“Propaganda & Violence are Never Contradictions.”
How Trump co-opted Putin’s totalitarian messaging to win America.
“Nothing was more to be desired than that every practicable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption. These most deadly adversaries of republican government might naturally have been expected to make their approaches from more than one quarter, but chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils. How could they better gratify this, than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union?”
Alexander Hamilton, 1788.
The Trump Presidency was a crash course for Americans in the disruption caused by the successful application of what Russians call ‘political technology,’ otherwise known as propaganda.
And, just so we’re clear, propaganda is defined as “information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view,” (the italics are mine for emphasis) according to the Oxford English dictionary.
The recent decision by the SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) to overturn Roe and undo 50 years of women’s rights is a consequence, not a reason, of America’s increasingly right-wing political agenda, and the man behind that turn is undoubtedly Donald Trump.
Rosalie Abella, a visiting professor at Harvard Law School said, “I think this is the perfect decision for the 18th Century,” speaking of that decision, “It’s a frightening precedent, and delegitimizes the integrity of a court.”
And that may well be so, but it is also indicative of the direction an alarmingly political and partisan Supreme Court is going in. This landmark decision is seen by many as a potential pointer for the curtailing of further rights, that may include same-sex marriage, restrictions on the use of contraception, as well as the loss of some protections for racial and ethnic minorities.
Indeed, Adam Serwer, writing in The Atlantic said that “the Supreme Court has become an institution whose primary role is to force a right-wing vision of American society on the rest of the country.”
And that right-wing vision, given substance most lately by SCOTUS, has become personified in the cult of Trump and built upon a well trodden road cruelly cut out of the lives of Russian citizens by Vladimir Putin.
Where Putin goes, Trump is apt to follow…
The end of the Cold War, lit by sparks of reunification, of hope, and of renewed fellowship, became framed across the U.S. and Europe in Fukuyama’s End of History as the Soviet Union disintegrated, and the world marked time as the future blurred to become more of the present.
In his seminal book, Road to Unfreedom (1), Tim Snyder calls this sense of the inescapable future where nothing was unknown, ‘the politics of inevitability.’ It meant that, as Fukuyama stressed, that the future held no alternatives, and no matter what was done, the end point was now known and was unavoidable.
Snyder explains how different nations might have lived with different versions of the politics of inevitability, with variations in the character of the journey and even the end point. The American capitalist version says that “nature brought the market, which brought democracy, which brought happiness,” whilst the European version took a different route; here “history brought the nation, which learned from war that peace was good,” and so chose “integration and prosperity.”
And both of these are different from the (now extinct) communist version where “nature permits technology; technology brings social change; social change causes revolution; revolution enacts utopia.”
When the Soviet Union fell apart the European and American versions of the politics of inevitability “were triumphant.” Europeans busied themselves with EU integration, while the Americans told themselves that the failure of the communist version meant that the capitalist version must be true, and both moved on into the vacuous end of history oblivious to all facts that indicated otherwise.
Snyder points to the differing fates of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine as indicative of that fact that the fall of the communist version didn’t automatically create a blank space for the market based capitalist version of the politics of inevitability.
But, by then Americans had blinded themselves to all other versions and alternatives as they stumbled through multiple indicators that history had, in fact, not ended at all.
The Iraq war; the 2008/9 financial crisis, both firm indicators that the direction taken was far from inevitable, far from true and very definitely not the capitalist version.
Into the 2010’s, and across America the influence of the wealthy was magnified as campaign contributions were deregulated, which led to the rise of extreme inequality causing great swathes of Americans to believe that the promise of the future, as dictated and sworn to by those in power who espoused the capitalist politics of inevitability, was in fact, nothing more than a far worse version of the present.
Overwhelmed by the strife, hunger and despair of the present, Americans began to lose a sense of anything positive the future might hold. The capitalist politics of inevitability was collapsing, and this, 30 years after the Soviet Union had fallen apart, led to a new version of time, that Snyder calls the “politics of eternity (1).”
Where inevitability promised a better future for everyone, the politics of eternity “places one nation at the centre of a cyclical story of victimhood. Time is no longer a line into the future, but a circle that endlessly returns the same threats from the past…/… Eternity politicians spread the conviction that government cannot aid society as a whole, but can only guard against threats. Progress gives way to doom (3).”
