Election 2020

Putin Never Would Have Given Trump’s Election Night Speech

The president is drawing from an authoritarian playbook—but it’s important to consider which kind.

This article is part of Election 2020: America Votes, FP’s round-the-clock coverage of the U.S. election results as they come in, with short dispatches from correspondents and analysts around the world. The America Votes page is free for all readers.

Donald Trump chats with Russian President Vladimir Putin as they attend the APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting, part of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders' summit in the central Vietnamese city of Danang on November 11, 2017.
Donald Trump chats with Russian President Vladimir Putin as they attend the APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting, part of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders' summit in the central Vietnamese city of Danang on November 11, 2017. MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

One virtue of President Donald Trump’s speeches is that they can never be described as curated: the anodyne product of backroom speech-writers poring over focus group data, desperate to avoid offence or hostages to fortune. Rather, they are primordial experiences, white-water rafting on a stream of consciousness. As such, they do tell us much about how the president sees himself in the country.

There has been an explosion of—often highly partisan—comparative studies of authoritarianism that seek to place Trump next to Vladimir Putin. How many times have hackneyed (and usually misleading) phrases such as “Putin’s playbook” been deployed? Looking simply at Trump’s eye-opening election night speech, though, rather different parallels emerge.

That is not the kind of speech Putin would or could ever have given. First of all, Russian democracy is (largely) a stage-managed sham, while U.S. democracy is still (largely) not. Putin does not have to worry about contesting results, or even waiting for them. The real question in Russian elections is how much effort, electoral bribery, and downright falsification is needed to get the results the Kremlin wants.

It is also a matter of positioning. Putin is, in his own words, the galley slave, working hard for his people because they demand it. He graciously accepts a burden placed upon himself, rather than doing anything as squalid as fighting for it. The tsar was the representative of the divine to the Russian people, and vice versa; Putin is the connection between Russia and its destiny.

Finally, there is a huge emphasis on control—both his own self-control, but also conveying the sense of the system’s effortless grip on the country. Much like the Borg, the Kremlin wants to convince people that resistance is futile. Apathy is, after all, an established authoritarian’s tool to ensure that those who would resist feel too marginal and isolated to do anything but conform.

None of these applies to the Donald. His claims that “a very sad group of people” want to disenfranchise his supporters, of “a fraud on the American public” are the words of the populist outsider. Instead of calm confidence, he is returning to the kind of rhetoric that so successfully whips up his base, a narrative of plucky outsiders being suppressed by a deep state that would cheat them of their rightful victory—and the promise to fight for that victory.

If we want parallels, it is with populists who do not control their own system. Benito Mussolini in 1922, mustered his supporters to march on Rome because “it is the right and duty of the Italian people to liberate their political and spiritual life from the parasitic incrustation of the past.” Mexico’s current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador did his best to paint the 2006 elections he narrowly lost then as fraudulent. Bolivia’s former President Evo Morales in 2019 tried to hold on as evidence of fraud in his claimed election victory mounted.

Even after four years as president, Trump is still framing himself as the populist outsider, not the father of the nation.

Mark Galeotti is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and an honorary professor at UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies. His recent books include We Need To Talk About Putin and the forthcoming A Short History of Russia. Twitter: @MarkGaleotti

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