BRT's not in love with Putin, a very smart, ruthless guy who runs an economically challenged mafia state equipped with extremely powerful weapons. With that being said, the similarities & differences of Putin to Trump is most enlightening to say the least, particularly regarding how democracy can be subverted if one is very lucky and intelligent at the same time.
[Laughs.] Right. Right. On Trump’s part. You know, and again, I don’t want to sort of overstate their similarities, but there are things we know, not just from Putin’s Russia but from autocracies in general. … There’s this weird dynamic that they delegitimize government, basically, and delegitimize democratic institutions. The only legitimacy becomes sort of domination and extremely high popularity. An autocrat actually needs, weirdly enough, much higher popularity numbers and much clearer expressions of popular support than a democratically elected leader, right? Because for a democratically elected leader, you know, there’s always the legitimate mechanisms that keep him or her in power, and also a legitimate mechanism of peaceful transition of power once that’s over. For an autocrat or an authoritarian autocrat, that’s delegitimized, so they need extreme popularity. Trump has expressed very clearly that that’s how he understands power. His expressions of support for Putin have centered around Putin’s extremely high popularity and Putin’s tight control of government.
And so you think Trump may want to wage war, to ensure popularity?
Yes. Absolutely. Yeah, and the war can be at home or it can be abroad. It doesn’t necessarily mean that he has planned a war, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that he will need a war abroad. The war on immigrants may keep him going for a while, but there’s a really high danger that there will be a war abroad, because that’s the way to get popularity.
It gives me hope. That’s not the biggest thing that gives me hope. The biggest thing that gives me hope is actually two things that are really truly different between Putin and Trump. One is just how fast Trump has moved. This is true of most of the autocrats in the last couple of decades: They set in motion a sort of autocratic creep. They don’t come in and, like, smash everything to bits. Putin was very careful to gradually sort of rotate people in and out of power, to make sure that he had competent bureaucrats by his side at all times, to keep the machine running. The way that Trump has acted, like a bull in a china shop, is actually something I’ve never seen before, and I’m not sure that anyone has described this kind of process, of just smashing everything to bits, except for the Bolshevik revolution 100 years ago.
He’s high-energy, Masha.
Right. That gets me to the second difference, which is just the strength of American civil society. That’s not just different from Russia. That’s different from any country in the world ever in history, right? America has the most independent, the most robust civil society ever—for some not such great reasons. European civil society is intertwined with the state because the NGOs get state funding, and they don’t see anything wrong with it. Americans have had such a deep distrust of the government throughout their history that they’ve had this church-state separation between civil society and the state, which is part of what explains not just the outpouring, but the high level of organization that we saw with the Muslim ban. The entire spectrum of civil society, from protesters to ACLU to professional civil society, just stepped out in a way that looked and felt almost orchestrated, like everybody was doing their thing. That’s the kind of pushback that no autocrat has ever seen. There’s a question about how sustainable that is, but I actually have a lot of hope.