Font Size: A A A


The Putin Paradigm

Masha Gessen
To what extent can Putin provide insight into Trump’s understanding of power?
Donald Trump on television screens in Seoul, South Korea, September 27, 2016

Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters

Donald Trump on television screens in Seoul, South Korea, September 27, 2016

Over the last few days, concerns about some kind of a hidden alliance between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin have exploded. There is the president-elect with his apparently fawning regard for the Russian leader. There are Trump’s top cabinet picks, with their unusual Russian ties: as national security advisor, Lt. General Mike Flynn, who has met Putin and done paid events for a Kremlin-sponsored TV station; and as secretary of state, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, who has done billions of dollars of business in Russia and received an award from Putin. And then there is the revelation, from the CIA, that Russia may have actively interfered in the US election to get Trump elected.

Of course, Putin may well have reasons for wanting Trump to be president—not least Trump’s apparent skepticism toward NATO and his lack of opposition to Russia’s military interventions in Ukraine and Syria. But a more important connection between the two men may be their common approach to leadership, which will almost certainly outlast any friendship that may form between them. During his campaign, Donald Trump repeatedly expressed admiration for the way Putin governed. “The man has very strong control over his country,” Trump said at one point. “He’s been a leader far more than our president has been a leader.” That revealed a lot about Trump’s concept of the presidency—he seems to believe that effectiveness is measured by the extent to which the leader “controls” the country. But how might that play out in practice? To what extent can Putin provide insight into Trump’s understanding of power?

There is still much we don’t know about how Trump will rule. But in the month since his election, some characteristic patterns have emerged—and they bear some instructive similarities to the style Putin has practiced over many years. Here are a few of them:

Lying is the message. It’s not just that both Putin and Trump lie, it is that they lie in the same way and for the same purpose: blatantly, to assert power over truth itself. Take, for example, Putin’s statements on Ukraine. In March 2014 he claimed that there were no Russian troops in newly annexed Crimea; a month later he affirmed that Russians troops had been on the ground. Throughout 2014 and 2015, he repeatedly denied that Russian troops were fighting in eastern Ukraine; in 2016 he easily acknowledged that they were there. In each case, Putin insisted on lying in the face of clear and convincing evidence to the contrary, and in each case his subsequent shift to truthful statements were not admissions given under duress: they were proud, even boastful affirmatives made at his convenience. Together, they communicated a single message: Putin’s power lies in being able to say what he wants, when he wants, regardless of the facts. He is president of his country and king of reality.

Trump has exhibited similar behavior, apparently for the same reason: when he claims that he didn’t make statements that he is on record as making, or when he claims that millions of people voting illegally cost him the popular vote, he is not making easily disprovable factual claims: he is claiming control over reality itself. Those puzzled by Trump’s election-fraud tweets, because they seem like sore-loser behavior on the part of the winner, or by his dismissing out of hand the CIA’s findings about Russian interference—against the views of many leading Republicans—are missing the point: Trump was demonstrating his ability to say whatever he wanted about the election, precisely because he had won it.

Both Trump and Putin use language primarily to communicate not facts or opinions but power: it’s not what the words mean that matters but who says them and when. This makes it impossible to negotiate with them and very difficult for journalists to cover them. In the wake of the election, many American journalists felt devastated not only because a terrible candidate had won but also because his victory seemed to be a verdict on their work. All the fact-checking in the world, all the well-documented calling-out of hypocrisy, all the effort that went into The Washington Post’s exposure of the flagrant misuse of the Trump Foundation or The New York Times’s obtaining Trump’s twenty-year-old tax return and the excellent explanatory reporting that accompanied both, could not keep Trump out of the White House. It felt like we had entered a world in which the media no longer had a job to do, or in which its relevance as a check on power had been entirely neutralized.

