March 28, 2017

Is Trump Dancing to the Putin Orchestra? Put the “Точки вместе"








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It’s terrifying to think that the Trump administration is simply winging it, in a swirl of lies, contradictions, and Twitter rants. A scarier possibility is that there is, in fact, a plan, taken straight from Putin 101ᐗ`~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Author Natan Dubovitsky published a short story titled “Without Sky” in the literary journal Russian Pioneer. In the story, which takes place in a dystopian future, a man recalls the events of the fifth World War, decades earlier. He describes these events as the first “non-linear war.” Instead of fighting in a traditional sense, as a battle between two sides, World War V was a more byzantine conflict. Multiple nations all fought one another at once and could switch sides at any time. Simplistic approaches to victory were seen as obsolete, as armed conflict itself was just one phase of a longer, more insidious “process.” Some even joined conflicts to facilitate their own defeat. Around the midpoint of the story, Dubovitsky writes that the complexity of the war was only “realized and analyzed later by historians and economists.”

Natan Dubovitsky, as many Russians know, is the literary pseudonym of Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s longtime political technologist and a chief architect of the Kremlin propaganda machine. Just days after “Without Sky” was published, Russia carried out a masterstroke of the “non-linear war” described in the story—the annexation of Crimea. In the weeks leading up to the March referendums in Crimea, in which Crimea’s parliament and local population voted on whether to join the Russian Federation, Surkov and the Kremlin carefully orchestrated an elaborate political spectacle to create the appearance of strong support for the annexation. This spectacle is known in Russian as dramaturgia, or theater craft.

Natan Dubovitsky, as many Russians know, is the literary pseudonym of Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s longtime political technologist and a chief architect of the Kremlin propaganda machine. Just days after “Without Sky” was published, Russia carried out a masterstroke of the “non-linear war” described in the story—the annexation of Crimea. In the weeks leading up to the March referendums in Crimea, in which Crimea’s parliament and local population voted on whether to join the Russian Federation, Surkov and the Kremlin carefully orchestrated an elaborate political spectacle to create the appearance of strong support for the annexation. This spectacle is known in Russian as dramaturgia, or theater craft.

Heavily armed “little green men” that Putin claimed were local self-defense units began popping up at key outposts on the peninsula. The Night Wolves, a notorious Russian motorcycle gang, rumbled into Crimea to join forces with Cossacks and other separatists in pro-Russian demonstrations. The referendums themselves, shady, black-box affairs, nevertheless gave the impression of widespread enthusiasm for joining Russia. It was an intoxicating swirl of political actors who all seemed to be expressing a furious loyalty to Russia.

But what looked like a vibrant coalition of support for Russia’s annexation was really just the booming sound and fury of Kremlin dramaturgia. Moscow, with puppet master Surkov largely at the helm, was choreographing the entire thing, directing its patriotic ensemble in order to confuse and misdirect the countries and international organizations that might otherwise have intervened against an act of war. At home, the effect was to warp Russians’ sense of reality by clouding their vision and rousing their nationalism.

Everything happening in Crimea and eastern Ukraine passed through the Kremlin’s prism, so that by the time any news reached Europeans, Americans, or Russia’s own citizens, it had been transformed into falsehoods supporting an alternative reality favorable to Russia. This was the futuristic non-linear warfare Surkov had slyly telegraphed in his dystopian story. It is a strategy, he has said, that uses “conflict to create a constant state of destabilized perception, in order to manage and control.”

The Trump team, both during its transition to power at the end of 2016 and in the early stages of its administration, can come across as an indecipherable swirl of contradictions, conflicting reports, and apparent hypocrisies. This can seem, at first blush, like the obvious result of an inexperienced, seat-of-the-pants president and a leadership style that favors flash over substance. We hear talk of draining the swamp, yet billionaires and special interests seem to have quickly infiltrated a White House that Trump assured his supporters would disavow elites. As former Federal Election Commission member Ann Ravel put it in November, “The alligators are multiplying.” Meanwhile, as controversial Cabinet picks like Jeff Sessions, Scott Pruitt, and Rex Tillerson went through the confirmation process, Trump continued sucking up media attention, picking fights on Twitter, doubling down on long-discredited lies, and sparking biweekly conflagrations. The effect is a permanent state of disorder: a de-stabilized media, an exasperated citizenry, and a fractured opposition, divided and pulled into mudslinging sideshows. In some ways, it resembles Surkov’s non-linear warfare.

TRUMP’S TEAM IS FINDING WAYS TO APPROXIMATE PUTIN’S CAPACITY TO CREATE AN ALTERNATIVE REALITY.

