While in America, Putin is presented as a comical stereotype of corruption, once you cross the language barrier, he’s actually outwardly soft spoken, armed with a quick wit and dry sense of humor. In his remarks regarding Trump’s more than alleged spilling of secrets, he joked that he needs to give his Minister of Foreign Affairs “a talking to” for not sharing those secrets with him or the rest of the cabinet. And when asked why talk of Trump’s collusion with Russia takes up so much time in the United States, he replied that Americans are “suffering from political schizophrenia”, while omitting that he’s been helping ferment it for years.
As insulting as it seems at first glance, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and consider his observation. In broad terms, schizophrenia involves a breakdown in one’s grasp of reality. Less hearing voices, more unable to tell dreams from reality and control emotions.
To some degree, there does seem to be a major breakdown in the way American politics work and the result is anger, frustration, and fear both on the right and the left. The past few years seemed like pressing a placebo traffic light at a crosswalk. The soft, reassuring ping says you pressed it, but the light steadfastly refuses to change.
Americans are stuck with a Congress that seems to have exactly zero interest in what they want, and an electoral system that hands someone with 3 million fewer votes the presidency. The party in power tries to muscle through wildly unpopular legislation regardless of public opinion, and many police forces no longer seem accountable to the law at large but only themselves. Then, when almost two thirds of the nation complains, nothing is done by those in charge apart from exercises in demagoguery in the news.
Through rampant gerrymandering and the Electoral College, America is a nation where the minority overrides the majority, ready with countless pseudo-historical alternative facts about why the majority’s vote should be watered down. It’s a social experiment that seems doomed to fail because in no country where this setup existed for any extended period of time has it ever ended well. At some point, something will have to give, even though everyone is hoping we can all sit down and sing Kumbaya instead of fighting.
Russians and Ukrainians are familiar with this feeling. Low key nihilism is a constant undertone, resulting in expressions like “we wanted something better, but it turned out as always” said with a heavy sigh and shrug when a promising idea fails.
But this is uncharted territory for Americans and they’re very unhappy with where it’s headed. Luckily for them, however, they can change their predicament. Many of the wounds from which they suffer are self-inflicted and exacerbated by a media diet equivalent to junk food. Every once in awhile it doesn’t hurt, but when it’s your go-to choice, there are slow, but devastating long term side-effects.
Putin did not mastermind an epic brainwashing operation that allowed him to install a puppet government from the top down. He knows this isn’t how the American government works. He merely used people close to an angry, paranoid political candidate who was not a deep thinker or much of a reader, was prone to trust conspiracies of questionable origin, and saw the citizens of his own nation who disagreed with him as bigger enemies than any antagonistic foreign power.
He wanted chaos and an American retreat from the world stage so he could catch his breath and stabilize his grip on the Russian economy.
Far from being a thriving mastermind pulling the world’s strings, he’s besieged from all sides. While popular at home, he will only remain so while he can keep the economy going, and the sanctions preventing him from feely selling oil and gas are seriously hindering that. His friends’ inability to move their money as freely as before means his grip on power may be at risk if this continues much longer.
NATO is knocking at his door. The EU is pulling old Soviet satellite states out of his orbit with lucrative trade deals. The United States’ meddling in the Middle East and on the Pacific Rim is putting his force projections assets in potential jeopardy.
In the meantime, lawyer and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, who we mentioned previously, is trying to mount a presidential campaign, igniting simmering, but widespread protests and fighting a conviction transparently meant to disqualify him from running. His message is very simple, that Russian citizens are finding it hard to make ends meet thanks to corruption, and here’s who has their money and how much of it they embezzled. Vote for him and he’ll get it back.
Putin is also extremely unpopular with Russian millennials who, while seeing their nation’s foreign policy as very clever, are disgusted and jaded with its handling of domestic affairs and blatant protection of corruption at every level of government. Putin can’t fight corruption because it’s what keeps him wealthy and in charge. Cleaning up Russia’s act would involve some painful reforms with the corrupt judging the corrupt while fighting over what to do with potentially trillions of rubles worth of cash, companies, and stocks, a process that seems set up for failure.
