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A Unified Theory for the Age of Trump

September 15, 2022

snyder book

Of everything I’ve read since the rise of Donald Trump, The Road to Unfreedom by Timothy Snyder comes closest to providing a unified theory for understanding the bewildering events of the past decade. Snyder is a professor of history at Yale with a distinguished resume of books and other publications on modern European history. This book was published in 2018, well before the January 6 coup attempt or the Big Lie about the 2020 election or the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, but reading it brings these and other shocking recent events into clear focus–not as isolated “Black Swan” incidents but as part of a much broader pattern with clearly discernible antecedents. The problem was that few were paying attention.

Americans tend to think of what happens here as largely unrelated to political and intellectual movements elsewhere in the world.  We’ve all been inculcated since birth with the idea of American exceptionalism . We were also taught to believe in the inevitability of American progress and the sacred invincibility of our democratic institutions, culminating in the triumphal notion of the “end of history” that circulated in the 1990s. Part of the brilliance of Snyder’s analysis is that it shifts the point of view so that the US is no longer at the center as the main protagonist, but rather more on the periphery as a powerful presence but more acted upon than driving the action.

Instead, the focus of this book is Russia and Europe, particularly Ukraine, and it is organized chronologically covering the years from 2011 through 2016. First, however, is a sort of prologue covering the early years of Putin’s reign starting in 1999 with the fall of Boris Yeltsin–the years when Vladimir Putin really became Putin and consolidated his power over a corrupt oligarchy with himself at the center deciding who gets what. With the collapse of Communism and then the failure of democracy to take root in Russia, Putin needed a new national myth to replace the discredited “inevitable triumph” of Communism. He found it in the writings of a long-dead Russian fascist named Ivan Ilyin who had fled to Switzerland during the Soviet era, only to be resurrected and rehabilitated posthumously by Putin. Ideas, even crazy ones, can be powerful once they gain traction.

Ilyin’s central notion was that Russia was divinely ordained to be the center and leader of the vast Eurasian continent stretching from Kamchatka to Portugal organized around Christian fascism. In his view, Western liberal democracy (and the West in general) was the enemy, and Russia was eternally innocent–justified in doing anything to defend itself and advance its power. Ilyin saw Communism as something imposed on Russia by the decadent West. He insisted that Russia was an “organism of nature and the soul”, not something confined within boundaries. Among other things, he denied that Ukraine had any separate existence outside of the Russian organism. Allowing Russians to vote in free elections, according to Ilyin, was like allowing embryos to choose their species. The “redeemer” at the head of the nation was mystically in tune with the people, so there was no need for any institutions that might restrain his actions.

I readily admit to having been ignorant of all this, but Snyder presents it (persuasively, in my view) as the intellectual underpinning and justification for what came next–that is the 2014 military invasion of Ukraine and the massive cyber attacks on democratic governments in Europe and the US as well as the brutal repression of democratic movements within Russia itself. The importance of these events and how they were accomplished went largely ignored in the US news media.

First Putin had to cripple his domestic opposition. In December 2011 he manipulated an estimated 26% of the vote into a majority for his United Russia party in the Russian parliament. Large popular demonstrations ensued, but in March 2012 with the help of massive cyber election fraud, Putin was elected President. To quell popular protests over the fraud, he needed a phantom enemy. The result was a virulent government-sponsored campaign against gays, using the trope that homosexuality was a weaponized import from the West which had infiltrated and manipulated the anti-Putin opposition.  Snyder observes that “the purpose of the anti-gay campaign was to transform demands for democracy into a nebulous threat…voting=West=sodomy.” This was combined with a blitz on Russian media claiming that those protesting election fraud had been unleashed by Hillary Clinton and were paid by Western governments and institutions. New laws were passed limiting free speech, and a law banning insults to religious sensitivities made the state police the enforcers of the Russian Orthodox church. Putin specifically exalted Ilyin’s loony ideas about a mystical Eurasia, led by Moscow.

In January 2012, Putin published an article in which he declared that Russians and Ukrainians would never be divided and threatened war against those who failed to understand. The new doctrine challenged the notion that Ukraine was a sovereign nation, which legitimized Russian political meddling and covert cyber operations at a time when Ukraine was seeking association with the European Union–something that Putin was determined to prevent. Putin also elevated to prominence on Russian media other writers and personalities who espoused similar ideas about a kind of Eurasian “manifest destiny” under Russian hegemony and fostered a new think tank called the Izborsk Club that generated and promulgated such notions about Western sexual decadence and anti-semitism which became the intellectual hub of a new Russian Orthodox Christian nationalism. About the same time, Putin was doubling the Russian arms budget.

In 2013, Putin stepped up his efforts to cultivate right-wing Western politicians that opposed the EU like Nigel Farage in the UK and Marine Le Pen in France, providing them a media home on the state-owned network RT (formerly Russian Today), which was broadcast widely in Western Europe in English, Spanish, German, and French. It was also around this time that Russians in Putin’s orbit glommed onto Donald Trump (then fully engaged in the “birther” lie) as a future US presidential prospect.

