Following Putin’s playbook, Trump wants to distract and divide us. Instead, pay attention and unite!
If you want a glimpse of where we’re headed as a country, look to Russia. For years, conservatives — especially fundamentalist Christian conservatives — have held Russia as an ideal to which they could aspire. As Vladimir Putin cracked down on the free press and the rights of his Muslim and LGBT citizens, many conservatives came to see him not as a brutal autocrat but as a paternalistic defender of traditional values. Many white supremacists likewise fawn over Putin’s Russia. Neo-Nazi Richard Spencer, now famous for being punched in the face, called it the sole white power remaining in the world, and Klansman David Duke has said he believes Russia holds the “key to white survival.”
With the election of Donald Trump, Russia has returned that affection manyfold. Russian hacking, which U.S. intelligence believes was directed by Putin himself, exposed Democrats’ dirty laundry, while leaving Trump and other Republicans unscathed. Russian news outlets wasted no time exploiting hacked emails and other leaks, while also flooding social media with torrents of “fake news,” also called propaganda.
Add to that Russia’s allegedly compromising dossier and Trump’s unreleased tax returns, which may hide unseemly ties to Russian oligarchs. For example, Russia recently sold around 19.5 percent of its stake in the state-owned oil company Rosneft, and no one knows who bought it. According to ex-MI6 spy Christopher Steele, it was part of a bribe to Trump and his associates. Whether the dossier and its claims are genuine remains a matter of faith, but consider that since its leak, Russia has arrested three top intelligence officers on charges of treason. One was forcibly dragged out of an FSB meeting with a bag over his head. Another has been found dead. This is just the sort of response one might expect if the dossier were the real deal.
And then there’s Steve Bannon, Trump’s “chief strategist,” who was recently appointed to the National Security Council in what can only be called an ideological coup. Bannon takes the conservative fetish for Russia a step further. “I’m a Leninist,” he once told historian Ronald Radosh. “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down.”
Like Vladimir Lenin, who led the communist revolution in Russia, Bannon seems to understand that the keys to revolution are chaos and control. In The Shock Doctrine, social activist Naomi Klein argues that dramatic shifts in public policy are often precipitated by artificial crises, which proponents of policy change are able to exploit. Many of the Trump administration’s early policies seem designed specifically to create the type of chaos that might precipitate such a policy quake.
But, chaos is nothing without the means to exploit it. The first thing Lenin did in his revolution was seize control of telegraph stations. The first official act of the Trump administration was to hold a bizarre press conference in which press secretary Sean Spicer blatantly lied to the White House press corps about inauguration crowd sizes and took no questions. Like Lenin, Trump and Bannon understand the necessity of controlling the media narrative, and this was the first step.
“The media is the opposition party,” Bannon told the New York Times just last week, saying it should “keep its mouth shut.” Bannon, who likes to think of himself as “Darth Vader,” wrote key parts of Trump’s inauguration speech. The “American carnage” line was his, as were the lines he cribbed from the Batman villain Bane about giving power back to the people. As a well-known anti-Semite, he also may have been responsible for omitting any mention of Jews from of the president’s Holocaust remembrance statement.
“Trump is a blunt instrument for us,” Bannon told Vanity Fair, meaning the alt-right. “I don’t really know whether he gets it or not.”
Judging on leaks from inside the administration — some confirmed, others not — it seems there is just as much chaos internally as externally. That might be how Trump likes it. It’s how he’s run his television shows in the past; to him, the presidency is just a more prestigious “Apprentice” where he can watch his minions fight it out while he sits in judgement. Politically, Trump seems to know only one move, but he’s an expert at it: distract and divide. It’s a tactic he applies just as much to his own inner circle as to his political opposition.
Trump must know, or intuit, that only through distraction and division can unpopular leaders stay in power. And, it’s important to remember, Trump is historically unpopular. He won just 46 percent of the national popular vote, a minority of the minority of Americans who voted in 2016. He won the Republican primary with a similar minority of votes. Fifty-five percent of Republicans voted against him. And, according to Gallup, a majority of Americans now say they disapprove of his presidency — something most presidents face at one point or another, but which usually takes years, not days.
He’s profoundly unpopular, both among Republicans and the general electorate. We know it. He knows it. And many of his early moves look aimed at consolidating his power and undermining the power of his opposition.
Chaos and control.
It’s a tactic shared with another controversial Russian-backed leader, Viktor Yanukovych.
Yanukovych was elected president of Ukraine in 2010, defeating Yulia Tymoshenko, a woman with a long political career, in a very close and contentious election. Egged on by Russia, he turned his country away from Western allies, all the while using the power of his office to transfer his nation’s wealth into a private bank account.
If any of that sounds familiar, take comfort in the fact that just a few years into his presidency, Yanukovych fled the country for the safety of Russia after widespread protests forced him from office. So, look to Russia. There lies the root of Trump’s power, and a plan for his defeat.
What you can do?
- Call your members of Congress! Ask them to investigate Trump’s ties to Russia and allegations of collusion during the campaign. Ask them to pass a law requiring Trump to release his tax returns. 5calls.org is a fantastic site to help with that. The Indivisible Guide is another great resource. If voice mailboxes are full, send a postcard, letter or fax.
- Keep protesting! We all live in bubbles, but it’s hard to ignore thousands of people marching in the streets. Go to airports, local Congressional offices, and public parks. Try to attend the upcoming Science March and participate in the nationwide general strike currently being planned. Protests work…just look at Ukraine.
- Boycott! Download the BoycottTrump app, and refuse to give organizations that support him your money. Call businesses that plan to host Trump or members of his administration and pledge to protest and boycott them if they allow it. Harley-Davidson just cancelled a factory visit for that very reason.
- Donate! Give money to groups that need your support. To start, pick one advocacy group and one source of good investigative journalism. I recommend the ACLU and ProPublica.
- Reach out to sexual and religious minorities and people of color! Ask what you can do to help. We’re all in this together. The opposite of distract and divide is pay attention and unite.