After the election, the media’s ability to do its job has been undermined even further. The standard model of reporting requires journalists to give the president-elect say in any news story about him. Thus we now have a series of stories in which reported facts are juxtaposed with a quoted Tweet that dismisses or contradicts the facts themselves. Even a factual narrative can no longer be aired without an immediate challenge contained within the news story itself—and without demonstrating that Trump has once again asserted his power to say what he wants, facts be damned, when he wants, convention be damned, and how he wants, logic and the English language be damned.


It is time to raise the stakes from fact to truth. With a president who lies in order to demonstrate power, fact-checking is indeed useless if it’s the entire story. The media have to find a way to tell the bigger story—the story about the lies rather than the story of the lies; and the story about power that the lies obscure. For mainstream media with long institutional histories, this is even harder than it sounds. The objective style in American journalism often means that nothing can be asserted unless someone in a position of authority utters it. Take Ukraine again: American newspapers have been reluctant to call a war a war because the US administration was not calling it a war. Words like “military adventurism” and “insurgency” had to stand in for the truth. But unless we are willing to live in a world that is not only post-fact but also post-truth, journalists will have to stand up to the soon-to-be president by exposing not only his lies but also other people’s truths.

The media is the mirror. Trump, like Putin, has a demonstrably thin skin and short temper when it comes to being criticized by journalists. Trump has also made it clear that his administration will be less open and accessible to the press than those of his predecessors. But perhaps the most important insight came from Buzzfeed, which analyzed over a year’s worth of Trump’s tweets to figure out where the president-elect gets his information. Trump’s mental universe, as it turns out, is dominated by Breitbart. Secondary influences come from a dozen and a half other outlets, including The Washington Post and the Washington Examiner, Politico and Fox News, the Daily Mail and The New York Post, and others in roughly equal measure. Bit parts are played by what appears to be an utterly random selection of other media organizations.

It appears that Trump receives a view of the world that is vastly different from that not just of the “liberal bubble” but of the majority of Americans: on one hand, The New York Times seems not to figure in his world, but on the other hand, neither does network television and, it would seem, CNN. There is no reason to think that Trump will broaden his world view once he is president. He has shown a notable lack of interest in daily intelligence briefings and in the State Department, whose expertise he has entirely ignored in his initial contacts with foreign leaders. And the utter disdain that he has displayed variously for the FBI (during the campaign) and for the CIA (since the revelations about its findings on Russia and the election) suggests he will insist on seeing only as much of the world as is convenient for him, through a prism that pleases him.

The history of Putin’s relationship with Russian news organizations is extreme: he began his tenure by taking over all broadcast television and has continued to put restrictions on the media ever since. Trump would be unable to assert control on that scale in the United States in 2017. But his news consumption is similar to Putin’s. Some of Putin’s behavior can actually be explained by the fact that he has been watching his own television for sixteen years. I believe this was what German Chancellor Angela Merkel meant in 2014 when she said, sounding despondent after a phone call with Putin, that he “lived in a different reality.” Trump is entering office while already watching Trump TV: he is creating for himself the predicament of an isolated dictator even though he is not (or not yet) a dictator. It may not be long before Merkel has occasion to issue sad commentary on the American president’s relationship with reality.

Taking charge of a boring world. The real-estate magnate and the KGB agent share a peculiar trait: both seem to be lazy and uninterested in the world they want to dominate. Putin, as a former intelligence man himself, has not been known to shrug off intelligence briefings, but he prefers to take information in small doses, and in large type. He does not use a computer. With rare exceptions, he does not spend much time preparing for meetings, and he takes few meetings. But he makes grand public gestures, often ones that are at odds with established policy. During the financial crisis of 2008, for example, he staged a televised intervention into the business of one of Russia’s largest metals companies, personally ordering the owner of the company to scrap plans for shuttering a plant. The gestures mainly served to demonstrate who is really in charge.


