He has pledged to make his country great again. He says the unsayable, breaking taboos to the delight of his audience. He promises to free the country from an Islamic threat. He has no regard for truth, and fumes at the media, whom he considers lying scum. He plays to the crowds and portrays himself as an ordinary guy, but has a weakness for palaces and female models. European leaders cringe at his sexist jokes. When he emerged as a presidential candidate, the liberals who opposed him took comfort in the fact he would be restrained by the free media, civil society and the legislature, and were proved wrong.
No, he is not Donald Trump, but Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia since 2000. Of course, the similarity between the two men should not be stretched too far: One is an ex-KGB man with deeply ingrained conspiratorial mentality, anointed by his predecessor and backed by Russia’s oligarchs, while the other is an oligarch himself, riding a wave of anti-establishment sentiment.
Yet their populism, demagoguery, lack of principles, and ability to manipulate facts, rattle the establishment, and play the media make them soulmates. They have expressed their mutual admiration (which a Lithuanian graffiti artist satirized in a mural, based on the famous picture of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and East Germany’s Erich Honecker locking lips). And if Trump were to become president of the United States, that political kinship could prove very dangerous.
Well before Trump appeared on the political scene, Putin had turned saying the unsayable into an art form. His emergence as a presidential candidate in 1999 was greeted with incredulity by the media and political experts. His initial support rating barely registered in opinion polls. But following the bombing of several apartment blocks in Moscow in 1999 he pledged on television to catch Chechen terrorists and “wipe them out [while they sat] in the shitter.” Instantly, it broke the barrier between the public and the future president. Sociologists described it as a short-circuit moment.
The secret code of language
The reason was that no Soviet or Russian leader had spoken in such language before. Long before the US had learned the words “political correctness,” the Soviet Union had pressed the concept on its citizens. Soviet political speech was highly formalized, divorced from reality. Boris Yeltsin, the first Russian president, often spoke impromptu but never swore either in private or in public.
Putin was the first politician to use semi-criminal slang in his speech. He spoke like a character in Brat, a cult movie that had come out not long before he became president. At the time, sentiment against Russia’s Muslim Chechen minority was running high, in the wake of the bloody war between Russian troops and Chechen separatists in 1994-1996. The film was a Tarantinoesque thriller whose main protagonist, a young and charismatic Russian, Danila Bagrov, returns to St Petersburg—Putin’s native city—after a two-year conscription in Chechnya, and turns into a hit man. He clears the streets of Chechens and helps the poor and homeless along the way.
In one of the opening scenes Bagrov confronts two Muslim men from the Caucasus who cockily refuse to pay a fine for riding on a trolley-bus without a ticket. Danila takes out a gun and points it at the crotch of one of the loudmouths. “Don’t shoot, brother,” says the terrified man. “I am not a brother to you, you black-arsed shit,” Danila replies. Audiences laughed in recognition and approval.
Like Bagrov, Putin was unconstrained by political correctness and convention. The more provocative he sounded, the greater was his appeal. Indeed, his use of Bagrov’s rhetoric was not accidental. In the run up to the presidential elections, Putin’s campaign advisers conducted a poll, which showed that Bagrov was one of the characters most admired by the public.
The media creation turns on its creator
In many ways, Putin was a creation of the media when the media were still relatively free. None of the anti-Putin commentary from liberal newspapers or the country’s main private television channel, NTV, could stop the surge in his ratings. This was not just because the state television channels threw themselves behind him. He struck an important chord with the public mood in a country that was already rejecting the liberal ideas of the elite that had ruled Russia since the end of the Soviet Union. Some of Russia’s most intuitive and cynical TV bosses joined Putin’s campaign, while his campaigners were seconded to the TV channels.
His first step after entering the Kremlin was to seize control over television. He adopted his friend Silvio Berlusconi’s maxim that “What is not on TV does not exist,” and took it a step further: things that did not exist could be turned into reality by TV. Facts were irrelevant.
This is where the parallel with Trump is most striking. True, Trump does not formally control the media, and American institutions are far stronger than Russia’s. But what Trump has learned to control is the news agenda. The more outrageous things he says, the more prominence he gets. Michael Tomasky, writing in The New York Review of Books, cited figures from mediaQuant, a firm that tracks media coverage of candidates, and assigns financial value to that coverage based on advertising rates. Hillary Clinton had spent $28 million on TV ads and received $746 million worth of time in free media (mostly related to the scandal over her State Department emails). Trump spent $10 million on paid media and received $1.9 billion in free media.
The hiring (or was it a secondment?) of Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s sacked campaign manager, by CNN as a political analyst must have brought a smile of approval to Putin’s face. CNN has drawn fire for hiring a man who defends Trump on-air, but Putin has long since erased the line between sanctioned political analysts and propagandists. His propagandist-in-chief, Dmitry Kiselev, is also the anchor of the state television flagship show on Russian state television.
Kiselev, as it happens, has been a fan of Trump, hailing his progress earlier this year in Biblical terms: “While Obama’s time is melting away, a new star has arisen—Trump.” Trump is also getting plenty of praise on the Kremlin-backed English-language Russia Today channel, which also broadcasts in America and which regularly thrashes Hillary Clinton.
The art of the (geopolitical) deal
It is their shared love of doing “deals,” however, that makes Putin and Trump’s convergence so alarming. Unlike any of his Soviet predecessors, who were guided by ideology, Putin is the flesh and blood of 1990s capitalism in Russia, where informal “deals” trampled any kind of legal arrangement. The ability to strike a deal with his opponents, with the media, and with foreign counterparts is the essence of Putin’s regime.
Trump—the author of The Art of The Deal—is equally passionate about deals, which have often involved special permits in various countries to build Trump towers. A new deal between America and Russia is precisely what the two men may be looking for. According to Franklin Foer, writing in Slate, Trump has been trying to do business in Russia for years, makes little distinction between his business and political interests, and has been surrounded with advisors who have links to the Kremlin.
In Putin’s mind, however, such a deal would involve not building Trump hotels, but a new Yalta agreement, of the kind that was struck between the Allied powers after the Second World War. It would demarcate the spheres of influence within Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union; in other words, which countries Russia could dominate without Western interference, and vice versa. Trump may ask Putin to keep away from the NATO states, such as the Baltic countries, but would not care much about the future of Ukraine, Georgia or any other former Soviet republic to which Russia lays a claim. (The fact that Trump is advised by Paul Manafort, who also ran the presidential campaign for Viktor Yanukovych, a disgraced, corrupt Ukrainiain president overthrown by the Kiev revolution, makes Ukraine particularly vulnerable.)
But as the 20th-century history of the Soviet Union and Germany showed, a pact between two populist and nationalist leaders hardly makes the world a safer place. If Trump becomes president, the last thing the world needs, dark humor aside, is for he and Putin to be locked in any kind of embrace.