Trump at CPAC 2011. Gage Skidmore photo via Flickr
By Matthew Gault
Aug 2, 2016
There was a telling moment during the Republican National Convention that speaks volumes about Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency and some of his most prominent supporters.
On July 22, as the convention wound down, former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich talked to CNN New Day anchor Alisyn Camerota. The telling moment came when Camerota confronted Gingrich about Trump’s incendiary acceptance speech. The Republican nominee painted a bleak picture of the modern world — one where crime, chaos and terror lurk in America’s cities and no one is safe.
In reality, violent crime is down across the country, and the world is more peaceful than it was during most of the 20th century. Camerota pointed out the sinking crime rates to Gingrich.
“The average American … does not think crime is down, does not think they are safer,” Gingrich replied.
“But we are safer, and it is down,” Camerota retorted.
“No, that’s your view,” Gingrich said.
“It’s a fact,” she pressed.
“But what I said is also a fact … The current view is that liberals have a whole set of statistics which theoretically may be right, but it’s not where human beings are. People are frightened. People feel that their government has abandoned them.”
“Hold on, Mr. Speaker, because you’re saying liberals use these numbers, they use this sort of magic math,” Camerota said. “This is the FBI statistics. They’re not a liberal organization.”
“No, but what I said is equally true. People feel it.”
“They feel it, yes, but the facts don’t support it.”
“As a political candidate, I’ll go with how people feel and I’ll let you go with the theoreticians.”
This statement signaled the moment when American politicians, thanks to the wild ambivalence of Trump and his supporters, adopted a strategy and astyle pioneered not in conservative think tanks but in other countries — most prominently in Russia under Pres. Vladimir Putin.
Even critics of Putin have noted a striking resemblance in style to Trump. “I saw an Americanized version of the brutally effective propaganda of fear and hatred that Vladimir Putin blankets Russia with today,” Russian dissident Garry Kasparov wrote in the Washington Post.
The Gingrich interview excerpted on ‘Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.’
To be sure, there are allegations of something more to Trump’s Putin-likecampaign than it being a stylistic coincidence. But these claims are far from settled.
Let’s sum up.
In recent weeks, the media and top Democrats hammered Trump for his alleged ties to Russian oligarchs and a professed admiration for Putin. Josh Marshall published a lengthy piece at Talking Points Memo detailing the various (and admittedly circumstantial) connections.
According to Marshall, Trump’s post-bankruptcy business dealings relied on Russian money, and his campaign manager Paul Manafort once worked for the pro-Kremlin former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. Trump’s foreign policy adviser Carter Page also had close ties to state-owned Russian gas giant Gazprom.
Coupled with Trump’s statements about renegotiating NATO treaties to make membership conditional and his various pro-Putin statements, Marshall’s theory suggests that the Republican candidate could be in the bag for the Kremlin.
Then days after the allegations of a Russian connection spread through the media, Manafort announced that Trump would break with precedent and not release his tax returns for public scrutiny.
This became and will remain a hammering point for Trump’s opponents who suspect that, among many other alleged dirty dealings, the candidate is hiding unsavory financial connections to the Russian elite.
“So to be clear, Mr. Trump has no financial relationships with any Russian oligarchs?” Norah O’Donnell of CBS asked Manafort after the announcement.
“That’s what he said, that’s what I said. That’s obviously what our position is,” Manafort explained.
Which isn’t exactly a full denial, but it’s about the best you can hope for from the Trump camp, which plays fast and loose with the truth.
But these connections remain circumstantial — and hardly concrete.
“Everyone loves a good conspiracy … but the case is still far from being made,” Mark Galeotti, a Russia military and security expert and former professor of global affairs at New York University told War Is Boring.
Even if Trump does have connections, it wouldn’t be so strange. Russian investors are often the last stop for risk-loving titans who’ve lost the trust of other, more reputable financial institutions.
“If you’re a businessperson with high leverage and a propensity for bluffs and risks, post-Soviet backers are often the way to go,” Galeotti said.