Snyder argues that the grand strategy here has been to weaken the EU and the US by promoting internal discord and division, deploying media and–better yet–Internet resources that Western countries with a tradition of open discourse were ill-equipped to resist and exploiting existing tensions and fissures in Western societies.

But the immediate objective was Ukraine, where the venal and Moscow-friendly president Viktor Yanukovych was being subjected to increasing pressure from Putin, who had visited Kyiv in July 2013 and declared that Russia and Ukraine were “one people”. But Yanukovych (who had hired future Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort to advise his 2010 election come-back) was also under intense popular pressure to sign an association agreement with the EU, which most Ukrainians saw as protection against being re-absorbed by Russia. On November 13, 2013 Yanukovych (after speaking to Putin) suddenly announced that he would not sign the EU agreement. That set off massive protests in Kyiv’s Maidan square, which only grew through the winter months in numbers and tenacity after Yanukovych used violence to try to quell them and introduced Russian-style dictatorship laws in January 2014. The standoff in Kyiv produced a change in Russian objectives which a policy paper re-defined in February as control over the industrial complex in the eastern Donbas region and the gas transport system in the entire country. The paper also concluded that Yanukovych was finished politically and had outlived his utility. After a final outburst of killing protestors on the Maidan, Yanukovych fled to Russia.  Just a few days later, on February 24, 2014 Russia seized Crimea. After a sham election, Putin accepted “the wishes of the people of Crimea” and asserted Russian sovereignty over the region. Then in March, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov used the killing of a Ukrainian by a Russian in the Donbas as the pretext to justify Russian intervention in that region, all the while denying that Russian military forces were involved.

If you were a little hazy on how this all transpired, you might be forgiven, because it was only sketchily covered by US news organizations. Governments in the US and Europe were in shocked disbelief that Russia would actually take over territory in another country, even though it had already done so in Georgia (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) and reduced its own internal Republic of Chechnya to ruins to crush a rebellion there, and Putin had telegraphed his intentions publicly. Analysts and commentators were confused about how to interpret what happened. Maybe Russia was right about Ukraine really wanting being part of a single Russia (though months of huge protests in the Maidan clearly indicated otherwise). Maybe the Maidan really was a “right-wing coup” as Russian media insisted. The fact that many Ukrainians spoke Russian as their primary language was assumed to mean that their national allegiance lay with Moscow as well. The Donbas region under Russian control was constantly referred to in the media as a “separatist” or “break-away” region, implying that the choice to be under Russian control was homegrown and spontaneous. (Snyder deals with all of these questions with nuance and precision). In any case, the Western response was limited to economic sanctions, and pretty soon it all disappeared from the news–in this country, at least.

Snyder contends that “the Russian invasion of southern and then southeastern Ukraine involved the most sophisticated propaganda campaign in the history of warfare.” As Dmitry Kiselev, the head of the Russian state agency for international news, stated: “Information war is now the main type of war”. Internally, Russian media had been thoroughly bludgeoned into submission as independent journalists were beaten, killed, or driven into exile, so what Russian citizens read or heard was largely under state control. In March 2014, Russian television began showing maps of an area in eastern and southern Ukraine labeled Novorossiia (New Russia). What is now so striking about that map, is that “Novorossiia” covers almost exactly the areas that Russian forces succeeded or attempted to seize in the second Russian invasion in 2022!

The problem was how to deal with the outside world. Putin and his surrogates simply denied what had occurred and Western editors dutifully repeated his lies. As time went on and new incidents penetrated the veil of Western indifference, like the shoot-down of a Malaysian airline in June 2014, the Russian propaganda machine would spew out lies and completely fabricated stories to deflect blame onto Ukraine or Western countries. It didn’t matter that the stories were obviously false and often self-contradictory. They were out there in the ether and inevitably some of it stuck as it was repeated and amplified–as Snyder puts it, a campaign of “implausible denial”.

This was accompanied by what Snyder calls the “broadest cyber offensive in history” against Ukraine, shutting down the power grid, railways, and television, among other things. This got little attention in the West until later in 2014 when Russian hackers penetrated the email networks in the White House, State Department, and Joint Chiefs of Staff. It was about this same time that Cambridge Analytica, the Mercer-financed cyberdata firm then headed by Steve Bannon, started testing messages about Putin on the American public. European targets were also hit, including the German Bundestag and Angela Merkel’s CDU party. Snyder notes also that almost immediately after Merkel announced that Germany would accept millions of refugees fleeing the Middle East, Russian bombers began dropping non-precision bombs on Syria, thereby precipitating an even larger surge of refugees into Western Europe as well as a predictable backlash among voters in Germany and elsewhere. Russian propaganda memes were taken up by Europeans and Americans on the far right, as well as some leftist and libertarian figures such as Stephen Cohen and Katrina vanden Heuvel (writing in The Nation) and Ron Paul (father of senator Rand Paul).

