“Is that really democracy?”: The Russian state media are telling a very different story about the US elections

Trump’s claims travel.
Trump’s claims travel.
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
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It was all Russia could ever hope for. Not only does the US have a major presidential candidate who has praised Vladimir Putin, called for detente with Russia, and criticized NATO, but he’s now been saying about the US exactly what American officials and NGOs have been insisting about Russia for years: Its elections are ”rigged.”

Donald Trump’s claims about electoral bias were the main theme this week of the popular Sunday news round-up shows on Russian state TV, which “set the agenda for the next week and the propaganda talking points,” according to Russian media expert Alexey Kovalev.

TV presenter Dmitry Kiselyov, an Orwellian-style demagogue and head of state news agency Russia Today, gleefully announced (video, in Russian): “Now the US will be on the receiving end of exactly the same claims it has bestowed on other countries: the American elections weren’t transparent, there was a lack of legitimate opposition candidates, there was mass falsification and use of government funds in the campaign.”

He went on to marshall quotes from the Wikileaks hack of emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chief, John Podesta, to attack the US press as biased along the lines of Trump’s claims, before saying that America is refusing to let in Russian election monitors. “Is that really democracy?” he asked drily. (The State department has in fact said Russian monitors are welcome as part of an OSCE delegation.)

A slightly more subtle bias comes across in print stories like those of state news agency Tass, which has drily reported Trump’s comments (Russian) on election rigging by simply translating his statements and tweets, without offering any response from Clinton’s side, or mentioning the fact that Trump’s claims are either widely abhorred or ridiculed in the US.

This all follows a pattern: Reporters across Russian state media haven’t generally been explicitly endorsing Trump, but, rather, uncritically reporting his wild claims in order to damage Clinton and discredit American democracy in the eyes of Russian viewers, says Kovalev, who runs a blog dissecting the Russian media.

“The general tone is really hostile towards Clinton—that she’s dishonest and she’s hostile towards Russia and she’s leading America towards a third world war. They’re just basically repeating everything that Trump says about her,” he said.

BBC Moscow correspondent Steve Rosenberg’s round-up of the papers on Oct. 24 shows the press has concluded a Clinton victory is inevitable. But according to a number of experts this won’t necessarily sadden the Kremlin. Trump’s rhetoric, after all, plays right into its claim to Russians that American-style democracy is not a viable alternative to president Vladimir Putin’s autocratic rule.

“Their strategic narrative is much more about ‘let’s make democracy look bad’. That’s what it’s about—‘let’s make America look bad,’” said Peter Pomerantsev, a senior fellow at London’s Legatum Institute think tank. “One candidate, another candidate, whatever. They’re still going to be president of America—it’s America that they need to smear rather than any one character.”