It’s true that Manafort did work for Yanukovych, but this isn’t evidence that Manafort works for Putin. “The Kremlin actually tried to dissuade Yanukovych from engaging Manafort because they feared he’d be anAmerican agent of influence,” Galeotti told me.
“Yes, people like [Page] are heavily dependent on Moscow’s goodwill, and having a presidential candidate taking a lot of Russian money is, at the least, distasteful,” Galeotti said of Page’s Gazprom connections.
“But I see this more as an unexpected potential bonanza for Moscow, which they’d leverage if they could, than some plot. I’m unconvinced that were Trump to become president, he could actually be used by Russia.”
There’s another complication. Trump may be too unpredictable to be properly manipulated by any foreign power. He’s proven too erratic for even the Republican Party to control him. No one really knows what Trump believes, what he stands for or how he’d act as president.
All that’s certain is that he’s unpredictable.
As for the NATO remarks, Galeotti stressed that Trump is a businessman, and in the realm of business, his push to make America’s treaties more beneficial to its coffers makes sense. It’s less a matter of abandoning allies to an aggressive Russia than it is soaking them for all their worth to line America’s pockets.
Then, of course, a hacker calling himself Guccifer 2.0 released a treasure trove of stolen emails which painted an unflattering portrait of the Democratic National Committee. The timing of the hack and several tell-tale clues pointed to Russia’s intelligence services.
Trump didn’t help the conspiracy minded when, after the attack, he encouraged Russian hackers to poke around cyberspace for Hillary Clinton’s missing emails. In the wake of accusations of close connections to Moscow, an open call for Kremlin-backed keyboard cowboys to hack America would doom any other candidate.
But this isn’t a typical election cycle, and Trump isn’t a typical candidate. The Donald’s relationship to the truth is tangential at best, and to write up a list of his proven lies would extend far beyond the scope of this article.
And should any financial connections between Trump and Russia come to light, the most damning fact would be that he and his team lied about it. But bald-faced lies have rarely hurt Trump. His supporters bend over backwards to explain away inconsistencies as jokes, sarcasm and misunderstandings.
Gingrich and others have picked up on this — Trump has shown every politician in America that a candidate who appeals to emotion can stretch the truth far further than anyone thought possible.
To be sure, politicians have always lied and appealed to emotion over reason. But before, when the media caught a popular politician in a lie, they often suffered crucifixion in the court of public opinion. Not so with the Donald.
When the world discovered Bill Clinton had lied about his sex life, Congress impeached him. Journalists on the right and left take time to catalog and dissect the many and varied lies of Hillary Clinton, to the point that some have decided she is incapable of telling the truth.
The difference is that the Clintons lie with stealth and guile while Trump lies boldly, loudly and without remorse. He screams madness and, when he’s caught, he retorts that he was joking or it didn’t happen.
Such was the case when Trump told the world he’d never met Putin. It didn’t take long for the media to prove the outlandish nature of this lie many times over.
Despite this, Trump is competitive with Clinton in several crucial swing states. To help understand what’s going on, again, I point to Moscow.
Putin’s popularity among Russians remains steady at more than 80 percent. This is despite a flagging economy, crippling Western sanctions and dead Russian soldiers coming home in unmarked trucks from wars that don’t officially exist.
The reasons behind Putin’s popularity are complicated, but one of the biggest is that he and his cronies are masterful manipulators of the media.
First of all, Russia does not have an authoritarian regime in the classic sense of the term. Instead, the Kremlin under Putin has developed a stranger, more powerful system of control which borrowed from lessons learned during the Cold War.
When the Soviet Union still existed, the Kremlin attempted to fight American propaganda by point and counterpoint. The Soviets developed their own television programs, cast Western leaders in an unfavorable light and derided the capitalist system as failing both the United States and the world.
But Western ideals and culture were too powerful and attractive. The classic example is Romanian communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu airing the American sitcom Dallas on state T.V. because he thought it would show his people the decadent and empty lifestyle of the West.