This is the place where Putin’s Russia has been since 2011, when after announcing his return to the Presidency he was greeted with protests, public anger and resentment. Putin responded by fixing the Presidential election, then by invoking the politics of eternity as envisaged in the writings of Fascist philosopher, Ivan Ilyin.
The protests signalled the people’s desire for something more. Russia was the most unequal nation on the planet, and the Russian people had had a few years to glimpse the lives of other Europeans; how they lived, their freedoms, their choices, and they wanted the same for themselves.
But rampant kleptocracy by the oligarchs had made reform impossible. Reform would mean the end of everything for Putin.
It was simply unthinkable.
Political fiction is the future…
The major difference between Russia and the EU was the rule of law. But since kleptocracy had made following the rule of law unthinkable in Russia, Putin needed to reverse the narrative and present lawlessness as a patriotic virtue, and the EU as a den of sexualised iniquity bent on Russian destruction (1).
In the Presidential election of 2012 Putin began to erode hope of a lawful future when, following Ilyin’s fascist dictum, he spoke of the need for a “dictatorship of the law,” that rejected the idea of a European Russia that followed the rule of law, instead presenting the arbitrariness of fascism — proizvol — as a redemptive virtue.
Tim explains (1) that the “operative concept in the Russian language today is ‘bespredel’, (or) boundary-less-ness, the absence of limits, the ability of a leader to do anything. The word itself arose from criminal jargon.”
Thus Russia was not on the road to becoming a failed European state, but was being redeemed in its arbitrariness, and experiencing a flowering of its innocence in the face of the sexual deviance represented by the EU, and the U.S.
Putin created one crisis after another, manipulating the resultant emotion to distract from his inability or unwillingness to reform, leading the Russian people to wallow in repeated, short-lived cycles of elation and outrage, in the process drowning future expectations in the rampant emotions of the present.
“In foreign policy, eternity politicians belittle and undo the achievements of countries that might seem like models to their own citizens. Using technology (i.e. social media, state TV) to transmit political fiction, both at home and abroad, eternity politicians deny truth and seek to reduce life to spectacle and feeling (1).”
Is this all starting sound horribly familiar?
In America, one might broadly translate inevitability politicians into Democrats, and eternity politicians into today’s Republicans. Both present facts as narratives; in inevitability facts are stepping stones, where sometimes we might stumble, but the end result will always be progressive, tangible and known; whereas in eternity facts and events are just the endless cycling of timeless threats that manifest themselves in artificial crises and iterative dramas.
Each has its own version of propaganda. “Inevitability politicians spin facts into a web of well-being. Eternity politicians suppress facts in order to dismiss the reality that people are freer and richer in other countries, and the idea that reforms could be formulated on the basis of knowledge (1).”
Both versions in some way bring facts into question, but only in eternity are facts denied and the opinions of ‘experts’ undervalued and dismissed. Eternity politicians routinely replace policy with propaganda; their narratives are woven to be easily digested by the disaffected because they mirror what the people are feeling. Facts are drowned in oceans of anger as the narrative becomes the new truth, etched deeper and deeper with each retelling, with each iteration, the very repetition of the narrative gives it weight, a truth of its own that is confirmed each time they hear it from a friend, read it on social media, shout it at the TV, cheer it at a rally.
Facts become meaningless because their very scarcity cannot compete with the overwhelming proximity of the alternative narrative; so called ‘experts’ that peddle facts are delegitimised because their voice cannot be heard amidst the throng of deniers. Education itself becomes meaningless and devalued. The truth as represented by facts holds no worth because it goes against the prevailing narrative.
Masha Gessen (2) gives us a lovely snippet of how the value of education and the facts that underpin are ignored in Russia today. A post-grad student, Lyosha, presented a paper at Moscow State University in 2010 called, “Gender Gaps in Political Science.” At the end only one person, a professor from St. Petersburg, rose with a question.
“Are you aware,” the professor said, “that there are no lesbians in Russia?”
“I’ve also heard,” Lyosha replied deflecting the standard narrative of a virginal and innocent Russia, “that there was no sex in the Soviet Union. Yet you are here?”
