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24 February 2017

Trump skeptics among Trump fans

The Russian media on Trump: Divorce or just cold feet?

The Russian media space has been inundated with news about Donald Trump’s every move over recent months. The newly elected American president is perceived by the pro-Kremlin media as an overtly positive choice from the point of view of Russia. Commentators, “experts” and hosts of pro-Kremlin TV channels have been incessantly working towards creating a heroic image of Trump; as a fighter against the global establishment, capable of changing the existing rules and recognizing Russia as a global player on par with the US which has the right to “sort out the mess” in “its own backyard”. In fact, what this means is that it is expected that Trump will remain faithful to his isolationist election agenda and will recognize Russia’s right to command the post-Soviet space.

Trump has literally turned out to be a gift horse to pro-Kremlin propagandists; on the one hand, his persona could be used to reduce internal tensions in the hope that sanctions will soon be lifted. On the other hand, his image and deeds have confirmed the validity of the rhetoric of hatred used by propagandists with respect to the Western media and the last US administration (suffice it to recall Trump’s latest statements in which he referred to the western media as “the enemy of the American people” or his reply to a journalist from Fox News who labeled Putin a killer: “We’ve got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country’s so innocent?”). Since his image is both useful to construct illusions about the future and to justify tensions with the US (and the West on the whole) which emerged in the past, Trump has become the most popular figure in the Russian media space. In January, Trump dethroned the absolute leader, Vladimir Putin, the number one person mentioned most frequently by the media over the last six years: 202 thousand references to Trump versus 147.7 thousand references to Putin.

The media’s efforts have not been in vain as the pendulum of Russian public antipathy has swung into motion. According to a Levada Centre opinion poll, in January, the number of Russians who had “a very positive” or “generally positive” attitude towards the US reached 37% - a substantial increase on the 28% and 23% of November and September 2016, respectively. Sociologists attribute this sudden hike to Trump, or at least his image as created by the pro-Kremlin media, to be more precise.

It is noteworthy that the pendulum of Russian sympathy has traditionally traversed from one extreme to another following the collapse of the USSR, from love to hatred, depending on the presence or absence of anti-Westernism in the rhetoric of those in the highest echelons of power and in the media. Of course, at this stage, anti-Western propaganda is on a par with that being peddled one or two years ago. However, this time, it has brought a sense of hope as regards the possibility for change associated with Trump’s policies. In other words, the predominantly negative agenda of the pro-Kremlin media has given way to one of a more positive tone, diluting the overall negative backdrop. In my opinion, this contributed to a decrease in the discontent of the target audience, at least to some extent.

However, the unconditional love phase was never going to last forever. According to numerous observers, it ended last week. The level of infatuation subsided after the White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer revealed that Trump expected Moscow to return Crimea. Subsequently, the American President himself expressed his view of the annexation of the peninsula. Some experts decided that these statements, together with an action of the radical “patriotic” National Liberation Movement (NOD) against excessive “Trump-mania” in the Russian media and the Kremlin’s order to stop “fawning coverage” of Donald Trump on state media, are sufficient to call time on the love affair between the pro-Kremlin media to the odious American president. However, in my opinion, Trump has been (and is!) a convenient figure for the Kremlin. Hence, no one is going to give up on him.

In order to prove the thesis about the premature declaration of a “divorce” of the pro-Kremlin media from Trump, let me consider the media reaction which followed the “Crimean statements” by Spicer and Trump.

If one looks at the headlines following Trump’s tweet, one can see that many media outlets decided to downplay the importance of the main message by choosing not to emphasize Trump’s views on the annexation of Crimea, but rather his criticism of the Obama administration (“Trump declared that Obama was too soft on Russia regarding Crimea” – Interfax, “Trump accused Obama of being too soft on Russia” – Regnum, “Trump suggested that Obama was too soft on Russia” – TASS). Dilution of the original message was yet another ploy employed by the media designed to mitigate potential negative publicity which could not only tarnish Trump’s reputation but also call the credibility of the media outlets who promised readers and viewers that “Trump is ours” into question. The expression “Crimea was taken by Russia” was replaced by the familiar phrases “joining” or “return of Crimea” (for example, RT wrote that “Trump accused Obama that he allowed for Crimea joining Russia”).

Let us now move on to the analysis of Trump’s and Spicer’s statements. One can clearly identify two major lines of interpretation. Some commentators adhere to the formula: “a good Tsar and bad boyars” whereas (fewer) others are skeptical of Trump (“Trump skeptics”).

Good Trump and bad boyars

Most media outlets close to the Kremlin have opted not to discredit the positive image of Trump they created. Both Flynn’s resignation and Spicer’s and Trump’s statements have been explained with the use of two key messages.

