By Dmitry Orlov
A remarkable meeting took place last week—the first face-to-face meeting between Trump and Putin—and I would be remiss not to comment on it. In viewing videos of the meeting (the few snippets shot during the brief seconds when journalists were allowed to stampede into the room, pushing and shoving) it became clear to me that these two people connected quite well, finding in each other an intelligent and sympathetic interlocutor. Many people would find this characterization strange. It is common to see in Putin an inscrutable, cryptically menacing cipher, and in Trump a chaotic, bloviating buffoon. In a sense, they are right, but only on the surface.
That surface, in the case of Putin and in the case of Trump, consists of a carefully synthesized public persona honed over many design iterations and practice runs. For each of them, it has been conditioned by the specifics of Russia and the US, respectively: what the people there respond to well, what they expect and what they are capable of. The specifics of their public personae and what conditioned them are interesting in their own right. But what’s really important is what lies beneath them…
In Russia, the sight of Trump and Putin shaking hands, conversing and laughing elicited a great sigh of relief. That is because there is an understanding among Russians that these two men are members of a sort of global bomb squad: their job is to keep the planet from blowing up, and to do that they have to be able to talk to each other effectively. That so far this has been prevented by various forces in the US is commonly perceived as a symptom of the collective insanity that has gripped the US, and to see the meeting finally take place and the ice broken is seen as a good sign. I am sure that plenty of Americans had the exact same reaction, in spite of many of them having been manipulated into a twin toxic emotional trap of Trump-hatred and Putin-hatred.
Putin’s public persona is conditioned by the requirement of being seen as a strong leader. The Russians mostly take a dim view of notions such as checks and balances and separation of powers, understanding that their country, throughout its thousand-year history, did well with a strong hand at the helm (Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Stalin, Putin) and went into decline whenever that hand proved too weak (Tsar Boris, Nicholas II, Gorbachev, Yeltsin). Thus, Putin does everything necessary to nurture the egregore of the Russian ruler: he is fit and trim, cool, calm and collected and ridiculously well-informed on a huge array of topics. He speaks in well-formed paragraphs and sentences that don’t necessarily translate well into English and in any case exceed the attention span of most Americans. Many Russians hate their government, especially their local government, which they often see as self-serving, ineffectual or corrupt. But they do like Putin, and are supportive of his efforts to reach down and fix things at their level.
Trump’s public persona is conditioned by the requirement of being seen as an outsider to the bicoastal US elites who control the two-party political duopoly, government agencies, transnational corporations, universities and research and medical centers and, last but not least, “legacy” mass media such as the print press and cable television. All of the above are characterized by a common tendency to talk down to people, which has conditioned much of the population in the US, outside of a handful of big cities like New York and San Francisco, to ignore people who hold forth self-importantly, reinforcing the already strong anti-intellectual bias that has been noted in the US since well before our time.
Thus, Putin’s approach, of responding to each thoughtful, polite, carefully worded question with an impromptu but well-crafted verbal essay simply wouldn’t work in the US: he appears alien, inscrutable—a cipher. In fact, this is what makes Putin so easy for the US mass media to demonize: in a neat bit of misdirection, they can project everything that most Americans hate about their own elites onto Putin, place him on display behind a veil of their hypocrisy, and hysterically demand that he comply with their cherished double standards.
As far as Trump’s public persona, the key ingredients are: that 2/3 of Americans do not trust the mass media; that well over half of them distrust experts of every stripe, instead preferring to fill their heads with all sorts of woolly notions; that virtually none of them trust politicians or government officials; and that they are almost universally distracted, bored and wish to be entertained by some sort of gladiatorial spectacle, ideally one that involves a bit of blood. Trump’s experience as a reality show host fits this public mood perfectly. His actions force his adversaries to act out; in turn, people throughout the country see that the hated bicoastal elites hate Trump and, reflexively, side with Trump.
In essence, Trump’s public strategy is to troll people. Since trolling is a great American pastime, this endears him to much of the populace. Popular trolling tactics involve denying the reality of global warming—something that Trump also uses to his advantage. It is great fun to point out that the people who espouse theories of runaway climate change are “just a bunch of scientists” and that “last time I listened to them, they were claiming that we are headed for another ice age; are they flip-flopping?” And then you sit back and enjoy the angry response, and point out that “you sound just like one of them ‘experts’, except angry.”
You can also easily push your interlocutor from angry to bewildered by pointing out some obvious things: that none of the climate treaties so far—not Kyoto, not Copenhagen, not Paris—have stopped the increase in, never mind reduce, carbon emissions, and that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result each time is a sign of madness. It doesn’t matter what climate change is scientifically because politically speaking it is a giant international hoax.
Another highly trollable topic is the theory of evolution. As an opening gambit, point out that it is just “a theory.” We don’t know whether Jesus rode dinosaurs, but if he did, that would have been “epic.” If that’s “physically impossible” then how? Jesus is the Son of God, and God is eternal, so your geologic timelines aren’t relevant. Ask whether your now angry interlocutor has a soul, and whether or not it’s eternal. Did it evolve, or did someone create it? But then how do eternal things ever manage to evolve? Then move in for the kill: even the scientists concede that human evolution has stopped; if we wanted it to resume, we’d have to stop administering cesareans, let preemies and sick and deformed babies die and discontinue both abortions and artificial insemination. Are you pro-evolution or anti-evolution? If you like evolution, don’t you want to evolve?