Putin needs breathing room to negotiate down sanctions, make deals with China and Europe on his own terms, and introduce enough chaos into the system to be seen as a stabilizing force. In Trump and the angry American right, he saw the possibility of getting America’s eye off the ball. In Le Pen he saw the same for the EU, which should’ve now been struggling with two exiting members and shaken to the core if his plan worked. NATO would’ve pulled back in uncertainty as Americans fought with their long term allies after boxing Russia in for decades. And it looked like it would’ve worked for a little while…
Why Protecting Our Future Starts With Ourselves
If we take one lesson out of the aftermath of this propaganda war it’s that conspiracy theories spread to angry, disaffected groups can be extremely powerful and need to be fought, not just laughed off. In the wrong hands, they can become disastrous for the world at large, sending politicians, law enforcement, and militaries to fight problems that either don’t exist or have been wildly misrepresented with solutions that are unnecessary, or will make things worse in the long run.
They also tend to encourage more conspiratorial thinking about everything, as exemplified in a now widely circulated comment about Roger Ailes’ death and his Fox News project’s effect on someone’s parents…
They were enthralled by Fox News, had it on day and night, whenever they were awake, and it infected them with paranoia, anger and most of all, fear. Visits were consumed with lectures about the latest conspiracy theory about nefarious plots by the Clintons, Obamas, minorities, poor, or whoever else was allegedly hell-bent on destroying their way of life that day. When my grandfather died, it took hours of searching to find where he’d hidden all of his valuables and guns — Obama, you see, was coming to take them at any moment. He lived in a constant state of dread.
How can an authoritarian half a world away not look at a large segment of a population that lives in fear, dread, and anger at the rest of the nation, convinced they’re an oppressed silent majority about to be destroyed unless they declare legal war on their own families, and not rub his hands in glee? Or at least arrange his fingers into the evil pyramid of contemplation while mulling the opportunity? When America’s founding fathers warned that “united we stand, divided we fall,” this is exactly they meant.
Putin’s work was already done for him by conservative conspiracy theorists and pundits who dragged conservatism down from heady debates about balancing personal responsibility and tradition against the social contract and public money, into the gutters of “if the liberals hate it, we’re for it” as they complain about the poor, children, teenagers with part time jobs, senior citizens, and the disabled not paying enough taxes, and the richest people in the world “being punished for their success.” All he did was weaponize that resentment using Twitter bots and social media marketing.
Of course we can fight back. We can cull the bots, prevent new ones from taking root and hijacking profiles in good standing by clearing old, inactive accounts. We can tag shady sites that peddle conspiracy theories with warnings about what they do and how rather than just calling them wrong because science shows this is what works best against them. We can carefully screen political advertising for conspiracy theories and tag them with similar warnings and disclaimers as we would questionable social media accounts and bots.
From a legal standpoint, we can pass laws to mandate transparency in political donations to shine a light on dark money, citing the events in America, UK, and France as the overriding national security impetus for making sure that we know who’s paying whom in politics.
But the most important battle starts in the national discourse. Until a media establishment claiming to be the underdog as it draws audiences in the tens of millions and the party it campaigns for rules all branches of government stops whipping up existential crises and allows its viewers to see their fellow citizens as actual people with valid opinions, all these tactics will be purely cosmetic.
We don’t have to agree on everything as a nation. In fact, that would be unhealthy and lead to innovation-killing groupthink. Americans’ biggest strength is their diversity of their origins and opinions. But let’s have healthy debates instead of the verbal poison that passes for it in the media today, both mass and social.
Otherwise the conspiracy peddlers with shady funding and malicious agendas, and their fans, will embrace the tags and we’ll be doomed to repeat this over and over again. And another Putin will be waiting to take advantage of it to sow chaos and score a victory at home and abroad, furthering his cronies’ corrupt empires.