Message No. 1: The intra-elite struggle, allegedly waged against Trump, stands in the way of normalization of relations with Russia. “The defeated elite refuses to go and is waging rearguard wars against the newly – absolutely legitimately – elected president. And it is still successful to a large extent” - political scientist Alexander Domrin wrote for Izvestia. A journalist from the Rossiya Segodnya news agency, the author of the article “Donald Trump: “a U-turn from Russia” or tactical moves?” echoes the words of Alexander Domrin. He reverberates: “The most important thing is to put such messages into context. And this context seems to be still formed by the “hawks” in Washington. Despite Trump’s revolutionary and isolationist sentiments, he is not capable of reconstructing the entire system and replacing all the elites. Hence, characters such as Senator McCain, who has adapted to the new situation, enter the fray once again”. Guests of the talk-show “Sunday Night with Vladimir Solovyov” (broadcast on February 19), speak in the same vein: “Americans have been undermining the remnants of Donald Trump’s authority; (…) both the press and the establishment are against him”. The following message is conveyed both explicitly and implicitly: the US elites are dangerous for Russia but Trump does not represent the elites and displays great personal sympathy for Putin. “News of the Week” with Dmitry Kiselyov (on air on February 19) has traditionally been more cutting. Among other things, Kiselyov said that “the media are like greyhounds chasing a hare” when describing the media’s attitude towards Trump. The TV host spoke of the launch of the Russian-language channel “Current Time” emphasizing that “the funding for it was allocated in the Obama days”. The author of the publication on the REGNUM site went as far as to warn readers that “if the Clintonites were to overthrow Trump, civil war would break out in the US. In the best-case scenario, the European Union would splinter into several areas of integration and could even disappear as a geopolitical reality.” In other words, according to anti-Western propagandists, it’s either chaos or Trump.

Message No. 2: Trump has got a precise plan and his harsh statements regarding Crimea are intended to catch his “enemies” off guard. This is what can be deduced from the article “Trump’s cunning plan to tackle global clownery”. The author of the article asserts that: “Trump’s attacks on China or Russia are targeted at a credulous audience, first and foremost: the American public”. According to another author, Trump is a genius for catching his opponents off guard: “by saying “Return Crimea” he behaves like Stierlitz, raising his hand in the presence of a Reich Main Security Officer: it is non-binding. It makes you one of many. And it works and is appreciated by the public”. "

The overall message of this type of publication can be summed up as “Trump is now hiding in a bid to deal with internal “enemies”, but he has not forgotten Russia. A statement on the annexation of Crimea is part of his multi-polar game”.

Trump skeptics

A more critical analysis of Trump’s “Crimean” statements was not widely represented in the Russian media. The message of Trump skeptics ranged from relatively neutral statements regarding the unreasonable (or premature) policy of idealization of Trump to unconcealable disappointment. Thus, for example, it was claimed that “Trump’s rhetoric wouldn’t have raised eyebrows had it exited the lips of Barak Obama” in the “End of the Week” (Itogi Nedeli) hosted by Irada Zeynalova. Participants of the program “Trial” (Protsess) on the Zvezda TV Channel (run by the Defense Ministry of the Russian Federation) came to the conclusion that “Trump hopes would not materialize “ and there will be no “reset”.

It is interesting that the Zvezda TV Channel of the Ministry of Defense communicated some of the most negative interpretations of the latest news. On the other hand, it is quite understandable given that Trump’s policy may lead to an increase of the NATO defense budget. The most vivid example exists in the alarming words uttered on the “Forecast” (Prognozi) program whose host stated that “only Russia can prevent the war declared by the Trump administration on Iran. In September 2013, the Russian Federation halted Washington’s attack on Syria. This time, the task is more difficult because of the unprecedented aggressiveness of the current administration”. Trump’s administration has already undergone a rapid transition from a source of hope to an “unprecedentedly aggressive administration”.

Let me reiterate that the position of Trump skeptics is quite marginal and the majority of pro-Kremlin media speak of him in a positive way. I believe this tendency will prevail. The number of references to Trump on Russian TV has indeed decreased but not because of his “Crimean statements”, but because propagandists have been guilty of over-enthusiasm in recent months. They have probably been reprimanded accordingly (let me remind you that in January, Trump was painted as the protagonist who dethroned Putin in terms of popularity, which could not but spark ire in the Kremlin).

Before we come to any hasty conclusions about the “divorce” of the Russian media from Trump, let us analyze the benefits that Trump offers propagandists in the cold light of day: they definitely exceed minor inconveniences brought about by his stance on Crimea. In fact, Trump is doing what many pro-Kremlin media outlets do: undermining trust in the liberal media, established international norms and liberal values. 

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