The writer Andrei Sinyavsky, perhaps the first person to become known as a Soviet dissident, once quipped that his “differences with the Soviet regime were primarily aesthetic.” Buried in a dense autobiographical essay and qualified as a joke, the line nonetheless was and remains one of the most-repeated sentences among the differently minded in the Soviet Union and in Putin’s Russia. It has a way of coming to mind every time one cringes at Russia’s political spectacle—which is nearly every time one turns on the television or radio or picks up a newspaper. Whether it’s the sight of Putin entering a room like a thug who owns it, or the sound of his below-the-belt jokes, or the ritual of politicians and talking heads trying to out-scream and out-sabre-rattle one another as they engage in what passes for discussion on television—though none of them seems to be able to form a complete sentence—it has a way of making one ashamed of seeing and hearing.
More than half a century after Sinyavsky came up with the phrase, Americans who witnessed Donald Trump’s inaugural weekend can now fully grasp its meaning. Throughout the campaign, anyone who watched Trump could see that he used a different aesthetic vocabulary than any candidate in living memory: his bullying was shameless, his hatred was naked, his disregard for decency and decorum was gratuitous. He mocked a disabled reporter, he humiliated women in a wide variety of ways, and he made highly ritualized occasions such as the presidential debates and the Al Smith dinner painful to watch. Most important, he lied constantly, blatantly, and inconsistently, stripping words of their meaning. Still, hope somehow persisted that the fact of becoming president would somehow elevate Trump—as though his aesthetics were not a reflection of his entire political self but merely a style that could be dropped when the occasion demanded it. But when the inauguration came, Trump, for twenty-four hours, not only trampled on some of the most hallowed public rituals of American power; he made a spectacle of it.
He defiled the inauguration with a speech that was not only mean and meaningless but also badly written, pitched to the basest level of emotion and intelligence. “We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon” was how he summed up the American foreign policy legacy: a zero-sum game in which a penny spent—whether on the Marshall Plan or an ill-conceived war—is a penny lost. “For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have born the cost” is how he summed up the work of all the men and women who have come before him, in effect the entire political history of the country, which he declared to be over: “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” Having dismissed the political past, he offered, by way of vision, the future of a fortress under siege: a walled country that puts itself first, the way a self-help manual might advise you to “put yourself first,” convention and consideration for others be damned.
In his small-mindedness and lack of aspiration, Trump curiously resembles Putin, though the origins of the two men’s stubborn mediocrity could not be more different. Aspiration should not be confused with ambition—both men want to be ever more powerful and wealthier, but neither wants to be or even appear better. (One way in which Putin continuously reasserts his lack of aspiration is by making crude jokes at the most inappropriate times—as when, during a joint appearance with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2013, he compared EU monetary policy to a wedding night: “No matter what you do, the result will be the same,” his way of lightly covering up the “you get fucked” punchline. Watch this video to see the German chancellor cringe.
Trump marked his first moments in office by wielding power vengefully: the head of the D.C. National Guard lost his job at noon, and between festivities the new president signed an executive order to begin undoing his predecessor’s singular achievement, the Affordable Care Act. He swept the White House website clean of substantive content on climate policy, civil rights, health care, and LGBT rights, took down the Spanish-language site, and added a biography of his wife that advertises her mail-order jewelry line. At the same time, as Trump moved through the day, he repeatedly turned his back on his wife. He immediately degraded the look of the oval office by hanging gold drapes.
American political pageantry is aspirational. The extended ritual of the inauguration conveys an understanding of the importance of the office of president and awe and pride in the miracle of the repeated peaceful transfer of power. The ceremony, the concert, the lunch, the parade, the balls, and more—all of this serves to create a nationwide mood of celebration and self-congratulation. It is like a giant wedding designed to make even the most curmudgeonly of relations tear up. It is a moment for all to shine—for the celebrants in their magnanimity and for the less fortunate in their own generosity. As the day progresses and the new first couple accept the honor and the responsibility bestowed on them, they transition into a different state of being: as the country watches, they acquire the quality of being presidential (which so many pundits hoped against hope Trump would suddenly display).
