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21 November 2016

Universal Trump

The politics of anger in Russia and the U.S.

Russians are more accustomed to having populists at the helm – as has now become indisputable thanks to the dozens of articles written by Russian columnists on Donald Trump’s U.S. election triumph. Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Vladimir Putin spring to mind as the primary candidates to adopt the role of a Russian Trump, although they do strike me as strange bedfellows given their differing images, and the varying strata they occupy in the political hierarchy. Besides, unlike the U.S. president elect, they are not system-breakers and are rather preoccupied with maintaining the status quo. Nevertheless, one cannot discard the notion that Zhirinovsky and Putin seemingly bear resemblances to Trump, nor can one help but try and rationalize this intuitive feeling, to seek to identify differences and similarities and to ask oneself: Could other Trump-like figures emerge in Russian politics?

“The old guard”: Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, perhaps the most obvious Trump-alike in Russia, was one of the first to satisfy public demand for a bright, paternalistic leader, critical of the establishment. Zhirinovsky recorded his first major victory during the 1993 parliamentary election when the the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) came first on party lists. Twenty three years ago, our pollsters found themselves in an embarrassing situation not too dissimilar to that of today’s pollsters in the U.S. who were too quick to dismiss the prospect of a Trump victory. However, the failure to predict Zhirinovsky’s success in 1993 seems somewhat strange in hindsight since he had finished third in the presidential race two years earlier having garnered 7.81% of the vote. This was something of an achievement for a candidate whose political stance did not reflect any of the mainstream ideological trends (and who was thus widely regarded as an outsider). He was beaten only by Boris Yeltsin – the main democratic leader at the time – and Nikolay Ryzhkov – a representative of the old communist party nomenclature. According to public opinion polls conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM), the voters who were least prepared for change in the country and who harbored zero desire to see a party boss from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) become president, who voted for Zhirinovsky. Zhirinovsky laid his wager on those most frustrated and disaffected in a bid to make up for his lack of a strong manifesto. An appeal to phantom pain – the distress felt by Russians following the collapse of the U.S.S.R. – supplanted the need to build a vision for the future (almost one-third of Russians, with as many as 38% in Moscow and Leningrad, had an affinity for the Soviet state). Why should one offer up tangible policies when one can simply remind the electorate that other politicians did not fulfill their promises? A politician cannot become the national leader by fanning the fires of resentment alone, but he can carve out a niche for himself. Zhirinovsky’s disapproval rating has remained high since the beginning of his political career. A significant proportion of society, including some of those who vote for him, do not take him seriously; the average Zhirinovsky voter sees him as the epitome of his own apolitical stance, and his own skeptical and cynical attitude towards politics. Since mockery of common sense is all that remains of politics in the country, it may as well be a source of fun.

Unlike Zhirinovsky, Putin does not forge his image around controversial statements targeted at “poor Russians”. Focus-group participants have helped to highlight the fact that the actual range of presidential concerns is largely limited to foreign policy. It is certainly not the case, however, that Russians are not bothered by economic problems or their lack of a peaceful life. On the contrary, concern about the situation in the country is on the rise. To put it simply, the president has attracted both the attention of Russian citizens, and the global community as the main violator of international norms and order. The target audience within the country observes this with (waning) admiration whereas the outside world suffers cramps brought on by the anxiety Putin’s next anticipated move invokes. Apparently, Donald Trump’s victory may undermine the unique position of the Russian leader in the nearest future since, currently, global politics is an equation marked by two unknown variables.

“New populism”: Alexei Navalny and Vyacheslav Maltsev

Prominent Russian opposition politician and blogger Alexei Navalny speaks quite favorably of Trump’s election campaign, and in particular, his attitude towards migrants and his preference for the state to take a back seat with respect to the economy. Perhaps he finds the notion of a “self-made politician” appealing; a politician not reliant on backing from the elite who communicates via his own media and backs himself financially (not financed by campaign donations). Navalny highlights the main hobbyhorse of both him, and the new U.S. president: the fight against corruption among the power elite. It is interesting that both politicians speak of corruption among the highest echelons of power but both typically sidestep the problems of routine bribery and palm-greasing which make people’s lives easier in dysfunctional public institutions. Citizens do not see it as a problem; this is how they maintain the integrity of the system of social relations which ensures their comfort. Alexei Navalny closely follows cases of corruption – crimes committed by high-ranking officials – which compromise not only individuals at the apex of the state but also the very essence of the political elite. This is precisely what Donald Trump is advocating. Voters are psyched up for the fight against the state apparatus they have become disillusioned with, however, Trump’s first appointments suggest that a root and branch cleansing of the ruling class remains a bridge too far.