The subsequent book of the conference omitted Lysoha’s paper. I digress…
Since before the invasion of Ukraine Russia’s ownership of the politics of eternity has been at the forefront of almost every press conference, every utterance, every statement by Putin, Lavrov et al.
Whilst we may not have readily identified it as the politics of eternity, the blank refusal to acknowledge the most obvious facts, even down to the subliminally ridiculous denial by Lavrov that Russia had even invaded Ukraine, all fit the definition perfectly. The constant repetition that Russia is not to blame, that it is eternally innocent and the victim of endless Western threats, such that in the end Russian had had to invade Ukraine to preempt, what they said, was the West’s intended invasion of Russia. The fabrications are endless; American chemical weapons factories, Ukraine is run by drug addicts and Nazis, the atrocities in Bucha were committed by the British, and it goes on.
All designed to show the Russian people the cycling eternity of the threat the liberal, capitalist West has presented to Russia over the centuries.
Russian fascism personified in Putin’s friend, Alexander Prokhanov…
In my posts, How Putin made Russia into a Fascist State and The Sting in the Tail of Putin’s Ideology, I detailed how Putin had taken the fascist ideology of Ivan Ilyin, the Eurasian ideas of imperialist expansionism first written about by Nikolai Trubetskoi, and the behavioural theories of Lev Gumilev, and pulled them together to weave a road map for his kleptocratic regime.
These and other fascist thinkers were placed into mainstream Russian culture after Putin’s controversial return in 2011. The modern day interpreters of these ideas — men such as Alexander Dugin, Sergei Glazyev and Orthodox monk, Tikhon Shevkunov — came together literally under a single roof; a Russian fascist think tank founded by Alexander Prokhanov, and called the Izborsk Club (1).
Prokhanov used these ideas to promote the return of Soviet power in fascist form with a core-belief lifted directly from Hitler. Seeing Russian travails as an “endless struggle of the empty and abstract sea-people (the maritime empires of Europe, namely the British and the French) against the hearty and righteous land-people (the Slavic peoples of the Russian steppe) (1).”
An unapologetic promoter of political fiction, much like Trump in America, Prokanov’s disdain for Europe was made clear in an interview in Kyiv in 2012 where he spoke about his belief in a global Jewish conspiracy, Putin’s Eurasian project and Ukraine’s unavoidable Russian fate. Calling Europeans ‘vermin,’ he accused ‘white’ Europe of deliberately infecting innocent Russia with AIDS.
“The white race,” he continued, “is perishing: gay marriages, pederasts rule the cities, women can’t find men,” but it was because the Jews had taken over the world “in order to throw humanity into the furnace of the liberal order, which is now suffering a catastrophe,” that was ultimately leading the world to disaster. “The world’s only defence was a Russian redeemer” — lifted directly from Ilyin — “Eurasianism was Russia’s messianic mission to redeem mankind” and it “has to encompass the whole world.”
These themes have been given religious credence by the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill. Back in 2015 he came to the attention of the far-right in America when he claimed that Russia’s support of Bashar al-Assad in Syria was the ‘responsible’ thing to do, calling the Syrian freedom fighters ‘terrorists,’ and Russia’s fight against them a ‘holy war,’ and that Russia was perhaps the ‘most active force in the world today’ fighting against global terrorism and standing up for traditional values.
Peddling what has become known as religious nationalism, and casting the current conflict in Ukraine as a battle between good and evil, between liberal decadence and traditional conservative values, words and ideas that resonated, catching the imagination of those on the far-right across America.
“Today there is a test for the loyalty to this new world order, a kind of pass to that ‘happy’ world, the world of excess consumption, the world of false ‘freedom,’ ” Kirill said. “Do you know what this test is? The test is very simple and at the same time terrible — it is the gay pride parade.”
There is no such thing as coincidence…
Back in 2011 Putin restricted abortion rights across Russia; in 2013 he banned “propaganda for non-traditional sexual relationships” among minors, then in 2017 partially decriminalised domestic battery.
Portraying himself as white Christian nationalist who champions traditional values and the traditional family, Putin has become a global touchstone for far-right communities everywhere.
Despite having little or no understanding of Orthodox doctrine Putin’s Christian values and messaging have become ‘not so much a dog whistle for the far-right as a blaring siren.’
