By Dylan Sahlin
Since Donald Trump’s inauguration we have seen a unique approach to the tradition of American presidency. Enacting a string of executive orders in no short order, labelling media networks he didn’t like as “fake news” and launching daily tirades on Twitter, Trump signalled the start of his rule with a powerful exuberance. Many commentators have been quick to draw comparisons between Trump’s ascent and Vladimir Putin’s ruthless jostling into power in post-Soviet Russia. These parallels are as clear as day. But the economic and social realities of both nations couldn’t be more polarized. And in these sharply different contexts, the question remains if Putin’s iron-fisted style can be adapted to a still largely democratic and freedom-loving America.
First though, to everybody’s favourite bearskin-draped AbMaster Pro.
After studying law at Leningrad State University in 1975, Putin spent fifteen years as a mid-level agent for the KGB. Entering politics as the Chairman of the St Petersburg city council, he rose quickly. By ’97 he had become the deputy chief of the President’s Executive Office. Taking Russia by storm with his ex-KGB strongman aesthetic, Putin won 53% of the popular vote in his 2000 presidential election run and 71% of the popular vote in the 2004 election.
This meteoric rise needs to seen in context though. Although the Chechen-Russian conflict (between the Russian government and isolated Chechen nationalist and Islamist groups) has been a fixture in central Eurasia since 1785, domestic terrorism orchestrated by Chechen rebels became particularly pronounced during the 1990s. In response, Russian forces invaded Grozny in 1994 and, although they withdrew under the Khasavyurt Accord two years later, a second war broke out in 1999. This insurgency led to a raft of domestic terrorism across Russia orchestrated by Chechen terrorists (and in the eyes of some, Russian operatives posing as Chechens in order to sway popular opinion against Chechen independence). Peak levels of domestic anxiety were reached in September 1999 when two apartment buildings were bombed in Moscow resulting in 224 deaths.
This domestic chaos laid solid groundwork for Putin to assume power. People were anxious and terrified, and an ex-KGB operative represented a return to security and stability. During Trump’s campaigning he seemed to mirror this approach in many ways. Much like Putin’s promises to bring security to his nation, Trump promised to bring wealth and ‘greatness’ back to America. Both broadly populist goals, one certainly can’t dispute Putin’s was a resounding success. How successful Trump’s strategy will be remains to be seen. After all, can strong-arm autocracy really work in a sprawling multicultural nation built upon a bedrock of personal liberty?
Criticising immigration policy, ‘lax’ national security and a disconnection from ‘classic American values’ throughout his election campaign Trump certainly tried to mirror much of Putin’s appeal. The inspiring leader intervening to bring a crumbling nation back to life. Persisting through a gruelling and vitriolic election campaign, the strategy worked to get him elected. But now that the dust has settled, Americans are beginning to realise they don’t have anything to fear, they don’t need a reckless autocrat, they don’t need a Putin.
Putin’s strong man strategy worked because Russia wanted and needed a strong man. They were a nation under siege from domestic terror. Trump’s America certainly wanted a strong man, although they are beginning to realise the imaginary threats invented by Trump: out of control domestic terrorism, Chinese economic deception and the Mexican immigration invasion are in fact more #alternative than the #alternative facts the administration themselves claim the mainstream media are peddling. There may be some truth to the real wealth decline of the middle class, diminishing American economic competitiveness and a rapidly moving social landscape.. but these changes are not even close to the same magnitude of those in 90s Russia.
It’s American general malaise vs a Russia lost in the rubble of sectarian violence. Putin may have been needed for the latter, but the American condition doesn’t need a Trumpian intervention, it needs a concerted effort to reach a policy middle ground and to reconcile its endlessly vitriolic ideological divide. Sadly that’s something it seems at this point we won’t be seeing under Trump.