Trump and Putin Told the Same Lie in Helsinki, But For Different Reasons
What that shows about the global balance of power
From his spurious assertions about the size of his inauguration crowd, to his fictitious rationale for the firing of FBI director James Comey, to his baseless accusations that the Obama administration had wiretapped him, the 45th president of the United States has repeatedly demonstrated that he has no qualms about playing fast and loose with the facts. Indeed, he appears to have very little interest in facts.
In the early days of his term, American journalists primly debated the proper nomenclature to be used when reporting on the head of state’s factual frivolities. Should his pronouncements be described as “false,” “unsupported,” or perhaps “inaccurate”? At what point might it be appropriate to start using the L-word? And could there be some dire consequences of doing that? This debate quickly fizzled out as major news outlets realized the sales potential of claiming a monopoly on “the truth” in an age of political “post-truth” and started elbowing each other for a piece of the truth market.
In the run-up to Trump’s inauguration, The New York Times was running an aggressive subscription campaign, which seemed to pay off handsomely. The ratings of cable news networks kept climbing as well, and so did the volume of political banter as more and more people were tuning in to watch the Trump circus. Of course, in order for the media to keep uncovering the truth (or, at least, those parts of it that were good for business), somebody had to keep piling on the lies and, in that regard, POTUS did not disappoint.
Despite their scandalous proportions within the US context, Donald Trump’s credentials as a political liar were, in many ways, rather parochial. For the most part, his lies focused on things that would make his voter base happy and also served to feed his own inflated ego. Unlike Trump, who was a novice to public office, Vladimir Putin had already established an international reputation as a man who did not shy away from bending the truth. His notable accomplishments included his flat denial of Russian military interference in Eastern Ukraine and the swift manufacturing of a landslide win in a secession referendum in Crimea.
Mind you, the lies of both men were equally obvious to anyone willing to pay attention. But my point is that, while Trump was mostly playing in his American sandbox, Putin had graduated to the International Deception Olympics. Granted, the Russian president had had much more time and training since his initial appointment as Acting Prime Minister by Boris Yeltsin in 1999. Unlike Trump, who is essentially a natural-born, self-taught liar, Putin had received professional coaching and plenty of practice as a former spy for the Soviet Union’s notorious KGB and as Director of its Russian successor, the FSB.
Fast Forward to Helsinki 2018
Now, let’s turn our attention to the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki, which took place on July 16, 2018. This was the first time these two Presidents stood side by side and gave a joint press conference to the international media. Here was a chance for each of them to show off his reality-altering prowess as the whole world was watching. Their cue came from a reporter’s question about Russia’s meddling in the 2016 US presidential election, which both presidents answered by telling the same lie — namely, that Russia had not interfered. However, the way they told this lie and their strategic reasons for telling it were very different.
Comparing their performance at the press conference, Masha Gessen of The New Yorker wrote: “Both habitually lie to assert power and obfuscate when questioned. But, as their joint press conference in Helsinki demonstrated, their styles are different.” If you’re interested in the stylistic differences, I highly recommend you read Gessen’s piece. It’s succinct, witty, and insightful. I’d like to focus, instead, on the strategic purposes behind each president’s telling of the same lie and reflect on the way this relates to the current state of international power relations.
First, let’s be clear that, by the time of the Helsinki Summit, multiple formal investigations by American intelligence agencies and political institutions had established the facticity of Russia’s election meddling. In fact, the US Department of Justice had released a detailed indictment of 12 Russian intelligence operatives just three days before the Helsinki Summit. This is important because it confirms that neither of the two presidents were lying in Helsinki in an effort to preempt the exposure of something that was not yet widely known. The proverbial cat had been let out of its proverbial bag and, despite that, both men insisted there was no cat.
So Why Did Each of Them Lie?
To put it simply, Trump was lying to avoid being caught, while Putin was lying in order to be caught. Let me explain.
In the case of Donald Trump, telling this particular lie was a stubborn and, in my view inevitable, effort to defy reality and shore up a previous string of lies that he had repeated countless times in his Twitter-friendly, bullet-point style. He had no choice, but to deflect and, by implication, to reject the possibility of Russian meddling, because admitting to it would have contradicted his statements that the Russia investigation was a “witch hunt,” that there had been “no collusion,” and that he had won the 2016 election “fair and square.” He had to lie in order to reassure the all-American audience of his zealous supporters that he was still their legitimately elected president. (Perhaps, he also had to lie to himself in order to soothe his overexposed and threatened ego.) In short, he was primarily focused on the effect this lie would have on the narrow audience of his voter base at home, while remaining oblivious to the damage it may do to America’s power and influence on a global scale.
I am no intelligence expert so I will not comment on the plausibility of the theories that Trump may have been acting as an agent of a foreign power or that he was motivated by fear about a Russian kompromat against him. However, as a trained strategic communication scholar, I am confident in my conclusion that, even if those theories were dismissed out of hand, Trump would have told the same lie in Helsinki in order to maintain the coherence of the preexisting narrative upon which he had built his presidential persona.
In Vladimir Putin’s case, the strategic logic was quite different. First, Putin was speaking to both Russian and international audiences. He was also addressing both his supporters and his critics. To all of these different constituents, he wanted to deliver one simple message: “This is my game now.”
For Putin, the Summit was a staged performance, which allowed him an opportunity to demonstrate to all the world that Russia had restored its stature as a Great Power and that its president was ready to claim the role of the most powerful leader in the world, which had long been reserved for the leader of the United States. To make his claim to global power appear undeniable, Putin needed everyone to know that he was lying and he needed to show that, despite that, the American president standing next to him could not call him on his lie.
For anyone, like myself, who remembers life in the Soviet Union or in any of its satellites across Central and Eastern Europe, this form of asserting power through the ritual repetition of an obvious lie should be familiar. Cultural anthropologist Alexei Yurchak has described in detail how ordinary citizens in the late Soviet Union were fully aware of the lies their leaders were telling them, yet they proceeded to abide by those lies in everyday public life. They did that because anything else would have been seen by everyone as crazy.
In his award-winning book, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More, Yurchak explains that the only sane way of life in the late Soviet Union was to perform highly routinized rituals of allegiance to the system. To openly resist the system meant that one was being reckless with one’s life. To embrace it earnestly meant that one was either deluded or silly. Yurchak calls this paradoxical condition “hypernormalizaiton” and argues that it allowed the Soviet system to keep on grinding for a while despite its declining economic and political power.
Of course, to get to the state of hypernormalization, the people in the former Eastern Bloc had to endure extermination, nationalization, re-education, and near-total information isolation. Vladimir Putin has restored some of the same tactics in Russia today, but he is not in a position to impose them on the entire world. At least not yet.
Nevertheless, by demonstrating in Helsinki that he could get the sitting American president to concede to his lies and repeat them as truths, he was attempting to achieve a variant of hypernormalization on a global scale. He did that by leveraging Trump’s compromised position and making him into an example of Russia’s undeniable power. If Trump openly contradicted Putin’s lie and condemned Russian interference, he would be risking his political survival at home. If he embraced it earnestly, he would be seen as deluded or silly. Either way, there was no doubt that Putin had the upper hand.