NEW YORK – I am an American, Moscow-born. And because of that, my Americanness, unlike that of Saul Bellow’s Augie March, once triggered something of a national debate back in Russia. In some places, school textbooks asked students whether it was right or wrong for Nina Khrushcheva to become an American citizen. I leave it to you to guess which position most people, especially those of the Soviet generation, supported.
While you can take a Russian out of her homeland, in the end you can’t take Russia out of her. So, at a time when US politics has taken such a bizarre turn, perhaps my Russia-tinted lenses can help my fellow Americans make some sense of it.
Indeed, from my perspective, many of the nastiest and most perverse features of Russian politics now seem present in the United States as well. The Big Lie – invented in Nazi Germany, perfected in the Soviet Union, and wielded expertly by Russian President Vladimir Putin – is today a core component of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
So far, Trump has been allowed to get away with his lies. The news media have largely been what Lenin called “useful idiots,” so eager to use Trump to boost their own ratings that they did not notice or care that they were also boosting his. No surprise, then, that an emboldened Trump now delivers lies of ever more breathtaking audacity.
For example, after spending years leading the so-called birther movement – which alleged that President Barack Obama was not born in the US, and was therefore constitutionally barred from holding office – Trump declared that it was actually his opponent, Hillary Clinton, who had invented the controversy back in 2008. It was up to Trump, apparently, to “finish” it. “President Barack Obama,” he stated triumphantly (as if there was ever really any doubt), “was born in the US. Period.”
Some say that, in the wake of such bravura mendacity, the media are now turning on Trump. Indeed, his birther claim about Clinton seems to have been simply too ridiculous to let slide. Yet his national opinion poll ratings remain strong, suggesting that many of his supporters are willing to believe – or at least overlook – his flagrant lies.
This may partly reflect another “Russian” feature of the current US election campaign: the power of oligarchs. Russia’s first post-Soviet president, Boris Yeltsin, cut deals with the country’s wealthiest citizens: they would finance his re-election campaign in exchange for privileged access to the crown jewels of Russian industry as they were privatized.
Similarly nasty deals are being made in the US nowadays, thanks to another group of useful idiots: the conservative justices on the US Supreme Court who gave America the infamous 2010 Citizens United decision. By extending constitutional free-speech protection to political campaign donations, that ruling removed all constraints on the power of money over US politics. In Russia, the oligarchs are accountable to Putin. In the US, by contrast, it seems that the politicians are accountable to the oligarchs, who use their money to manipulate ordinary citizens.
Exhibit A is Rupert Murdoch, Chair and former CEO of News Corporation and 21st Century Fox. Over the years, Murdoch newspapers played a leading role in smearing the European Union, thereby helping to bring about June’s Brexit vote. Now that Murdoch has taken over from Roger Ailes as CEO of Fox News – after Ailes resigned amid a swirl of sexual-misconduct allegations – he seems to have made it his mission to compel US voters to make a similarly disastrous choice. Indeed, since Murdoch’s takeover in July, Fox News has become all about Trump, not about news. Hosts who once expressed concerns about Trump now offer banalities. As for Ailes, he is openly advising Trump’s campaign.
Perhaps the most disappointing parallel between Russia’s past and America’s present is what I call the silence of the rams: the refusal of those with influence to stand up and stop the insanity. In Russia in 1917, the October Revolution succeeded largely because the Bolsheviks’ opponents, often too concerned with protecting their own positions and prestige, failed to unify against them.
In the US today, influential Republicans are following much the same route. To be sure, some leading Republicans openly oppose Trump. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has worked hard in recent months to expose Trump as the dangerous fraud that he is.
Moreover, 50 of America’s most senior Republican national security officials have signed a letter warning that Trump “would put at risk our country’s national security and well-being.” Senators Lindsey Graham and Ben Sasse have also denounced Trump as a threat to American freedom and to world peace. And former President George H.W. Bush reportedly will vote for Clinton. These Republicans are showing true patriotism, putting country before party.
But what about Paul Ryan, the current Speaker of the House of Representatives, who acts as if Trump is worthy of the American presidency, and risks losing both party and country, only because Trump just might enact some policies that he supports? If Ryan is truly the grown-up Catholic altar boy that he likes to portray himself as being, he should denounce Trump’s xenophobic statements, deepening flirtation with the racist “alt-right,” dishonest business practices, and erratic foreign policy position. For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain his whole policy and lose his own soul.
And, finally, where are the many old Republican lions? If they want to prevent Trump from taking their party’s reputation – and their country’s future – to the slaughterhouse, they had better roar soon. And yet former President George W. Bush remains on the sidelines, seemingly more embittered that Trump defeated his brother Jeb in the primary than animated by the threat posed by Trump. James Baker, who served both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, has not publicly said a word; nor has George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, Condoleezza Rice, or Dick Cheney. We know that Colin Powell loathes Trump, but only because his emails were leaked.
When Yeltsin stepped down, he left Russia at the mercy of his handpicked successor, Putin. For the sake of their party and their own honor and reputations, these old lions should now openly disavow Trump, lest similar damage be inflicted on their – and my – country.