What if all the Trumpian chaos that the “mainstream media” have come to take for granted as pugilism and vanity was part of a more cunning plan? What if Trump and chief strategist Steve Bannon were actually drawing from a sophisticated postmodern propaganda model developed by none other than Vladimir Putin, Vladislav Surkov, and their political technologists at the Kremlin? While Trump may not have state-controlled media at his disposal, as Putin does, to serve as 24-7 propaganda organs both domestically and abroad, his team is finding ways to shrewdly approximate Putin’s capacity to shape narratives and create alternative realities.

Trump and his team’s espousal of fake news, embrace of “alternative facts,” and relentless lying to reporters, political adversaries, and the American people sabotage a democratic playing field that has existed in this country for more than two centuries. Trump’s use of Twitter is equally destructive. By hijacking headlines and warping the news cycle through sheer gravitational force, Trump is rupturing the journalism landscape, one land-mine tweet at a time. The effect, it would seem, is to undercut any attempt at vigilant analysis or coherent investigation into his administration. He is the Distracter in Chief, a decoy in the bully pulpit whose self-perpetuating charade provides the perfect cover while shadier actors systematically transmogrify the democracy concealed in his prodigious shadow.

SHOAL OF PIRANHAS

In some ways the annexation of Crimea feels like the opening chapter of this post-truth era. But that surreal episode, a combination of Soviet-era imperialism and Surkovian phantasmagoria, stems from a much larger political ideology in Moscow. Specious narratives, conspiracy theories, and indeed fake news have been part of Russia’s geopolitical playbook for more than half a century. During the Cold War years, the Soviet Union relentlessly engaged in dezinformatsiya—disinformation campaigns covertly launched to scandalize and disgrace U.S. institutions. As a 2014 report published by the Institute of Modern Russia points out, the K.G.B. conceived the idea that the C.I.A. was behind the assassination of John F. Kennedy. This conspiracy theory was so stubbornly enduring that Oliver Stone’s JFK pivots on purported historical details—an anonymous letter in the Italian newspaper Paese Sera implicating New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw as a C.I.A. spy—that in fact originated as Soviet dezinformatsiya.

Since Putin first became president, in 2000, Russia’s propaganda tactics have been subtler. Much of the credit for this has gone to Putin’s longtime adviser and “gray cardinal,” Surkov. Surkov joined the Presidential Administration (Russia’s executive office) in 1999 and was eventually appointed deputy head. He studied theater for several years before working in the Kremlin, and Russian propaganda experts believe he imported postmodern ideas from the art world into Russia’s political sphere. He accomplished this through a sophisticated form of political stagecraft, one that extended further than any of the Russian spin doctors who had come before him could have fathomed.

In the 2000s, Surkov and other political technologists crafted a simulacrum of free speech and political movements within the country, giving Russians the impression of robust sociopolitical discourse. “Surkov tried to own all the narratives,” says Peter Pomerantsev, the author of Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia and a former Russian TV producer. “He would create puppet Communist Parties, puppet Liberal Parties, puppet everything, from ultra-liberal to neo-Fascist.”

Surkov fancied himself a kind of political choreographer. He created parties and movements and turbulent story lines to be dispensed by state-run media outlets, only to later reveal himself as the hidden hand behind the theatrics—“rendering them all absurd, because at the end of the day everybody knew he controlled them,” Pomerantsev says. Experts call this “managed democracy”: maintaining the appearance and infrastructure of a democracy while controlling everything from within the administration. It is, in effect, an authoritarian regime in the guise of a democratic state.

In recent years, major Kremlin-run media organizations like RT and Sputnik have become an increasingly powerful tool in spreading propaganda and maintaining managed democracy in Russia. “Nowadays, we don’t actually have a Kremlin message most of the time,” says Mark Galeotti, a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations, in Prague, and an expert on modern Russia. Instead, he explains, Russian propaganda has become decentralized. The various state-run or -influenced media platforms offer an opportunistic landscape where everyone is looking for a spin to delegitimize the West. “It’s a case of the local initiative of individual journalists and presenters and diplomats and spies and all the other agents of the state coming up with things that they think will please the Kremlin,” Galeotti says. While westerners like to think of Moscow’s propaganda machine as a great white shark, he says, a single ravenous predator unleashed on its political foes, it’s actually more like a shoal of piranhas: “You can deal with one news story, but meanwhile the rest of them are eating the flesh off your back.” Sound familiar?

One of the most important effects of this shoal of piranhas shredding through objective truth is what Pomerantsev describes as a kind of passive paranoia. Historically, propaganda has most often been used to agitate: Nazis roiled against threats to racial pride; Reds inspired to rise up against the bourgeoisie; Jim Crow posters arousing vicious bigotry. But Moscow’s propaganda machinery has a different sort of aim. “The Kremlin doesn’t want people being too active,” Pomerantsev says. “It’s a real danger, because then they’ll start demanding things. They actually need people sitting there drinking beer and being passive.”

