An expert's point of view on a current event.

You Can’t Blame Russia for Trump

America’s reality TV autocrat was a homegrown creation.

A souvenir shop displays Matryoshka dolls featuring Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump in Moscow on Dec. 3, 2019.
A souvenir shop displays Matryoshka dolls featuring Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump in Moscow on Dec. 3, 2019. Misha Friedman/Getty Images

As the investigation into the Capitol riots continues, Russia looms large in many people’s minds—and there are even claims that Russians were directly involved on the ground. That’s not surprising, and not just because the investigation into former President Donald Trump’s ties to Russia dominated headlines for so long.

However, the problem with trying to pin the events of Jan. 6 on Russia, or of trying to frame Trump’s actions as directed by Russians, is that it can lead Americans away from introspection about their own system’s failings, and towards blaming a larger-than-life foreign other that isn’t actually as powerful as some may think.

Obviously, Russian intelligence played a role in the 2016 election through the DNC hack, as Robert Mueller concluded. But the truth is, electing a narcissistic reality TV star with a penchant for stiffing people was, ultimately, about as American as it gets. The same goes for Trump’s performative unabashed racism. In a country with a history of racial division as deep as America’s, is it really a surprise that a man who courted the white supremacist vote could get as far as Trump did?

To be sure, the Trump clan has long resembled assorted post-Soviet dictators and their hangers-on. The aggressive tackiness, the legal nihilism, the naked corruption, the moblike mentality that replaced diplomacy with well-publicized one-upmanship—the similarities were striking.

But Trump never needed to be Russian President Vladimir Putin’s minion in order to fulfil Putin’s wish of a demoralized United States at odds with itself. All Trump ever had to be was himself; a vain and cruel man, unfit for public service.

Even as the Capitol attack served as the ultimate expression of Trump’s vanity—as Ben Sasse pointed out, Trump was delighted by what happened, as his supporters’ actions fed his ego—some people insisted that Russia had to be to blame.

It didn’t help that a young woman named Riley June Williams, who had stormed the Capitol alongside other Trump fans, told friends she was planning to sell a laptop stolen from Nancy Pelosi’s office to the Russians. The claim seemed like the stuff of fanfiction, or else like the sort of plan that a young person cosplaying as a revolutionary would make—but it naturally excited the internet. In the age of Russian hackers gone wild, who can blame the internet for getting excited?

Still, the Russian obsession is ultimately a distraction—an attempt to turn away from our collective love of shadowy conspiracies and our inability to hold wealthy people to account.

Trump’s failed coup attempt on Jan. 6 followed the same, entirely American patterns as his election campaign and presidency. It was a spectacle for a man who loves spectacles and encourages his supporters to participate in them: a clash between the world of social media and the cold, hard reality of the law. It was full of extremist weirdos and traitors—including, it would appear, traitors working on the inside—a perfect reflection of Trump’s own lack of loyalty to everything but his ego. It was, in many ways, as tacky and ugly as the golden interiors of which Trump himself is so fond. The conspiracy theories the attackers followed weren’t birthed in some FSB or GRU plot; they were likely created by an émigré pornographer in the Philippines and promulgated by actual members of Congress.

When rioters gleefully streamed videos and posted pictures from the Capitol, they did so from an alternate reality occupied by the TV-obsessed Trump. It was stupid from a legal point of view, absolutely, but it was also a sign of how deeply they share Trump’s addiction to fame, to being seen. Hiding their faces would have defeated the point of being there in the first place. You can’t get likes and comments if you’re trying to stay incognito, and you certainly can’t imitate your narcissistic idol without acting like a narcissist yourself.

The rioters did not believe they would face consequences, because Trump made consequences irrelevant to them—look at how easily he himself has gotten out of trouble many times before—and because that isn’t how the narrative of cheap reality TV works to begin with. The FBI swarming their house later was not in anyone’s production notes. It’s not how the story was supposed to end, with their leader selling them out while they faced the courts.

What could be more American, more Great Gatsby-like than that? A reckless wealthy person incites violence, then, to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, “retreats into his money.” By the time a pawn realizes they’re a pawn, it’s too late.

Realistically, the Russian government is always going to want to take advantage of turmoil on American soil. The country has a long history of exploiting violent U.S. racism. Putin made use of Trump and is bound to keep taking advantage of the divisions Trump has encouraged. The Capitol assault was grist for Russian propagandists’ mill, even if they didn’t actually incite it. The Biden presidency is a fresh start but isn’t going to make this kind of Russian hostility simply go away. That’s why a sensible wariness about Russian efforts can’t hurt.

At the same time, the United States can’t heal from the Trump years while heaping blame on Russia every time something goes wrong, and certainly not if Americans keep comparing our internal woes to Russia’s own history of instability.

Instead, it’s more helpful to think of elite convergence—Trump started resembling a post-Soviet dictator because corrupt, wealthy nihilists tend to have similar values and outlooks on life. They value power for the sake of it, and see the nation state as simply a vast collection of financial resources for them and their families to plunder.

By electing Biden, the United States committed itself, at least in the short-term, to a different path. It’s an option that other countries haven’t been lucky enough to enjoy. But the almost-peaceful transition of power turned out to be far more fragile a tradition than Americans thought. Seeking foreign scapegoats instead of tackling domestic enemies won’t fix that problem.

Natalia Antonova is a writer, journalist, and online safety expert based in Washington D.C.