The brash insults that are a staple of Donald Trump’s political campaign have left many critics wondering how he could possibly get away with such crude behavior. But for those who have tangled with Trump, like The New Yorker’s Mark Singer, none of this comes as a surprise. My own encounter with Trump’s Wizard of Oz-like tawdry glamour came in the winter of 1996, when I attended a gala honoring Moscow Fashion Theater at his Taj Mahal casino hotel in Atlantic City. The Trump-sponsored event even gathered some prominent Russians, such as the immigrant writer Peter Vail and the music critic Svyatoslav Belza.
The gold-plated hotel gems in the now-tattered Trump casino empire incessantly reminded us that we are still in Oz—Good Luck at Trump Castle! Enjoy Trump Plaza! “Welcome to Trump Taj Mahal” was the tackiest of the bunch, in its effort to upstage the real, ancient mausoleum in India. Therefore, it was a fitting choice of the so-called New Russians who organized the gala. This was a brand-new social class of rich, who made their rapid fortunes in a disarray of the 1991 post-Soviet collapse, who needed a few normal Russians and immigrant intellectuals to spruce up the guest list. (I was there because of my heritage as the late Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s granddaughter.) The unruly Boris Yeltsin presidency allowed for the New Russians’ meteoric rise, and Trump, already then world-famous for his art of the deal, looked to benefit from the Kremlin’s Wild West capitalism.
Always a crafty showman, he wanted to secure an arrangement for a Trump Tower built on the Red Square. Bringing the fashion show to New Jersey was part of the entertainer’s plan to cast a wide net of contacts in hope that something would pan out in his grandiose scheme. Trump had also courted numerous Russian officials including Moscow’s mayor Yuri Luzhkov, eager to stick his name on two major hotels in the Kremlin vicinity, Moskva and (now demolished) Rossiya— until 1990 “the largest hotel in the world.”
“At dinner you are seated next to Mr. Trump,” stated my invitation. And despite my disdain for his low-brow aggrandizing, I—at the time a high-brow graduate student at Princeton University—was still curious.
In anticipation of Trump’s arrival the shivering models awkwardly paraded their ghastly cocktail dresses—fashion has never been the Russian forte. Yet the audience—mostly Russian immigrants with lots of gold in their apparel—found the show entertaining. Waiting for Trump, they made vulgar comments, loudly boasting of the sums they paid to see him. I stormed out of the room in disgust. “It’s all right to miss the dinner. There is a Trump breakfast tomorrow. I’ll meet him then.”
Experiencing all things Trump—i.e. the American pop-entertainment-casino culture—was not for the faint hearted. By the morning my curiosity had dissipated completely, and I left for Princeton, missing my last chance for a Trump encounter, pondering which part of the Atlantic City experience was the most painful. There was of course the desperation of gambling—I ran into a man, who after losing everything overnight had methodically cut his credit cards with a Swiss-Army-knife. But nothing was comparable to Trump being a crude and insulting joke, I thought. I lamented the lack of standards in both countries, “There are so many great things in America’s versatile culture, but the choice that the new Russia made for adoption was the most tasteless.”
Fast forward 20 years—including Trump’s decade-long stardom in NBC’s Apprentice and his five previous flirtations with a presidential run—and the American circus has only increased by popular demand. Our minds have been forever dumbed down by the cheap entertainment of reality TV and the instant gratification of social media—over 40% now support future president Trump, or as some say, the contemporary P.T. Barnum of the Greatest Show on Earth.
Russia is fairing even worse. Vladimir Putin’s 15 years in power have surely tempered my expectations. Yeltsin, who inherited the post-Soviet collapse, at least strived towards democracy and press freedoms. Putin’s tenure has been marred by the criminal prosecution of the opposition; deaths of journalists and politicians; a manipulation of oil-and-gas-related prices and projects; a violation of international norms in annexing Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
As unruly as Russia seemed in the 1990s, the casino-real estate mogul still failed to erect his towers, his courting of Moscow officials and celebrities notwithstanding. This may change though, since Trump has now got a kindred spirit in the Kremlin. Last October he announced that he “would get along with Putin.” In December the Russian president returned the favor praising Trump as “a very… talented man,” who wants a deeper relationship with his country.
No wonder Trump is in awe: his own slogan of “Make America Great Again”—though displaying no knowledge as to how to actually achieve it—is borrowed not just from Ronald Reagan, but echoes in Putin’s Orwellian manual on manipulating weaknesses into the appearance of strength. Throwing his rivals off balance—first annexing Crimea, then militarily intervening in Syria last year—Putin is an expert in gaining the upper hand, garnering an approval rating north of 80%.
Accustomed to Putin’s grand political gambles, 30% of the Russians approve of his American mirror image. Here, Trump, with his big mouth and brash deal-making, is seen as “frank” and “pragmatic.” Others, however, offer only the sinister support. They gleefully anticipate that Trump’s promises to erect a wall against Mexico or to force China to stop its financial “manipulations,” his assurance that his presidency will make US both unpredictable and consistent, would turn the only remaining superpower into a laughing stock.
Yet others say they feel vindicated. Americans have looked at the Russians with disdain for their love of Putin’s anti-James-Bond exploits; his 007-ish flying planes, diving in submarines, and riding horses bare-chested. A clown, Americans say, boorish in his “Russia First” drive. And yet America’s populace drools over their own clown, a reality TV star, the hair-challenged Donald Trump, with his own “America First” message.
In Moscow one friend told me that he hopes that the ever self-righteous Americans look at themselves, which “might help to avoid the Trump presidency. The reality TV-carnival king is not yet Putin, but if elected, could Mexico, or even Canada, become America’s Ukraine? The two men deserve each other—both propagandists and performers, they’ve turned an insult into an art form.”
Indeed, in 1999 shortly before he became president, Putin threatened to “squash [critics] in the toilet.” Many have been squashed since then. In 2002, he promised to circumcise those who challenged his involvement in Chechnya. In 2014 he insisted that “Russia’s Armed Forces never entered Crimea,” only to admit a year later that they in fact did.
For Trump, whether his challengers are reporters or other presidential candidates, all are branded as ugly, incompetent, weak, pathetic, disgusting, losers and more. In his 2004 book How to Get Rich, the presumptive presidential nominee wrote, “When somebody hurts you, just go after them as viciously and as violently as you can.” That is nothing if not Putinesque.
Both are easy to caricature, but their populist style underpins a method, their art if you will. In his 1987 book The Art of the Deal Trump speaks of the great deals he’s brokered, “they being his ‘art form,’ and he, it seems, being the artist.” Putin, a judo master, in 2004 disclosed the way he approaches politics in a co-authored book on martial arts, Judo: History, Theory, Practice. Its main focus is the art of breaking the opponent’s balance (a must read for the Pentagon).
As Trump can learn the art of doublespeak from the Russian president, Putin, too, with his penchant for the theatrical political style—his press secretary Dmitry Peskov once admitted that the Kremlin boss needs “no image-making”—can take pointers from the American entertainer-in-chief.
After all, traditional cults of personality with the marble statues a la Joseph Stalin have given way to the softer power of PR, a true mastery of the Apprentice star with his glitzy and gaudy buildings, restaurants, steaks and wine. Under Putin, the gold decorated Kremlin have looked increasingly like a Mickey Mouse castle; Putin’s name gracing all sorts of objects from perfume to chocolate statues to Vodka brands.
With the Russian president’s plan to stay in power for at least another decade and with Trump’s serious prospects to become the next American leader, the world we now enter is both Orwellian and Oz, and ever more violent and tacky.