Only in the last 60 pages of the book does Snyder tackle the subject of Donald Trump, who was “openly and exuberantly” backed by Russian officials. Trump’s dealings with shady Russians goes back to the 1980s, when they started buying apartments in his buildings, presumably to launder money, But it wasn’t until the 2000s that figures from Putin’s Russia really started to take an interest in him as someone who could be potentially groomed, and that interest seemed to pick up sharply when Trump became the principal peddler of the “birther” lie–something that RT had been energetically spreading around. Much of what follows will be familiar to anyone who paid attention to the botched Mueller Report or the plethora of investigative reporting during the 2016 campaign and the next several years, but there are nuggets here that I (who really did try to pay attention) don’t remember seeing previously.  For example, that “in June 2015 when Trump announced his candidacy, the [Russian] Internet Research Agency expanded to include an American Department. About ninety new employees went to work on-site in St. Petersburg, while others were sent on missions to the United States.  The Internet Research Agency also engaged about a hundred American political activists who did not know who they were working for.” Or that “[Jared] Kushner failed to mention, after his father-in-law’s election victory, that his company Cadre held a weighty investment from a Russian whose companies had channeled a billion dollars to Facebook and 191 million to Twitter on behalf of the Russian state.”

But Snyder’s narrative doesn’t depend so much on any single data point as it does on their cumulative weight. While you may have been aware of most of these elements, simply seeing them laid out in relentless chronological order is stunning and overwhelming. As Michael Morell, former acting head of the CIA wrote in a New York Times op-ed in August 2016, “In the intelligence business, we would say that Mr. Putin had recruited Mr. Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation.” Whether it was indeed “unwitting” we may never know with certainty. Snyder notes that “much of what Russia did was to take advantage of what it found. Hyperpartisan stories on Fox News or outbursts on Breitbart gained viewership thanks to retransmission by Russian bots. Russian support helped fringe right-wing sites such as Next News Network gain notoriety and influence. Its videos were viewed about 56 million times in October 2016.”

A lot has happened in the four years since this book was published. But based on the patterns that Snyder has laid out, not much of it should be surprising. You don’t need to believe that Trump is under orders from Putin to see the parallels between what Putin did in Russia and what Trump attempted–and to a considerable degree succeeded in doing–in the US. He came astonishingly close to overturning a election that he decisively lost and has convinced his party to pretend that he actually won. He has gotten them to implement measures that could insure, if he does run again, that he might well win regardless of the vote. As I have written previously, Putin is Trump’s business model.

Perhaps even more damaging has been the destruction of public trust in democratic institutions, starting with faith in the integrity of elections. If elections are all rigged, why bother to vote? If the courts are all politicized, then the constitution is up for grabs. If a former president can get away with a breathtaking list of crimes up to and including sedition, why should anyone respect the law? It is in this sense that Putin’s aggressive nihilism has had its most spectacular success, taking root and metastasizing in America. In Europe, as well, anti-democratic Christian nationalist forces have gained strength. Brexit happened, weakening the EU. In France, Macron narrowly survived a challenge from Putin acolyte Marine Le Pen. In Italy, hard right Giorgia Meloni, leader of a party with post-Fascist roots, is poised to take over the government. Hungary’s Viktor Orban has consolidated his power in a virtual dictatorship and has become a icon for rightist parties around the world, specifically including the US Republican Party.

Not everything has gone in that direction, of course. Ukraine’s heroic and increasingly successful resistance to Russian aggression in 2022 surprised Western skeptics and rallied most of Europe in its defense, while decisively disproving the “one people” myth. If Ukraine wasn’t a coherent nation before, it certainly is now. Joe Biden’s election has at least temporarily halted the slide into the Trumpian abyss. And yet, there is a pervading sense that we are teetering on the edge where things could fall either way.

The one quibble I have with Snyder’s analysis is with his framing duality between what he calls the “politics of inevitability” and “the politics of eternity”. The first is like faith in the inexorable triumph of Communism or, alternatively, of democracy and the free market–the “end of history”, if you will. The second requires a dispirited sense that things won’t ever get better, that everything is an endless cycle of humiliation, death, and rebirth. Both use a kind of quasi-religious iconography, and both produce a kind of blindness to reality. I can see what he’s driving at, but I also think that these concepts are too amorphous and confusing to be very helpful and are really unnecessary.

That one nitpick aside, this is a stunningly brilliant and prescient analysis of our current world, impressive in both its Big Picture insight and in the meticulous detail of his argumentation. At under 300 pages (excluding endnotes), it’s not a difficult read, and it will give you an understanding of how we got to where we now find ourselves. I wholeheartedly recommend it.

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