico Magazine, December 10, 2016 http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/12/rex-tillerson-exxon-putin-russia-ties-friend-214515
See also: Sonam Sheth, A timeline of Rex Tillerson’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Business Insider, December 13, 2016. http://www.businessinsider.com/trump-rex-tillerson-vladimir-putin-russia-exxon-2016-12

[6] Erasmus, America, Russia and the new right: Russian anti-liberals love Donald Trump but it may not be entirely mutual. The Economist, Nov 20th 2016. http://www.economist.com/blogs/erasmus/2016/11/america-russia-and-new-right

[7] Andrew Osborn, In Trump We Trust: Inauguration prompts celebration in Russia. Reuters, January 20, 2017. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-inauguration-russia-idUSKBN1541S6

[8] Alan Feuer and Andrew Higgins, Extremists Turn to a Leader to Protect Western Values: Vladimir Putin. The New York Times, December 3, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/03/world/americas/alt-right-vladimir-putin.html

[9] Benjamin Nathans, The Real Power of Putin. The New York Review of Books, September 29, 2016. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/09/29/real-power-vladimir-putin/

[10] Timothy Snyder, How a Russian Fascist is Meddling in America’s Election. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/21/opinion/how-a-russian-fascist-is-meddling-in-americas-election.html

[11] Bernie Sanders, Bernie Sanders: Carrier just showed corporations how to beat Donald Trump. The Washington Post, December 1, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/12/01/bernie-sanders-carrier-just-showed-corporations-how-to-beat-donald-trump/

[12] Oliver Bullough, Putin’s closest ally – and his biggest liability. The Guardian, September 23, 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/23/putins-closest-ally-and-his-biggest-liability

[13] Ellen Barry, Russian Governor Signs up Cossacks to Police Migrants. The New York Times, August 3, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/04/world/europe/russian-to-use-cossacks-to-repel-muslim-migrants.html
Ellen Barry, The Cossacks are Back. May the Hills Tremble. The New York Times, March 16, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/17/world/europe/cossacks-are-back-in-russia-may-the-hills-tremble.html

[14] Damon Tabor, Putin’s Angels: Inside Russia’s Most Infamous Motorcycle Club. Rolling Stone, October 8, 2015. http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/putins-angels-inside-russias-most-infamous-motorcycle-club-20151008

[15] Viljar Veebel, Russian Propaganda, Disinformation, and Estonia’s Experience. Foreign Policy Research Institute, October 4, 2015. http://www.fpri.org/article/2015/10/russian-propaganda-disinformation-and-estonias-experience/

[16] Andrew Monaghan. Putin’s Way of War: The ‘War’ in Russia’s ‘Hybrid Warfare.’ Army Strategic Studies Institute. https://www.academia.edu/24314231/Putins_Way_of_War
See also: Damien Van Puyvelde, Hybrid war – does it even exist? NATO Review, http://www.nato.int/docu/review/2015/also-in-2015/hybrid-modern-future-warfare-russia-ukraine/EN/index.htm

[17] Masha Gessen, Autocracy: Rules for Survival. The New York Review of Books. November 10, 2016. http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2016/11/10/trump-election-autocracy-rules-for-survival/

[18] Radley Balko, Introducing Trump Watch: A running tally of Trump administration policies, statements and executive actions affecting civil liberties. January 27, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-watch/wp/2017/01/27/introducing-trump-watch-a-running-tally-of-trump-administration-policies-statements-and-executive-actions-affecting-civil-liberties

It is also worth considering a quote from a recent US government intelligence report:
“In trying to influence the US election, we assess the Kremlin sought to advance its longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order, the promotion of which Putin and other senior Russian leaders view as a threat to Russia and Putin’s regime.” (Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, January 6, 2017. https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/ICA_2017_01.pdf )

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