Vyacheslav Maltsev is another opposition member who welcomed Trump’s victory. Maltsev believes that Trump’s policy with respect to the Russian elite and Vladimir Putin personally will be even more aggressive. Similarities in style might have played a role here: both love witticism, both display an air of wanton abandon when discussing serious issues and both practice “carnivalesque” politics. Maltsev attracted public attention during the recent State Duma election when he broke into the top three members of the PARNAS party on the national list. Prior to that, he had been working on his own news channel, similarly to Alexei Navalny. The “Artpodgotovka” video-blog, which turned a former regional politician into an Internet star, conveys a simple idea in a light-hearted and nonchalant way: Maltsev knows how to solve problems and knows how developments in Russia are going to unfold. The take- home message is that the future looks bleak. Oddly enough, it is precisely this message which whets the public’s appetite. The fact of the matter is that the number of people interested in prophecies is growing as the crisis continues and it will eventually become apparent that the situation has escalated out of control. Users’ comments are abound in metaphors which compare Russia to an aimlessly drifting unmanned ship, a ship that has run aground or a sinking ship. Almost all of the metaphors likening Russia to a ship are adopted with the aim of highlighting the sense of disorientation and the distinct lack of light at the end of the tunnel. On the one hand, people fear a catastrophic denouement: war, revolution, poverty. On the other hand, they anticipate a rebound and that relief will follow after the eye of the storm has passed. A politician such as Maltsev instills hope in people that they will not be forgotten in torrid times. No wonder that the politician reiterates that, unlike State Duma deputies and public officials, he never travels abroad out of principle and hence his compatriots are evidently dearer to him.


American society has traversed the gamut from haughty smiles to recognition that Donald Trump is a man capable of performing the duties of president over the course of the 19-month presidential race. Russian society needed twenty years to legitimize the rejection of the liberal idea of the supremacy of universal laws over the “the national uniqueness”. The problem the country faces now concerns the failure to set out fundamental norms when the new state was established. The knock-on effects have proven to be as follows: a loss of faith in one’s own might; depoliticization; over-dependence on the state. The number of those who believed that citizens should take care of themselves and not rely on the state halved during the first half of the 1990s (from 50% in 1989 to 23% in 1995). Today’s political system is extremely sustainable since public demand remains for a Zhirinovsky or Putin-style political new breed, the most prominent public figures in Russia.

From the point of view of a politician, it is much simpler and safer to appease public opinion rather than attempt to set out a vision for a new ideal reality. Barack Obama’s campaign slogan “Yes we can!” would not have come to symbolize an era had it not been embraced by American society which had belief in its own strength and looked towards the future with positivity. Barack Obama serves as a fine example of how much resistance a politician has to overcome in order to foster change; popularity can plummet and the vector of public sentiment can shift to a diametric stance. Trump’s slogan: “Make America great again!” belongs to the past century as it encourages Americans to revisit a number of issues: a woman’s role both in the family and society, issues of ethnicity, the role of the state and even the problem of renewable energy.

The popularity of Trump-like politicians can be interpreted as a vengeful expletive vented by a poorly-adapted element of society in connection with the widely-held belief that stagnation prevails among the elite. It turned out that many citizens saw it as an opportunity to challenge the rules of the game – a game in which they had nothing to lose. What this sentiment will eventually lead to is another story as manufactured politicians have a short shelf life in this information age, and yet the political show must go on. The growing role of “post-truth politics” is a double-edged sword as the more cynical and uninspired voters become, the more difficult it is for politicians to perform their key duties. A triumph of electoral democracy coupled with the “mediatization” of society, seemingly a perfect symbiosis for governance, means that incumbents are forced to constantly monitor their approval ratings. According to the Bloomberg agency, Donald Trump spent far more on social media advertising during his campaign as a proportion of media expenditure than Clinton. Some estimates indicate expenditure on online advertising accounted for a quarter of his entire campaign budget. Hilary Clinton’s campaign team put the vast majority of their eggs in the TV advertising basket whereas Trump managed to address even the most apolitical citizens through the posting of memes and mudslinging articles. Still, even such aggressive forms of advertising offer little guarantee of sustainability in a world where ideology and belief carry less weight than a politician’s ability to channel the anger of a disaffected electorate.

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