Since the beginning of the current presidency, I have been flummoxed by the president’s persistent fascination, unquestioning support and good will, not to mention his belief in whatever lie or evasion Russia’s Putin has smilingly given him.
After reading a review of “The Vory: Russia’s Super Mafia” by Mark Galeotti, I am beginning to see a potential connection. Russia has a long and sad history of criminality and its attendant violence. The Russian Revolution itself was financed by Stalin’s criminal activities (robbing banks, running protection rackets, counterfeiting, and kidnapping for ransom for more than 10 years before his party took over the Duma). Today, Galeotti explains, organized crime not only helped to shape Russia’s economy, but it gave rise to a new class of criminal called the “avtoritet” (authority): one who has legal as well as illegal holdings. With Putin, the “avtoritety” were absorbed into the state (the Kremlin). As long as there is no interference in politics, crime can thrive, and it does in its new more business-minded, bureaucratic way.
This normalization of corruption, graft, and periodic violence has resulted in what scholars and observers of the regime call terminal cynicism. And what does that mean? Simply put, it’s the belief that democratic institutions are irrelevant.
Citing Russia’s website RT, Christian Caryl, a journalist proficient in Russian and a former Moscow bureau chief for U.S. News & World Report, writes in the Washington Post that the RT, Moscow’s propaganda hub, has a long history as “Trump’s stenographer.” RT points out, for instance, that the U.S. is a dystopian mess, that Ukraine is a sewer of corruption, a geopolitical nobody. That Russians need not believe “in the holier than thou crap Americans are always trying to sell you — talk of human rights and ‘rule of law’ is a crock. Donald Trump pretty much says so, after all.”
Russian media coverage (journalists who are still paid by the government) is noted for what it leaves out, Caryl explains. There is no analysis of the whistleblower law, for instance, nothing on the electoral, political, or moral dynamics behind impeachment. No fact-checking on Trump’s or anyone’s speeches. Conspiracy theories rule the day and Fox News (yes, Fox News) talking points are routinely recycled as is the idea that there are no hard facts anymore, only partisan positions.
Trump himself is living proof of Russian values: criminal behavior that masquerades as legitimate business or phrasing it differently, legitimate business that routinely ignores and violates laws; dismantling, disabling, discrediting, or undermining democratic governmental institutions or their personnel: the CIA, FBI, EPA, FAA, the courts, judges, Congress, whistle-blowers, inspector generals, special counsel.
And finally, Trump is a skilled con man who knows how to disarm a Fox News devotee. Psychological studies show that people think whatever is “secret” must be more important than what is “known.” Therefore, Trump downplays his call to the Ukraine president as “only a normal phone call.” Nothing wrong with that, right? He also maintains that asking Russia or China to give him “help” in a U.S. election is a casual, normal request, not the “high crime” or “misdemeanor” that it actually is. Murder, too, is against the law, but obviously if it were a really big deal, Trump would never have said “I could shoot someone on 5th Avenue and not lose a single vote,” thus minimizing the reach of what we used to coin as the “long arm of the law.”
Trump is a shoe-in for Putin’s “Our Man in the White House,” I do think.
Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College.