The End of American Power
Trump’s Reelection Would Usher in Permanent Decline
U.S. President Donald Trump’s first few days in office—plagued by questions of fake news, disinformation, and attacks against journalists—feel a lot like those of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Sixteen years ago, Putin was in the early days of reshaping his country’s politics and society after rising to power the previous year. Having already curbed the independence of leading industries such as the country’s largest carmaker and biggest metals exporter, the president turned his attention to the once-vibrant free press. In April 2001, a state-controlled minority shareholder in Russia’s only independent national television station, NTV, announced that it wanted to oust the broadcaster’s directors to save the station from a looming debt default. Tens of thousands of protesters braved raw weather on a drab, wet day outside the station’s sprawling Soviet-era studios in northern Moscow to denounce the sudden concern about NTV’s finances and the fact that a minority stakeholder could use such a flimsy justification to derail the company.
Holed up in the offices upstairs, defiant journalists hustled to cover the standoff in real time as a stream of celebrities and opposition lawmakers dropped by to drink, smoke, and crack jokes in the office of the director, Yevgeny Kisleyov. But they did little to dispel the sense of impending doom. Kiselyov, Russia’s most trusted news anchor who was among the government’s most incisive critics, laid out the obvious. “This is not a financial affair,” the immaculately coiffed journalist told me at the time, taking a debonair drag on his cigarette. “This is a hostile takeover by the government. It wants to nationalize the channel because we ask questions. ‘Who is Mr. Putin?’ for example. Other channels have the answer to that. It’s prepared for them in the Kremlin. He’s a national hero, a genius!” Meanwhile, Putin—the only person whose opinion really mattered—was maintaining absolute radio silence.
It soon became clear that no real public outcry was forthcoming because most Russians either supported Putin’s actions or didn’t care enough to register dissent. At 3:00 a.m. on a Saturday the following week, security guards forced their way into the studios and ejected the journalists, quickly turning a major page in Russia’s post-Soviet history. With another stage of Putin’s incremental consolidation of power complete, he moved on to other targets at home and abroad, methodically prodding for political and public backlash.
PUTIN’S PAST, TRUMP’S PRESENT
A decade-and-a-half on, Trump has entered the White House waging relentless assaults on his rivals both in the opposition and within his own party, marshaling a staunch nationalism and street-brawler brashness in doing so. His attacks against the news media have included singling out reporters for personal ridicule and labeling CNN, the New York Times and other outlets as purveyors of fake news.
Like Putin, Trump sees weakening the ideals-based Western liberal order and its openness as essential to maintaining his support. Trump’s temporary ban on travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries, attacks on the judiciary, and other measures enacted by a battery of executive orders make it hard to deny his authoritarian tendencies.
Nevertheless, Trump differs from Putin in at least one critical respect. Almost everything the latter has said and done to consolidate power has been coldly calculated to steadily expand his authoritarianism. The Russian president almost certainly sees his high approval ratings as a pillar of the personal power buttressing his all-important role as the country’s supreme national leader. Faced with obstacles whose costs he has deemed too great, he has backed down, perhaps most memorably after angry pensioners blocked off main thoroughfares into major cities to protest changes to the social benefits system in 2005.
Almost everything Putin has said and done to consolidate power has been coldly calculated to steadily expand his authoritarianism.
For Trump, who saw his election campaign as a business opportunity—that not only boosted the billionaire’s brand, but also funneled millions of donors’ dollars to his company for use of his plane, hotels, and other services—and who appears to treat the presidency as another means of feeding a hunger for ratings, publicity is paramount. Trump’s penchant for lashing out at critics may be keeping him at the center of global attention, but it has already shaken U.S. security and plunged his administration into crisis. In turn, the chaos surrounding the Trump administration has helped Moscow further one of its biggest goals: crippling U.S. influence and power. Likely emboldened to explore new horizons, Putin appears to have started carefully pressing his advantage. After a year of relative quiet in eastern Ukraine, Russia-backed separatists recently stepped up attacks that killed tens of people until they were repelled by Ukrainian forces. And Tuesday’s news that Moscow has secretly deployed a new cruise missile that violates a key 1987 missile treaty presented Trump with the kind of major challenge that flummoxed the Obama Administration. Over the weekend, Russian state propaganda channels had already returned to warning about the dangers of a US-led “unipolar” world after many weeks of featuring mostly praise for Trump. In a country whose leaders treat satire like Kryptonite, it was not insignificant that Russia’s flagship Sunday news show even rebroadcast some of Saturday Night Live’s most cutting Trump parodies.
Still, Trump has shown signs that he may not be ready to acquiesce to Putin’s plans. The U.S. president, who, like Putin, maintains his status partly through surprise moves and seeming reversals on top of lies—such as his invention that massive voter fraud prevented him from winning the popular vote in November—has already shifted away from his campaign rhetoric by indicating that sanctions on Russia will remain in place for now. And earlier this month, Nikki Haley, Trump’s newly installed ambassador to the United Nations, publicly blamed the violence in Ukraine on Russia’s “aggressive actions.” She added that “Crimea is a part of Ukraine.”
Given such rhetoric, chances are high that the two nuclear-armed governments will fall out at some point—a prospect that offers no comfort. The Kremlin is already said to be getting nervous about the reliability of Trump’s crisis-prone White House, with leading officials blaming the ouster of the national security adviser Mike Flynn this week—for lying about having reassured Moscow over easing sanctions—on a campaign by critics. “Trump is the next target,” Aleksei Pushkov, a leading lawmaker, tweeted.
However relations develop, the overarching danger is that whether through collusion or conflict, Trump, Putin, and other world leaders who treat foreign policy as a nineteenth-century great-power game may cement the return to nationalism-driven geopolitics. Although their mutual interest in maintaining the kind of fictions they use to generate support—threats from external enemies, fifth columns at home—could lead them in any direction, they are united in their common interest of undermining the Western liberal order.
WHITHER U.S. DEMOCRACY?
To be sure, Russia and the United States are vastly different in many ways, large and small—from the United States’ foundation on Enlightenment philosophy and longevity of democratic traditions to the strength of its civil society today. But the countries have become similar in two important respects since Trump’s inauguration on January 20. Both have leaders who took office with a populism that caught their opponents off guard, upending their countries’ political establishments with culture wars that helped divide and conquer their critics. Their withering assaults on their critics have also prompted opponents to believe that their only course of action is to resist the regimes at all costs. Although Trump may not have yet shown signs of Putin’s willingness to shut down media critics, he has not hesitated to wish they go out of business. Loyal opposition and compromise—those key ingredients of democracies—look more impossible by the day.
With the Democratic minority in the U.S. Congress hamstrung and Republicans hitched to Trump, it’s unlikely that the legislature will fulfill its constitutional duty as a check on executive power. Witness the confirmation of Putin’s friend Rex Tillerson as secretary of state. (Tillerson has zero experience in government.) Unfortunately, many Americans don’t appear to realize the full extent of the threat. Trump’s surprise travel ban wasn’t just a wrongheaded attempt to keep the United States safe or red meat for his core constituents—it was also an assault on the country’s democratic institutions. It’s hardly a coincidence that one of its main authors, Trump’s far-right adviser Stephen Bannon, has praised Vladimir Lenin’s record as a disruptor.
Almost two decades since coming to power, Putin is continuing to entrench himself with new laws and bureaucratic shakeups. Only he can say when he might step down. In Washington, now that Trump is in the White House, it may take a popular uprising to remove him. Unlike Putin, however, he probably won’t know if he’s crossed a final line. In the meantime, we will live in very dangerous times.