The U.S. televangelist Pat Robertson has said that the Russian leader was “compelled by God” to invade Ukraine. U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) spoke in March 2022 at a white nationalist event where the crowd was earlier heard chanting “Putin! Putin! Putin!”
“They sought to destroy our traditional values and force on us their false values that would erode us, our people from within, the attitudes they have been aggressively imposing on their countries, attitudes that are directly leading to degradation and degeneration, because they are contrary to human nature,” Putin said in his prelude to war on February 24th this year. “This is not going to happen. No one has ever succeeded in doing this, nor will they succeed now.”
Ever the opportunist, Putin has seized on the American far-rights fandom of his leadership and has sent some of his own messaging back to them, with fairy (?) bells on.
In presenting the decadent West as corrupt and sinful, and taking a line that could have come straight of the QAnon conspiracy, Al Jazeera reported that Russian parents have recently received letters from schools warning them to watch their children’s use of social media (before it was banned), not only to ensure that they are not lured to “unsafe” antiwar protests, but to also make sure they are not exposed to “detailed instructions on gender reassignment, and promotion of same-sex relationships.”
That SCOTUS has moved now to overturn Roe, with further hard won rights under serious threat as a consequence, is I believe, no coincidence. It is recognition of the success of Putin’s campaign to paint himself as a white Christian traditionalist, and an acknowledgement that legislation such as this an early step on the road to a one-party authoritarian state, in the Russian mould.
Indeed, American white supremacist, Richard Spencer, said in an interview on RT, that he admired Putin for his traditionalist views and believed that Russia was “the sole white power in the world,” something for the American right-wing to aspire to (3).
But how close can they get to bringing Russian values to America?
Some might say that they are already well on their way…
Putin’s supreme victory; soon to be repeated?
And all this returns us nicely to the two quotes at the top of this piece.
Firstly, the title, taken from a quote by Nazi theorist, Eugen Hadamovsky, in an article — Propaganda and National Macht — written in 1933. The complete quote reads:
“Propaganda and violence are never contradictions. Use of violence can be part of propaganda.
And secondly, the quote by Alexander Hamilton that encapsulates his worst fears that a foreign government (Hint! Hint! — Russia) could raise ‘a creature of their own into the top magistracy of the Union.’
That top magistracy is, of course, the Presidency. And here we have presented in all its blackened, undemocratic glory, Putin’s supreme victory in the person of Donald Trump.
Having manifestly interfered in the 2016 U.S. election, Russia got ‘their man’ elected to the Presidency (4).
Catherine Belton tells how the Russians couldn’t believe their luck. ‘The scenes,’ she says, in the ‘Russian parliament were uproarious’ when the news arrived that Trump had won. Boris Chernyshev, a member of the LDPR (Liberal Democratic Party of Russia), said, “Tonight we use the slogan with Mr Trump. Yes we did!” in a gloating reference to Barack Obama’s campaign slogan from 2008.
Whilst in New York, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, could barely disguise his exuberance. Putin and Trump he said, “set out the same foreign policy principles, and that is incredible. It is phenomenal how close they are to one another when it comes to their conceptual approach to foreign policy (4).”
Belton sums this up with a dreadful irony when she ponders rhetorically if Russia had indeed pulled off this monumental coup.
“If not, what had been the point of all the cultivation, the dangling of deals by those with links to Russian intelligence ahead of Trump’s vault to the Presidency? Was it meticulously planned or sheer opportunism? (4).”
Yury Shvets, a former KGB operative with Putin and resident Russian spy in Washington D.C. has no doubt that Putin got what he wanted (4).
Perhaps, philosophically (though I realise the use of that word with respect to Trump is a massive misnomer) the main difference between Trump and Putin, as things stood at the start of 2016 when Trump became President, was their outlook.
Putin is unashamedly expansionist and imperialist, as proscribed by Prokanov, who said fully 10 years before Putin put words into martial action:
“When I speak of Russia I have in view people living in Ukraine and Belarus,” and Russia. This “…future empire has already been proclaimed by Putin. It is the Eurasian Union, and Ukraine’s contribution to this empire could be grandiose.”