The show was a hit in Romania, not because people hated the characters but because they wanted to be the characters.
Putin with RT ‘CrossTalk’ host Peter Lavelle. Kremlin photo
The political elite that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union realized the limitations of fighting the West on its own terms. Instead, Putin and his political advisers — especially former Deputy Prime Minister Vladislav Surkov — decided to subvert the ideals of Western liberalism and democracy from the inside.
For the Kremlin, disagreement does not have to be suppressed. The new strategy is also ideologically flexible. The Russian television network R.T., for example, has promoted Trump and European far-right politicians … while also giving George Galloway, who is a radical leftist, his own T.V. show.
None of this, or even the particulars of what is said, matters. The Kremlin rather encourages the public to believe that the truth is always open to interpretation. Lies don’t matter, because people will believe what they wish to believe, not what is in front of them.
No one describes this method better than former Russian T.V. writer and producer Peter Pomerantsev in his book Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible. Pomerantsev spent years working in Russian media throughout the 2000s and witnessed its strange corruption of the truth first hand.
In the book, Pomerantsev describes working for the liberal-minded media company SNOB, which was funded by Mikhail Prokhorov, an oligarch who made billions in the mining industry. SNOB attacked the Putin administration, supported gay rights and produced Western-style magazines full of exclusive coverage and dog-whistle rhetoric.
“But for all the opposition posturing of SNOB, it’s also clear there is no way a project so high profile could have been created without the Kremlin’s blessing,” Pomerantsev wrote. “Is this not just the sort of ‘managed’ opposition the Kremlin is very comfortable with?”
“The very name of the project, ‘SNOB,’ though meant ironically, already defines us as a potential object of hate. And for all the anti-Kremlin rants on SNOB, we never actually do any investigative journalism, find out any hard facts about money stolen from the state budget.”
Late at night while drinking with colleagues, Pomerantsev wondered if he was actually a part of the Russian opposition or just another Kremlin pawn. He had no way to be sure, and in any case, the money was good.
“The brilliance of this new type of authoritarianism is that instead of simply oppressing opposition … it climbs inside all ideologies and movements, exploiting and rendering them absurd.”
The world Pomerantsev describes began when people start caring more about how they feel than they do about the truth. That’s the real danger of Trump’s alleged connections to the Russian elite — it’s a stylistic one. He lies and his supporters simply do not care.
When the truth no longer matters, all lies become plausible. The earliest pioneers of the Internet hoped that by connecting everyone together, the truth would always float to the surface. When anyone could easily fact-check any falsehood and spread the truth at the speed of light, the truth would always win out, right?
Instead, we’ve used the Internet to create insular bubbles where our friends and news sources magnify our pre-determined beliefs and shout them back at us. If you don’t think you’re guilty of this, ask yourself when you last removed an acquaintance from your Facebook or Twitter feed because you got sick of reading their opinion.
In this new media landscape, people cocoon themselves away from information that disagrees with their pre-existing beliefs. Debate and conversation, so dependent on tone and nuance, die a painful death in this world. Everyone is free to change everyone’s mind, but it’s impossible to get anyone to pay attention.
Now this phenomenon is driving a political campaign. Trump works so well as a candidate because he just rambles. He says whatever silly thing pops into his mind and barrels forward, full of confidence and lacking in grace.
His detractors listen to his many blunders, magnify them and ignore when he makes good points. His supporters listen until they hear something they agree with, and ignore him when he says something brazenly ludicrous.
This is peak political cynicism, and it’s only just begun. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are taking notes as Trump teaches them just how far they can push the American electorate’s sense of reality before it shatters.
When Gingrich tells a news anchor, on live television, that feelings matter more than facts, we should realize we’re on the cusp of a frightening new reality. One that resembles Russia more than America.
Regardless of what happens in November, Trump has dragged American political discourse out of the flawed light of Western democracy and into the cold, cynical, Eastern world of Putinesque despair.
A world where all things are possible if we ignore the unpleasant truths.