And then, the coup de grâce: we aren’t evolving, but we are breeding. Specifically, we are selectively breeding psychopaths: they infest all the big corporations and government bureaucracies and have plenty of money to spend on their children, half of whom inherit the psychopathy gene, and they have plenty of political connections to provide good outcomes for them. If you believe in evolution, don’t you think it would be better to just let it take its course? Or do you like psychopaths more than you like evolution?
One of the problems with trolling people is that a few of them may decide to troll you right back, and Trump is definitely being trolled. But there are ways to fight off trolls. As our final example, let’s call all hands on deck to grab onto the giant rancid dead squid of “Russian meddling” that has somehow washed on deck and got stuck in the lifelines, disentangle its tentacles and manhandle it back overboard. Three out of 17 US intelligence agencies had “a high degree of confidence” that there was “Russian meddling” in the 2016 US elections. Not those three agencies themselves, mind you, but certain analysts handpicked from these agencies had anything to do with this. But the number 17 has been endlessly repeated anyway. This is reminiscent of “proof by repetition” so often used in advertising: “Nine out of ten dentists agree that you should brush your gums with porcupine scat if you want your teeth to grow back.” It sounds less and less preposterous each time you hear it, until finally you break down and start googling “porcupine scat.”
Here is a related question: Does the sun rise in the west? I am sure that some trolls would agree (because they are trolls); still, there is no reason to vote on this issue because it’s a settled fact that the sun rises in the east. But “Russian meddling” is not a fact but an opinion, and you might think that it was put to a vote before all 17 US intelligence agencies, just three of which then voted “yea,” but in fact the rest of them weren’t even consulted. And in any case if you trust the opinions of US intelligence agencies there are some very nice Iraqi WMDs you might be interested in purchasing.
This is all great fun, but even this level of discourse is beyond the reach of most Americans due to their lack of attention span. The average news show segment is under a minute long; the average YouTube video is less than four minutes. Television show segments are in the lead, with up to seven minutes of airtime between commercial breaks. This puts any even slightly complex or nuanced argument outside the reach of most Americans. Not that such arguments would serve much of a purpose because of the memoryless property of many Americans.
By now much of the country much of the time is drunk, high, stoned, or some combination of these. The whole country exists in a pall of marijuana smoke, while those who work menial jobs often rely on methamphetamine to keep going. Plenty of people take opioids; the US has 5% of the world’s population but consumes 80% of the world’s opioids. This is in addition to the long-standing endemic drunkenness. But marijuana is particularly significant in this instance.
Cannabinoids, and cannabinoid receptors in the brain, serve a particular function: to knock out memory. Specifically, they are produced in the brains of women during childbirth. It is nature’s way to make them forget the horrific pain of childbirth, because otherwise they might become disinclined to ever get pregnant again. In contemporary United States, marijuana helps hundreds of millions of people forget the horrific pain caused by the blighted wasteland of their lives, making it possible for them to want to live another day. What this means is that they can be trolled on the same topic over and over again; since they present a tabula rasa each time, their reaction never varies. This makes trolling techniques endlessly reusable and therefore spectacularly efficient.
Under such conditions, Trump is perfect. He is a showman and a reality show host. Reality is painful, and best forgotten by administering large doses of whatever works for you, but a reality show is fun to watch. He is a consummate troll, and very well practiced in trolling the mass media. They hate him, but then 2/3 of the population hates the mass media, and by multiplying together these two negatives he achieves a net positive. His favorite means of communication with the public is the tweet: it goes over the heads of the mass media, and its length limit of 140 characters is unlikely to exceed the attention span of even the most TV-conditioned, internet-addicted and drug-addled of his subjects. He is highly attuned to the low-brow popular culture and the anti-intellectual atmosphere that prevail among his subjects, which is why in his public pronouncements this Wharton graduate is careful to confine himself to an 8th-grade vocabulary with a judicious helping of potty-mouth. When he “grabs America by the pussy,” he issues a rallying cry for many while trolling the rest.
But that is only Trump’s public persona, thanks to which he coasted to an easy election victory, and which now allows him to keep his opponents permanently off-balance and his supporters entertained even as conditions within the country continue their unstoppable deterioration. As to what he is really like, let me turn it over to Putin:
“Television-Trump differs very strongly from the real person. He is absolutely concrete, he is adequate in his perception of his interlocutor, he analyzes sufficiently quickly, he quickly responds to questions that are posed or to any new elements that emerge in the course of discussion.”
The italicized words have very specific meanings in Russian. “Concrete” implies that his speech is actionable, consisting of speech acts that transform the state of the world in specific ways. “Adequate” means something quite far beyond “good enough,” because in Russia the standards of adequacy for someone at his level are rather high. Clearly, these two very important men can work together on the same “bomb squad” and keep the planet from blowing up.
So that’s one fewer problem to worry about for the world at large, and we can all breathe a sigh of relief. Of course, the US has a multitude of other problems. The Washington establishment is much worse than useless, but that’s all there is: if you “drain the swamp” all you’ll have left is a giant empty crater that will inevitably fill with raw sewage. The national media is by now only useful as Trump’s troll-bait. The business of the nation has degenerated into a wide assortment of rackets—in education, health care, housing, the military… Plus everybody is simultaneously mad as hell and drug-addled. I doubt that Trump, or anyone else, can fix any of this. These are all predicaments, not problems to solve.
Russia has its problems too. Specifically, there is a pronounced lack of high-quality cheeses. I am off to Russia this week, and the next item on my list, after finishing this essay, is to go and buy some high-quality cheeses. I wish that Putin would address this issue.
Vladimir Vladimirovich, where is the cheese?