One thing I will never do when criticizing the regime in Russia is let Western governments and the business class they serve off the hook for their part in creating said regime. By the same token, I do not suggest that the negative aspects in Russian society under Putin are exclusive to Russians. There are distinct nuances and unique features, but you’d find these between similar types of people in any country. Hence the reason why I’ve often drawn parallels between Putin’s supporters and certain Americans, if only to remind people in the US that they are not immune to the same kind of thinking and the politics which derive from it.
If you need an example, here’s an excellent one from The Financial Times’ Courtney Weaver.
Read the words of those Trump supporters she quotes and tell me that doesn’t smack of American vatnost.
In some ways the politics of American conservatives and Russian vatniks might seem very different, but they both stem from similar roots. The Russian vatnik is a believer in the state, however corrupt it is. Supporting the state may be motivated by hopes of one day receiving more from it, whether in positions (many Russians work for the state) or pensions. In America this sort of person is very distrustful of the state, but substitutes it with the private sector and wealthy businessmen. This is due to a belief in trickle down economics and in some cases an unrealistic hope of one day joining the ranks of millionaires.
A Russian vatnik’s conditions and prospects in life are typically very low, but the frustration this brings can be assuaged by the belief that others who “deserve” it have it worse. The vatnik is not allowed to voice loud discontent with the government, but is encouraged channel that rage towards authorized targets- Obama, Turkey, Ukraine, gays, etc. Similarly, American conservatives, while enjoying far more freedom of speech than Russians, are still strongly encouraged by their media to take out their rage on scapegoats- welfare recipients, Muslims, liberal professors, etc.
So could America really become like Putin’s Russia? Already some writers are suggesting that Trump’s campaign could lead to the rise of fascism in America. If that is the case, a right-wing “soft” dictatorship like Putin’s Russia can’t be ruled out. There are a few caveats though.
One thing Trump or another similar right-wing figure would have to contend with is opposition in congress and the supreme court. Of course if Republicans end up taking the House and Senate, it’s possible that they could do a lot of damage in concert with the White House. When Republicans win, they win. When Democrats win, they’re overly concerned with “bipartisanship,” as was the case with Obama.
Another thing to consider is the state level. Perhaps the federal government will never go anything close to full Putin, but on a state level the far right could monopolize power. We’ve seen what concerted effort can do on the state level when it comes to issues like reproductive rights and public education.
Lastly, one of the main things that characterizes Putin’s dictatorship is the lack of rule of law. I don’t think we’ll see this come about in the same way it exists in Russia, but when we look at how corporations and businesses continually skirt regulations and wield their lobby groups, it’s not too far fetched to imagine fewer and fewer laws and regulations being enforced.
All in all, Putin and Trump are just two examples of what I see as a steady rise of the far right in the world. Whether it’s ISIS in the Middle East, Cossacks in occupied Donbas, Svoboda supporters in Kyiv, European far right parties, or people like Trump and his fans in America, the forces of hate, scapegoating, and irrationality are on the march. Meanwhile the only force that can oppose them is either duped into supporting reactionary regimes thanks to Kremlin foreign-language media, or it’s busy discussing whether or not a certain music video features “problematic” cultural appropriation.
America would have to sink pretty low and go through massive changes to become identical to Putin’s Russia, but not identical isn’t exactly good. It’s always important to understand that while there are vast advantages of liberal democracies over kleptocratic dictatorships, those are often due to very slight differences. In their absence, those advantages can disappear. To those who think it can’t happen in America, I leave you with one of my favorite quotes on the subject of how people come to accept fascism:
“Now I see a little better how Nazism overcame Germany – not by attack from without or by subversion from within, but with a whoop and a holler. It was what most Germans wanted – or, under pressure of combined reality and illusion, came to want. They wanted it; they got it; and they liked it.
I came home a little bit afraid for my country, afraid of what it might want, and get, and like, under combined pressure of reality and illusion. I felt – and feel – that it was not German Man that I met, but Man. He happened to be in Germany under certain conditions. He might be here under certain conditions. He might, under certain conditions, be I.
If I – and my countrymen – ever succumbed to that concatenation of conditions, no Constitution, no laws, no police, and certainly no army would be able to protect us from harm.”
-Milton Mayer, They Thought They Were Free