Trump had no use for any of it: the magnanimity, the generosity, the awe (unless it’s inspired by him personally), the pride (unless it’s his own), the aspiration. Indeed, the single quality he displayed repeatedly was his lack of aspiration. Take his speech. Better yet, take the cake. On Saturday it emerged that the inaugural-ball cake that Trump and Vice President Mike Pence cut with a sword was a knock-off of President Obama’s 2013 inaugural-ball cake. Obama’s was created by celebrity chef Duff Goldman. Trump’s was commissioned from a decidedly more modest Washington bakery than Goldman’s, and the transition-team representative who put in the order explicitly asked for an exact copy of Goldman’s design—even when the baker suggested creating a variation on the theme of Goldman’s cake. Only a small portion of Trump’s cake was edible; the rest was Styrofoam (Obama’s was cake all the way through). The cake may be the best symbol yet of the incoming administration: much of what little it brings is plagiarized, and most of it is unusable for the purpose for which presidential administrations are usually intended. Not only does it not achieve excellence: it does not even see the point of excellence.
On Saturday, Trump went to the CIA and stood in front of a wall honoring the memory of agents who died in the line of duty, failed to acknowledge the location, and lied to the faces of the people gathered, provoking an unprecedented rebuke from outgoing CIA chief John Brennan. He lied uninventively, stupidly, embarrassingly—“Trust me, I’m like a smart person,” he said. He dispatched his press secretary to do the same. Perhaps drawing on his own approach to business dealing, he recklessly said that the US should have “kept” Iraq’s oil, and left open the possibility that it might do so in the future—apparently unaware of the implications of a policy of resource plunder for US military deployments around the world. And he did all of this in language that was offensive to the mind and the ears, and in clothes offensive to the eyes. His advisers and cabinet picks sport the same aesthetics: Kellyanne Conway’s coat inspired jokes about what happens when the gays refuse to dress you, and Betsy DeVos’s subliterate tweet (about the “historical” inauguration) inspired mockery of the incoming education secretary’s ignorance—as did her performance during her Senate hearing on Tuesday.
But even as Trump was promoting his brand at the CIA, the cringeworthy spectacle of his inauguration had already given way to its aesthetic opposite: pictures of millions of determined, peaceful Americans taking part in women’s protest marches in Washington and across the country—events that brimmed with witty slogans, good cheer, and irony. Of course, the marchers’ differences with Trump are more than aesthetic: they are political and philosophical. On the other hand, Trump does not appear to have any politics or philosophy. He may be as free of content as any human being in the public eye. The aesthetics of his inauguration reflected that spectacular vacuousness.
Russian sociologist Lev Gudkov has theorized that the Soviet totalitarian system, which ruled through violence and fear, created a society in which all initiative was suppressed, personal and professional growth was all but impossible, and the entire society became stagnant. As a result, the word “elite” became a misnomer in Russian: the people with the greatest access to money and power did not perform the traditional tasks of setting priorities, tastes, and the agenda for progress. In the absence of social mobility, there was no aspiration. In addition, because there was no mechanism for transfer of power and the powerful were forever frightened of losing it, the country became a gerontocracy, but also something else too: a kakistocracy.
The rule of the worst seemed to become a thing of the past in the 1990s, but under Putin mediocrity returned with a vengeance. Not only did the media come under the control of the Kremlin but it acquired an amateurish quality. Not only did the government start lying, but did so in dull, simple, and unimaginative language. Putin’s government is filled with people who plagiarized their dissertations—as did Putin himself. The ministers are subliterate. The minister of culture, who has a doctorate in history, regularly exposes his ignorance of history; indeed, Trump might be tempted to plagiarize the minister’s dissertation, which begins with the assertion that the criterion of truth in history is determined solely by the national interests of Russia—if it’s good for the country, it must be true (much of the rest of the dissertation is itself plagiarized). Other ministers provide the differently minded Russian blogosphere with endless hours of fun because they use words the meaning of which they clearly don’t know, or ones that don’t exist—as when a newly chosen education minister invented a word that seemed to mean that she had been appointed to the cabinet by God. They also make ignorant, repressive, inhumane policy. But their daily subversion of integrity and principle is indeed aesthetic in nature. And it serves a purpose: by degrading language and discrediting the spectacle of politics the Russian government is destroying the public sphere.
Sometimes vastly different processes yield surprisingly similar results. Trump is staging an assault on America’s senses that feels familiar to me—not because he admires Putin (though he does) or because he is Putin’s puppet, but because they seem to be genuinely kindred spirits. It might take a long time to understand why we have come to enter the age of a kakistocracy, but evidently we have.