Feeding this passivity is a steady stream of hazy conspiracy theories intended to keep Russians wary and paranoid of the world beyond their country’s borders. “The Kremlin does conspiracies nonstop, but they’re matryoshkas of conspiracies,” Pomerantsev says. “The enemy is constantly changing. One day it’s America, the next it’s Turkey, then it’s back to God knows what. The overall sense that you have when you watch it is that you live in a world which is frightening, that you don’t really understand. But you can’t ever change anything.” This shape-shifting propaganda makes just enough of a lasting impression to leave people feeling distrustful and victimized. But before any one line of thinking can be pursued for too long, the narrative jumps to something else. People are left distracted and angry, but unsure of why or at whom.

HIJACKING HEADLINES AND WARPING THE NEWS CYCLE, TRUMP IS RUPTURING JOURNALISM, ONE LAND-MINE TWEET AT A TIME.

The maelstrom of RT, puppet parties, conspiracy theories, and shadowy foreign menace makes any hope of seeing beyond the Kremlin’s version of reality all but impossible. This, of course, is the point. As Galeotti explained to me, Putin’s administration sees information as a government commodity, to be leveraged, twisted, or withheld for whatever agenda benefits the security of their power at home and the pursuit of hegemony, or its appearance, abroad. Subscribing to this strategy means that the truth has no value in Russian politics. “Putin goes out and lies in your face in order to say, ‘Facts don’t exist, which means you can’t argue with me,’ ” Pomerantsev says.

At the heart of this mind-set is the idea that there is no such thing as objective truth or even facts, because everything is spun or disguised to reflect advantageously on one group or another. “The whole idea of values has been thoroughly debased [in Russia], to the extent that if you talk about Western values you’ll just get a laugh,” says Ben Nimmo, a research fellow at the Atlantic Council. This environment of toxic cynicism allows Putin’s word to be as good as anyone else’s, because according to Moscow’s worldview everyone, including and especially westerners, is a self-righteous hypocrite and a liar. “There is definitely the approach by the Kremlin-funded media that everybody is equally bad; therefore there is no such thing as bad anymore,” Nimmo says. This dark internal logic allows for the Kremlin propaganda machine’s single greatest achievement: to rub out all distinctions between truth and lies, so that facts, conspiracies, reality, and fabrications are all pulled down into the same indistinguishable muck. “In that unknowability, when you can’t say what’s wrong or right, or truth or not truth, then it becomes all right to invade Ukraine, or to not show your taxes,” Pomerantsev says.

THE AMERICANS

Comparing the Trump administration’s fledgling communications strategy with the Kremlin’s propaganda leviathan is a tricky proposition. The most important thing to remember is that Trump has been in office for just over two months, and putative mastermind Bannon was brought on board only last August. Putin has been in power, on and off, for close to two decades. But the Trump team is catching on fast.

The first technique that the Trump administration appears to be appropriating from Moscow is a kind of chaos theory. By clogging the news with mini-scandals, bald-faced lies, and provocative tweets, the White House sends journalists and media outlets into haphazard frenzy. President Trump’s lies alone have become their own beat, forcing publications to devote precious resources to invalidating the many outrageous claims he makes daily, sometimes within a single interview. White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s early press conferences suggest that he too will serve as media antagonist, baiting reporters with arrogant fallacies and extending the Trump regime’s brand of bullying truth and democratic values into wary submission.

Clint Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute who has studied Russian propaganda for years, sees major similarities between Putin’s and Trump’s approaches. “Create chaos in the system, such that you don’t know what is the truth or not the truth,” he says. The Kremlin does this by flooding television and digital media with biased coverage and wanton spin. The Trump administration has discovered something equally effective: lying to reporters and publicly attacking critics are like tossing grenades into the media eco-system. The press is constantly scrambling to respond to a never-ending river of slime, and the system is gradually overwhelmed.

Over time, this chaos creates what Pomerantsev describes as a “fog of unknowability.” Kellyanne Conway espouses “alternative facts” on NBC’s Meet the Press. President Trump continues to insist that millions voted illegally in the general election. The president’s relationships with government agencies like the C.I.A. are bitterly disputed. Objective reality splinters under the weight of falsehoods, conspiracies, and doubt, and the rules begin to change. “In that fog, norms and rational debate disappear, and all that matters is whoever’s faster, harder, more daring,” Pomerantsev says. “A different kind of calculus appears.”

TRUMP’S USE OF TWITTER SHRINKS OUR FRAME OF VIEW DOWN TO 140 CHARACTERS, DRAMATURGIA AS NASTY GOSSIP COLUMN.

