The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

In Cheese We Trust

October 30, 2016

Mass media in the US often portray Donald Trump as an American version of Putin, if not his puppet. But it makes sense to take a closer look at the essence of Trump’s and Putin’s appeal to their respective populations. Let’s recap three broad topics: foreign policy, domestic policy, and the economy.

Both Putin and Trump focus on ‘foreign policy populism’ trying to sell the idea of great power resurgence. Showing the West “Kuzma’s Mother” has been Russia’s operative battle cry since Khrushchev didn’t slam his shoe at the UN General Assembly in 1960. Russia’s current leadership is carefully executing this master plan, starting with cyber-attacks and finishing with nuclear missile deployment In Kaliningrad.

On the other side of the pond, apart from “we’re gonna win so much, you may even get tired of winning” and the whole “make America great again” rhetoric, the Trump campaign has voiced admiration for Saddam Hussein, Bashar Assad and Kim Jong-un, complaining that Obama failed to show real leadership. I guess, “bombing the shit out of ISIS” as well as praising genocidal maniacs is his way of showing Kuzma’s mother to the rest of the world. Why this is necessary is a whole other question.

On the domestic politics front, things are not looking so good either. Trump has voiced so many racist and divisive statements, it’s a wonder if there is one social group he has not insulted yet. With a possible future president inciting racial profiling the recent Oregon militia acquittal looks particularly galling. One might ask whether the results of the trial would have been the same with non-white militia members. It is not even necessary to hypothesize what would have happened had another ethnic group been involved: native Americans protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline have been mass arrested and attacked by riot police.

Russia’s fixation on enemies is not necessarily motivated by race (although inter-ethnic relations are rather strained). For instance, Russia has its own ‘blacks’ – people who come from the North Caucasus and Central Asia and who are also subjected to racial profiling. The Moscow center for the monitoring of xenophobia “Sova” has noted the decline in race-motivated crime and a re-orientation towards the so-called “fifth column”: perceived traitors of the Russian state, i.e., critics of the Putin regime. Similar tendencies are visible at the legislative level: the foreign agent law and anti-Western sanctions eclipsed attempts to introduce stricter internal migration rules.

A big part of both leaders’ appeal is their promise (Trump) and perceived experience (Putin) in fixing the economy. In Russia, after the economic hardship of the 90s most people welcomed the (oil price fueled) prosperity of the early 2000s. In the minds of Russians, those fat years are directly linked to Putin’s leadership. So much so, that a lot of Putin’s support is even explained with the so-called ‘sausage patriotism’ (legitimacy based on economic achievement):  well-paid jobs, the ability to afford a bank loan for a car, international travel, and food delicacies seem to be much more tangible and more important than that elusive value of freedom of speech. In the last couple of years, the sausage dream has been replaced with cheese, since fancy French and Dutch varieties have been banned from Russian supermarkets by the government to retaliate against Western sanctions over Ukraine.

Trump cannot boast of a spotless economic record, but even his bankruptcies work for him: he seems to be the living embodiment of American resilience and the American dream (despite ‘a small’ $ 14 million loan from his father). The cleverly framed status of “blue-collar billionaire” was a perfect catchphrase to embrace the understanding of America being a nation of ‘haves and soon-to-haves’. Thus, even though Trump’s tax plan is supposed to benefit the top of the income distribution, his blue-collar support is unwavering: they just believe they will soon be in that top 1% – taking advantage of those tax cuts.

Putin’s regime is going to last until people in Russia look more at their fridges than their TVs. What is wrong with American fridges that people want to vote for Trump?


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Elizaveta Gaufman is Assistant Professor of Russian Discourse and Politics at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. She is the author of "Security Threats and Public Perception: Digital Russia and the Ukraine Crisis"