Four years in, and after the absurdly good opportunity the pandemic provided, I think it’s pretty clear that Donald Trump is not the authoritarian I was so worried about back in 2016. He may have wanted to be, but he doesn’t have the capacity. That doesn’t mean my country is safe though. We’ve got a pretty good model of where a the flounderings of a clownish can lead a country. Boris Yeltsin is that model. And if the US produces a Putin, he or she will be a lot scarier than anything Russia can muster in the 21st century.
Video Transcript after the jump…
Hey there. In November of 2016, three days before he was elected, I ran a video warning that Donald Trump could be the emperor my country has been building towards for decades. For a century the United States has been drifting towards more and more centralized power, in Washington DC generally, and in the hands of the president in particular. This trend accelerated dramatically in the aftermath of 9-11. Any sane person observing Trump’s campaign could see his authoritarian instincts, and it was easy for me to imagine a President Trump finally stamping out the last vestiges of the old republic, and loosing some new monstrosity on the world in the shape of the country I love.
Well I am happy to report that none of that happened. It was clear by mid-2017 that there was no there there. Steve Bannon and Jeff Sessions were disappointed and on their way out. Their plans for a new white ethno-welfare-state petered out quickly, when it became clear that Trump was going to govern by sucking up to the same Republican party donors he had been failing to impress his whole life. Trump it turns out, is no Vladimir Putin. What Trump is, is a Boris Yeltsin.
The parallels really are inescapable. Like Yeltsin, Trump swept to power on a wave of rage at a discredited system. Sure the elite that brought us the Iraq war and the 2008 financial crisis wasn’t as bad as the Soviets, but the failures Clinton represented affected the whole planet, not just a few hundred million people. Like Trump Yeltsin was a crushing disappointment to those who hoped he was going to bring anything other than a new kind of corruption.
Earlier this year I watched Citizen K, a gripping documentary on fallen Russian Oligarch Mikhail Khodorovsky. The movie isn’t just about this one deeply morally compromised political prisoner, it tells the tragic story of Russia’s fall back into dictatorship in the 1990s and early 2000s.
I recommend Citizen K very highly, but I found it to be a deeply disturbing experience. The story of Russia’s epic failure looked and felt terrifyingly familiar. The former Soviet Union was institutionally a much weaker place than the United States. It took barely a decade for its attempt at a republic to dissolve under a storm of Reaganite Crony capitalism. Watching Trump, I can’t help but wonder if the same process has happened to the much stronger institutions of my country. It just took four decades instead of only one.
You don’t need to go that left-wing to appreciate the parallels. The movie does a great job of illustrating the escalating horror of the Putin regime, as even sharks like Khodorovsky get swallowed. But it also demonstrates Putin’s appeal. We always like to pretend that it can’t happen here, but after the past 20 years of failure you can see a sort of bone deep weariness with American democracy setting in, and after 4 years of Trump we are seeing more and more expressions of outright disgust with politics. If democracy fails to deliver for long enough, people get sick of democracy. That’s certainly what happened in Russia.
Boris Yeltsin was a catastrophically weak leader who dissolved into sickness and alcohol fairly soon into his presidency. First he was the plaything of the oligarchs and foreign powers who engineered his re-election in 1996, then he became the plaything of Vladimir Putin, his appointed successor. Trump isn’t a drunk, but his hapless, policy free presidency is clearly the tool of the wealthy, in the US and abroad. Wondering who Trump’s successor in the Republican party will be has become a mainstay of US journalism. The fear, I think quite rightly, is that Trumps successor could have all of Trump’s authoritarian instincts, but none of his incompetence.
Weirdly, Stephen Miller, Trump’s white nationalist immigration policy guy kind of looks like a young Vladimir Putin. But it’s hard to imagine Miller getting elected to anything. Hyper-interventionist and police fetishist Senator Tom Cotton is often bandied about as a competent successor to Trump, but not by anybody who has ever listened to him speak. The guy is just creepy. More pop culture savvy thugs like representative Dan Crenshaw and Senator Josh Hawley seem to me like more credible options for the American Putin. But it’s also possible that Trump has forever broken the old political path to power. I can imagine a future where the Republican Party is revived by one of the country’s most beloved actors, a guy who seems to have exclusively involved himself in fascism friendly projects since rocketing to fame on the NBC sitcom the Office.
Whether or not Trump’s Boris Yeltsin style incapacity leads directly to a Vladimir Putin, it’s pretty clear that things are not going particularly well here in the United States. I think there are a lot of people out there in the world who welcome this development. They shouldn’t. Because the analogy I have been using so far in this video is faulty. Trump is a Boris Yeltsin. But if he’s replaced by a competent authoritarian hyper-nationalist fixated on military glory, that US dictator won’t be a Vladimir Putin.
Because the United States isn’t Russia. US media avoids laying this out but modern Russia is a pale shadow of the Soviet Union. In the early 1990s Russia lost her traditional empire, some of her largest cities, vast swathes of territory, and a significant chunk of her economy. Putin has done an impressive job with a bad hand, holding on to Russia’s great power status through oil and gas and a nuclear arsenal they actually took subsidies from the United States to maintain safely for the first two post-Soviet decades.
Dystopian fantasies aside, it’s very unlikely that California or Texas would go their own way if US democracy collapses. That collapse would lead to a weaker US eventually, but it would take a few decades to get there. Maybe a lot of decades. We remain a very rich country. And the dictator that rules during those decades won’t be a Putin. He or she would be more of a Napoleon or a Hitler. The path Trump represents isn’t good for the US, and it isn’t good for anybody. Let’s get off of that path.
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