Once this quagmire—in which truth and lies are knotted up and nothing is incontrovertible—is established, the final aim comes into view. “You don’t even know what is real information anymore, and without that, no one can hold you accountable,” Watts says. As the Kremlin has long known, once you’ve successfully swamped truth, you’re no longer accountable for your actions. Mounting evidence from the administration’s first month or so in office suggests that this is the Trump team’s goal: to produce a state of disorder between themselves, the media, and the public, so that it becomes all but impossible for Trump and his team to be held accountable for conflicts of interest, shady relationships, and abuses of power. It’s how Moscow has entrenched a super-rich oligarchy and a thinly veiled authoritarian regime: by hiding behind its splashy dramaturgia. Trump is quickly learning his own variation on this theme. “There is a sense that he will purposefully move the conversation onto colorful bullshit, away from the really serious stuff,” Pomerantsev says. The Kremlin has provided him with a blueprint for ruling with impunity by way of misdirection, disorder, and political stagecraft.

TWEETING TYRANT

One of Trump’s most effective methods for controlling the public and media discourse is his use of Twitter. More than just a convenient outlet to settle scores and unleash a feral id, it is a force of distraction that hijacks headlines and destabilizes efforts to scrutinize the administration’s actions. It shrinks our frame of view down to 140 characters, Surkov’s dramaturgia as nasty gossip column. Worse, it diverts attention away from news and nonprofit organizations trying to blow the whistle on his administration. “It’s a kind of Kabuki that they’re doing,” says Fred Turner, a professor of media studies at Stanford University. “It’s a symphony of dog whistles. As long as he keeps playing that symphony, and keeps tweeting, and keeps people stirred up, he and his friends will be able to do the kind of dramatic re-structuring to pursue other goals.”

Pomerantsev offered a useful Kremlin analogue that could serve as a prototype for Trump’s Twitter tactics. In 2013, Putin passed the infamous gay-propaganda law, which criminalized the spreading of information about gay rights to minors (among other anti-gay proscriptions). This, inevitably, caused a major international backlash. But Pomerantsev suspects that was the point. “They desperately needed to change the agenda away from corruption,” he says. From 2011 to 2013, tens of thousands of Russians flooded the streets in what’s often referred to as “the Snow Revolution,” denouncing rigged elections and Surkov’s fake parties. The Kremlin needed a new story line, one they could control.

“It was meant to be a lightning rod. They wanted people to start howling and protesting about this. They wanted the West to be up in arms about it, because it was a much better thing to have a scandal around than corruption.” Moscow was willing to play global villain in order to distract people from its larger abuses of power. It’s not hard to imagine Trump and Bannon employing similar stagecraft with immigration, reproductive rights, or climate policy in order to shift the conversation away from money trails, marooned agencies, and gag orders.

Alternatively, we might think of Trump’s use of Twitter as the equivalent of substituting episodic for serialized television. In the world he creates through his Twitter feed, there is no overarching story line or internal consistency. It’s just a torrent of opinions and assertions that by their very nature repel accountability. “Just like tweets are, frankly, ephemeral, so too are the opinions,” Galeotti says. “Trump can say something today and then completely change his position tomorrow. That is very much the Russian approach. It’s faintly Orwellian, in that yesterday’s truth need not be today’s truth.”

Others see even darker undercurrents in Trump’s efforts to supplant the press and establish a direct line to the American people. In February, Trump tweeted that the media were “the enemy of the people,” and doubled down on that same phrase during a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference a few days later. Add in Bannon, who told The New York Times in January that the press is “the opposition party” and “should keep its mouth shut,” and some scholars see Trump’s measures as the opening gambit in a lurch toward authoritarianism.

“He’s trying to cut the media out of the equation,” says Natasha Ezrow, a lecturer at the University of Essex who studies modern dictatorships. “That’s what a dictator does. They cut the media out and try to weaken it by delegitimizing it.” Fred Turner is grimly unflinching in his assessment. “Trump is not just a populist. He is a true authoritarian, and our democracy is actually at risk.”

Fake news, meanwhile, was not invented by Pepe the Frog and his legion of sneering trolls. Historically, it has helped grease the wheels for the rise of dictators and autocrats. “In authoritarian regimes, what becomes the norm is false reporting,” Ezrow says. Ezrow and several other experts on modern dictatorships I spoke to were unanimous in their understanding that disinformation and a compromised press were crucial prerequisites for a move toward authoritarianism. Expropriating the media was, after all, one of Putin’s first maneuvers when he took power. The patriotic pageantry Moscow projects to the rest of the world notwithstanding, Russia is now a country where talk of truth and values is met with mockery and scorn. For many Russians, a place where ideals like those exist, not as disguises or hypocrisies but in an authentic form, is laughable in its impossibility. To think that Americans once felt exactly the same way about an authoritarian house of mirrors like Russia.

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