Vladimir Putin on television screens in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, April 17, 2014

Ilya Naymushin/Reuters

Vladimir Putin on television screens in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, April 17, 2014

Putin’s imitator Trump has been using Twitter instead of television, but his gestures toward Carrier, the Indiana company he bullied and bribed into reducing (slightly) the number of jobs it was shipping to Mexico, or toward Boeing, with the cancellation of a contract that does not seem to exist, serve the same function: they show that Trump is in charge. Such actions will have no measurable result on policy, but they can have a corrosive effect on free enterprise, and civil society, and the culture of government. In Russia, years of sporadic micromanagement have rendered the government dysfunctional and corrupt: things will not happen unless the head of an agency or the president himself intervenes.

Trump’s leadership through erratic meddling probably cannot have as devastating an effect on the day-to-day functioning of American institutions. But it may create a new culture of avoidance and cronyism. Those who want to get things done without involving the temperamental president will do their best to evade his gaze. They will humor his efforts, allowing him to persist in the illusion that he is making a difference. (A similar phenomenon could be observed at the Defense Intelligence Agency under the leadership of Mike Flynn, Trump’s pick for national security adviser: Dana Priest has reported in the New Yorker that a “parallel power structure developed” at the agency to keep it functioning.) How this happens was demonstrated during Time Magazine’s interview with Trump for its “person of the year” cover:

Reince Priebus, the next White House chief of staff, walked into the room. With the tape recorders rolling, Trump began to issue new instructions. “Hey, Reince, I want to get a list of companies that have announced they’re leaving,” he called out. “I can call them myself. Five minutes apiece. They won’t be leaving. O.K.?”

… [Priebus] got what Trump was trying to do, and smiled. “It worked for you last time,” he told the boss.

On the other hand, those who seek attention and disruption will invite Trump’s interest—like Bob Dole did last week, when he appears to have arranged for the president-elect’s phone call with the Taiwanese leader.

Interests rather than priorities. Attempts to decipher the process by which Trump is choosing his cabinet have stumbled over the usual question: What are the incoming president’s priorities? Some appointments appear to point to specific goals that Trump articulated during the campaign—repealing the Affordable Care Act (Tom Price as Health Secretary), exiting the Paris climate accords (Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA)—but others seem to contradict his anti-establishment views (Reince Priebus for chief of staff). But Trump, much like Putin, has neither views nor priorities: he has a thirst for power, and he has interests.

He is interested in the military, which is why he appoints generals. He took an interest in the secretary of state job in particular, taking the time to interview multiple candidates and maintaining an Apprentice-like intrigue around the process before finally announcing early Tuesday morning that he had chosen Tillerson. But he is not in fact interested in foreign policy as such, which is why the post of the American ambassador to the United Nations was handed out quickly, to Nikki Haley, the South Carolina governor who has no international experience and no history of supporting Trump. This too has been puzzling: in the days immediately following the election, it seemed that Trump was building a cabinet of people loyal to him and his family. Since then, though, Trump critics have received posts while loyalists like Rudy Giuliani have gotten the boot. But Trump is just being Trump. He has been stiffing partners and contractors for decades.

The best available definition of the kind of state Putin has built is provided by the Hungarian sociologist Bálint Magyar, who calls it a mafia state: it’s run like a family by a patriarch who distributes money, power, and favors. Magyar uses the word “family” to mean a clan of people with longstanding associations; it is important that one cannot enter the family unless invited—“adopted,” in Balint’s terminology—and one cannot leave the family voluntarily. In this model the family is built on loyalty, not blood relations, but Trump is bringing his literal family into the White House. By inviting a few hand-picked people into the areas that interest him personally, he may be creating a mafia state within a state. Like all mafias, this one is driven primarily by greed.

The complete term Magyar uses is “the post-communist mafia state,” and he argues that it can take root only on the ruins of a totalitarian state. But Trump may introduce the world to the post-democratic mafia state. In this model, he will still be the patriarch who distributes money and power. The patriarch’s immediate circle will comprise his actual family and a few favorites like General Flynn. They will concern themselves with issues of interest to the president, and with enrichment of themselves and their allies. The outer circle will be handed issues in which Trump is less interested. In practical terms, this will mean that the establishment Republicans in the cabinet will be able to pursue a radically conservative program on many areas of policy, without regard to views Trump may or may not hold, and this will keep the Republican Party satisfied with a president it once didn’t want.

