It’s a tactic straight out of Putin’s playbook.
- By Julia IoffeJulia Ioffe is a contributing writer to Politico Magazine and Huffington Post's Highline. She was a senior editor at the New Republic and was the Moscow correspondent for Foreign Policy and the New Yorker from 2009 to 2012.
When Donald Trump said at the final U.S. presidential debate that he would leave us in “suspense” come Nov. 9, much of the country let out a gasp, and the statement has dominated campaign coverage ever since. I wish this weren’t the case, but I was not all that surprised. Not because this wasn’t, as Hillary Clinton responded, a “horrifying” statement; not because Trump has been alluding to a “rigged” election for weeks now; not because I’ve become numb to the nonstop logorrheic rainbow of horror constantly shooting from Trump’s mouth; and not even because I was watching with a group of deep-red North Carolina Republicans who seemed to operate in base-12 while I was stuck in conventional old base-10.
To me, all of this was just one more step in the long, absurdist slog of the Russification of this campaign. I’m not talking about Paul Manafort, or Trump’s real estate investors, or even his open invitation to the Russian intelligence services to hack U.S. computers in search of Clinton’s deleted emails. Even the WikiLeaks-Trump-Vladimir Putin triad feels natural at this point.
When Trump and his acolytes accuse protestors of being well-organized, paid saboteurs, I hear echoes of Kremlin television accusing people who came out in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square to protest for democracy in 2011 of working for the U.S. State Department. When Trump lies and injects conspirological plots into the mainstream, when I hear his supporters echo them back to me as gospel because “it’s on the internet,” I feel like I’m back in Russia, listening to people tell me about George Soros and his nefarious plots. And then I hear about Soros from Trump supporters who tell me that he has both created the Black Lives Matter movement and hacked American voting machines.
When I lived in Russia, every opposition group was afraid to take money from any organization even remotely connected to Soros, a name that is still code for shadowy, Semitic control over the duped masses, their money, and their screens. When Trump accuses others of what he’s doing himself — or what the Russians are doing on his behalf — I hear Putin’s voice. When Trump talks about regulating the “dishonest” press or about jailing Clinton, these echoes become deafening.
But when Trump questions the peaceful transfer of power; when he, essentially, says he will only accept the election results if he wins; when his supporters talk of assassinating Clinton if she becomes president and of blood flowing in the streets if Trump doesn’t; the moment I’m transported to is not a Russian one, but an American one.
One of the first events I covered upon returning to Washington from Moscow was Barack Obama’s 2013 inauguration. Amid the hundreds of thousands of people on the National Mall on that frigid January morning, I watched Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) say, through gritted teeth, the thing that makes America great is the peaceful transfer of power.
Some saw it as rude — what a grudging, petulant thing to say at an inauguration — but I stood there weeping at the beautiful simplicity of it. I had just watched pro-democracy protests in Moscow descend into Kremlin-provoked violence as Putin muscled his way into a third presidential term, one of questionable legality and through a series of elections that were actually rigged. Friends in Moscow were having their apartments searched; one was facing two years in prison and the loss of custody of her 7-year-old son for yelling during a protest. The parliament was swiftly passing laws cracking down on freedom of assembly and what was left of free speech.
And here I stood, watching a powerful man who hated the re-elected president, who had wished to see him lose, and would continue doing everything in his power to keep him from accomplishing anything in office. But Alexander was still conceding that this is how the voters had voted, and that this — not America’s vast nuclear arsenal or wealth — was what had made the country great. It was the thing that made, and still makes, our democracy different from others: The peaceful, if grudging, transfer of power allows us to channel our energies not into post-election violence that we see in, say, Bangladesh or Kenya but into other, bigger things, like prosperity, security, or even a fight over rights and equality — because the basics are taken care of and are agreed upon.
That is the unnerving reality of 2016: It is the year of relitigating the basics, not just in the United States but in the West in general. It is the year Britons decided to test whether or not Europe should really be free, whole, and at peace, essentially writing off the centuries of war that the European Union was designed to end. In the United States, thanks to Trump’s petulant poking of the Jenga-tower system of international relations, we’re debating things that have never previously been on the table, like a nuclear-armed Japan, coming to the aid of NATO allies, and a religious test for people entering the United States. There is now an open discussion of whether democracy is a stable form of government or even all it’s cracked up to be. It’s not so much a reinvention of the wheel as it is a questioning of why it’s round, what those spoke things are, and does it really need a hub?
Sometimes questioning the wheel and the status quo leads to engineering wizardry, but this feels different. It’s not even Trump behaving like the kid who flips the Monopoly board over because his casinos have gone bankrupt. This feels like removing a spoke or two, just to see if the wheel still holds, with no intention to fix it if it doesn’t.
This week, when I spoke to Republican voters in North Carolina, a red state that is now in play, they believed the election was rigged. They told me that if there is even one voting discrepancy, they would not accept the whole thing. And recent polls show this attitude is widespread among Republicans.
This is what I mean by Russification. Putin has turned post-modernism into a cudgel, questioning basic concepts like “facts” and “elections,” yet somehow getting them to serve his interests. A little bit of doubt goes a long way in turning fertile soil into quicksand that you alone can stand on. But Trump is not Putin. He is a fawning student whose work is a shoddy, ham-fisted, stupid knockoff. Trump has attempted, wittingly or not, that maneuver here, leveraging a little bit of doubt — say, with the formulation of the birth certificate of a black president with a funny name — into a surprising amount of political power.
Now, with the repetition of a single word — rigged, rigged, rigged — and with the help of a few targeted Russian hacks of voter logs in Arizona and voting machines in Florida, Trump is trying his hand at another Putin trick: If you can’t inherit the land, sow it with salt.
We saw it in Ukraine and Georgia, both of which aspired to wrench themselves out of Russia’s orbit and become part of the West. Putin likely understands that he has lost these former vassals for a long time to come, but he invaded both and created territorial disputes on their land so that even if they wanted to join an organization like NATO, they simply couldn’t because of NATO’s own rules.
Trump sees what we see (no matter how many unscientific post-debate polls he tweets out): The chances of him winning this election and inheriting the land are dwindling by the day. And so he is trying to toss as many handfuls of salt onto it as he can, to ruin as much of it as he can, because if he can’t have it, no one can.
Trump is not Putin, and America is not Russia. It wasn’t hard for Putin to destroy democratic institutions that had been around for less than a decade. We are lucky to have roots deeper and stronger than that. But it doesn’t mean he can’t poison the soil they grow in for a long time to come.
Photo credit: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images