Putin paints Russia as the underdog to keep his citizens, like those of Oceania in Nineteen Eighty-Four, in a permanent sense of crisis.
Timothy Snyder, a professor at Yale and historian of Eastern Europe, has come up with a new divide in his book The Road to Unfreedom: on one side are the proponents of the politics of “inevitability”, who, in an echo of Fukuyama, argue “the future is just more of the present, that the laws of progress are known, that there are no alternatives, and therefore nothing really to be done”. Their world view is being challenged by what Snyder calls the politics of “eternity”, in which a country is placed “at the centre of a cyclical story of victimhood” and its inhabitants kept in a permanent sense of crises over largely manufactured foreign threats, like the inhabitants of Oceania in Nineteen Eighty-Four. “Within eternity, no one is responsible because we all know that the enemy is coming no matter what we do,” Snyder writes. “Eternity politicians spread the conviction that government cannot aid society as a whole, but can only guard against threats. Progress gives way to doom.”
It is Vladimir Putin who is the best exemplar of the new politics of eternity. If his first two terms in office during the 2000s – Russia’s “never had it so good” era – were characterised by rising living standards, and, initially, co-operation with the West, then the period since his return to the presidency in 2012 has been dominated by a conservative, nationalist, Christian ideology, marked by a hostility to gays and Islamic immigrants. Putin’s re-election to a fourth term in March suggests we are in for another six years of the same – coupled with a bullish foreign policy that will see him continue to assert himself in the Middle East, despite the occasional punitive Western air strike against his allies in Damascus.
Snyder’s main concern, however, is not Putin’s ideas but rather the extent to which they are taking root in the West – culminating in the installation in the White House of a president who, from the moment he entered the campaign, not only appeared inexplicably fond of the Kremlin leader, but also demonstrated a similar casual attitude to the truth. “Trump’s proposal to ‘make America great again’ resonated with people, who believed along with him, that the American dream was dead,” argues Snyder. “Americans were vulnerable to the politics of eternity because their own experiences had already weakened inevitability.”
But to what extent was Trump also Putin’s man? One can only hope we will get an answer to this when Robert Mueller, the special counsel, concludes his investigation into the “links and/or coordination” between the Russian government and the Trump campaign – provided the president does not fire him before he can finish his work.
In the meantime, Luke Harding, a former Moscow correspondent for the Guardian, has attempted an answer. His book, Collusion, has at its heart the dossier compiled by Christopher Steele, a former MI6 officer, on Trump’s relations with Russia, notorious for alleging the existence of what the American media have taken to calling the “pee-pee tape”. The claim, denied by the president, is that during a visit to Moscow in 2013 he paid prostitutes to urinate on a bed in the Ritz-Carlton once slept in by the Obamas, which was then, naturally enough, recorded by the Russian secret services. Harding’s challenge is to demonstrate not just that the Kremlin propaganda machine did all it could to ensure Trump’s election – which few would dispute – but also that Trump himself was party to an active conspiracy, perhaps because he was being blackmailed by the Russian leader, whether over his murky financial affairs or the tape.
Harding fails to produce a smoking gun; perhaps there isn’t one. However, both he and Snyder provide a catalogue of links between the two sides, centred on Trump’s real estate deals, many of which look like a mechanism not just for laundering dirty Russian money but also for furthering the property mogul’s political career. Trump’s son, Donald Jr, admitted as long ago as 2008 that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets”. It is telling that during the six months in 2016 between his father’s nomination as the Republican candidate and his presidential election victory, 70 per cent of the units sold in Trump Jr’s buildings were purchased not by individuals but by limited liability companies – the resulting anonymity raising the suspicion that this may also have been a Russian operation to prop up Trump.