…while Trump was looking only inwardly, looking to reduce America’s global influence and footprint, to make ‘America (alone) great again.’
But in so doing Trump’s propaganda was following the well trodden path forged by Putin before him.
Eternity politicians, as we have seen above, deny truth and suppress facts.
Trump, before he even ran as a Republican candidate, was already pulling the Russian line and promoting the birther conspiracy (that Obama was African, and not American), first aired as a sort of joke on Russian TV, but then taken up by Trump (1), and was subsequently repeated so often that for many in the U.S., disillusioned with Obama’s Presidency, it became an outright truth, in stark opposition to all facts.
Such propaganda makes its appeal directly to the external sphere, be that those within the camp who are not yet fully convinced, or those outside the camp in opposition or abroad, with the constant repetition again helping to give these alternative ‘facts’ weight.
But it was Trump’s use of legalised violence, and his acknowledgement of the practical uses of state violence to achieve his aims whilst in power that showed the influence of Russian propaganda, and Putin’s overarching influence on Trump’s modus operandi.
For example, the forceful clearing of peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square to hold a photo call; after the murder of a white, female protester in Charlottesville, he refused to condemn the violence committed by white nationalists and neo-Nazis, and even put the blame on the ‘alt-left,’ who were probably not even there.
But by far the worst came in the weeks following his 2020 election loss to Joe Biden. In the days following the loss Trump purged the top intelligence agencies and the civilian hierarchy at the Pentagon installing his own loyalists, though to what end was never clear. Some feared that he would start a war with Iran, whilst others feared he might try to use the military to enforce martial law in order to maintain his grip on power.
But when none of these happened, the last resort was his incitement of an insurrection on January 6th, 2021. The ‘Stop the Steal’ conspiracy and all that it gave birth to, confirms indeed that ‘propaganda and violence are never contradictions.’
Should Trump run and win again in 2024, then I would fully expect him increase his grip on military power much earlier on in his term for use against political opponents in whatever form, — the media, political opposition rivals, almost anyone who speaks out against him, protest movements — and following whatever fantastical excuse he can conjure to do so.
Hannah Arendt explains that the common assertion that propaganda and terror were two sides of the same coin was not wholly correct. Where a totalitarian regime has absolute control over the population, indoctrination supersedes propaganda, with the use of violence being no longer necessary to scare people — this, Arendt says is used only in the early stages of a regime when there is still some residual political violence — it is rather used to constantly reaffirm the regimes ‘ideological doctrines and practical lies (5).’
America is not yet a totalitarian state. Even if Trump were to win again in 2024 there would still be significant opposition to his rule. Absolute control would be beyond Trump’s grasp, at least in the beginning. But following Putin’s lead, the opposition would be made into a credible threat, demonised, then, should it be made possible, shut down altogether.
During this process a concerted effort at mass indoctrination could begin. History would be rewritten, facts changed, then forgotten— indeed, such a process has already begun. Witness all the books that have been banned in so-called red states over the past few years; the storm of protest against CRT. History is already being forgotten as liberalism, just like in Russia, is being reinvented as an existential threat to traditional American values.
Recent decisions by SCOTUS has made the politics of eternity a live possibility. That Putin would wish for a Trump victory in 2024 is a stone cold certainty. Whether Putin has anything over Trump is up for debate, but for me he remains eminently vulnerable to Russian influence simply because of his many personal flaws; his love of women for one, his love of money and power, and his almost slavish devotion to Putin himself.
But it took decades for Russia to gain that sort of influence. Should Trump not win the nomination, it is doubtful, I would suggest, that Putin or his many agents would have sufficient sway over whomever the nominee might then be to force any issues initially.
Would then, the road to the politics of eternity be lost in the U.S.? Or would it just be a minor detour on the road to making America Russia?
What do you think?
Thanks for reading!
- Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America; Timothy Snyder, 2018.
- The Future is History: How How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia; Masha Gessen, 2017.
- Meet the Alt-Right Spokesman Thrilled by Putin’s Rise, Rolling Stone, October 18th 2016. Cited in Road to Unfreedom.
- Putin’s People: How the KGB took back Russia and then took on the West; Catherine Belton, 2020.
- The Origins of Totalitarianism; Hannah Arendt, 1951.