A president behind enemy lines. Many of Trump’s cabinet picks have one thing in common: they are opposed to the very mission of the agencies they have been chosen to lead. For secretary for housing and urban development an opponent of public housing; for secretary of education a foe of public schools; for health and human services a Congressman who wants to get rid of the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid; for labor secretary an executive who is opposed to labor rights, for energy secretary a former governor who wants to scrap the department of energy, and for attorney general, a senator who was once denied a judgeship, is an opponent of civil rights laws giving protection to minority groups. These appointments may or may not be broadly consistent with Trump’s vaguely expressed political views, but they are clearly consistent with the core belief he shares with many of his voters and with Putin: the government ruins everything. Even after Putin became president, he continued to refer to an imaginary power that was driving the country to ruin. In August 2000, when the nuclear submarine Kursk sank off the coast of Murmansk, Putin lashed out in a meeting with grieving wives and mothers of sailors, referring to “those who ruined the military.” He seemed to forget that he had been running the country for a year; the military was his.

Trump sounded similar when he reacted to the latest CIA reports of Russian interference in the election by saying, of the intelligence agency, “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.” Or his tweet in response to criticism of the Taiwan phone call: “Interesting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call.” It is as though the US is simultaneously selling arms and criticizing Trump, who is himself not a part of the US. He will continue to view the government as the enemy even when he is running it. When he promised to “drain the swamp,” he did not mean that he would clean up the government so it could serve the American people better. He meant that he viewed the government as it is currently constituted as fundamentally flawed, not only unworthy of maintaining but fit to be dismissed and destroyed.

The chosen one. When I published a biography of Putin in 2012, some American reviewers criticized the book for asserting that Putin was merely an “ordinary man [whom voters could invest] with whatever they wanted to see in him.” I argued that an unqualified man of limited intelligence had by accident come to rule a nuclear power. That simply does not happen, some reviewers claimed. It does. History contains a multitude of accidents, some of them decisive, but we insist on imbuing events with logic. No one wants to see this logic more than the men like Putin and Trump, who think of themselves as anything but accidental. But if their ascent was preordained despite their lack of qualifications, then a force more powerful than any political party or any voting system must be at play. It may be God’s will, providence, or their innate greatness: one way or the other they were chosen. Trump’s unusual path to an Electoral College victory only reinforces this narrative, suggesting there must be a reason he is about to become president. This renders any argument about his lack of a popular mandate meaningless. Not only does he have unprecedented political power, with Republican majorities as far as the eye can see, but he feels endowed with power.

It should be acknowledged, of course, that Putin and Trump have vastly different backgrounds, experience, and demeanors. One has sought publicity his entire life—indeed, he seems to eat and breathe publicity—and never worked for the government; while the other, a secret agent for his country’s powerful intelligence agency, hid from the public eye until he was thrust into it. One grew up coddled and privileged, while the other was hungry and scrappy. One communicates in exaggerations and raw emotion, while the other has always prided himself on his reserve. Moreover, Trump and Putin are heirs to vastly different historical and political legacies, and the systems of governance in their countries are, indeed, far apart. Even Trump has acknowledged that Russia has a “very different system, and I don’t happen to like that system.” One cannot use the parallels between them to predict what will happen to the United States and its institutions.

In both cases, however, the sense of being chosen lends itself to a blurring of borders between the president and the state. Putin has long equated opposition to him with opposition to the Russian state itself. His perception of mass protests as enemy action stemmed at least in part from this conflation. Trump, with his tweets about stripping flag burners of US citizenship, seems headed down the same mental road: the electors have not even voted yet, but Trump already thinks that he is the United States and citizenship is his to grant and revoke.

Subscribe and save 50%!

Get immediate access to the current issue and over 25,000 articles from the archives, plus the NYR App.

Already a subscriber? Sign in

© 1963-2024 NYREV, Inc. All rights reserved.