By Fiona Hill, Director; Center on the United States and Europe, Senior Fellow on Foreign Policy
The U.S. election came hot on the heels of the 99th anniversary of the Russian revolution (November 7, 1917)—the result was the contemporary American version of a Bolshevik revolution. Donald Trump rode a wave of popular anger against the establishment, promising to bring down the old guard and seize the White House. Like the Bolsheviks, his campaign was big on slogans and short on content.
Maybe it takes a “Bolshevik” to know one—or rather, someone who knows what a Bolshevik, a revolutionary, thinks like. And among the handful of people who seemed to call this electoral outcome was Russian President Vladimir Putin. The reasons why are instructive.
Putin does not have deep knowledge of the intricacies of U.S. party politics. He cares little for the mechanics of the American electoral system and its complexities, and is disdainful of the messy nature of democracy in general.
But one thing he does know well is how to gauge the national mood, play with emotions, and manipulate people. He also knows how to take the measure of individuals and exploit their flaws and weaknesses.
Putin rose to the presidency in 1999 after a decade of Russian economic crisis and national humiliation against a political backdrop not entirely dissimilar to that of the United States in 2016. His “millennium message” or manifesto, laid out in a speech in December 1999, was to make Russia great again—in effect “Russia First.” The initial focus was rebuilding at home after the collapse of the Soviet Union (his great catastrophe of the 20th century). He did not turn to foreign policy for quite some time.
Putin’s message was more sophisticated than Trump’s stump speeches, but he worked to burnish an image as a scrappy street fighter who would never let an insult stand, and a tough guy who would speak his mind in uncompromising and colorful terms. From the gray, unknown former KGB operative in 1999 and 2000 (“Who is Mr. Putin?” was the question everyone asked when Yeltsin named him as his successor), Putin has become a global celebrity and a populist leader par excellence. His macho style is now broadly emulated, including by the American president-elect.
A familiar story
Putin initially tailored his presidential image for the Russian population of the late 1990s—the rank-and-file members of the Communist Party who lost an ideology and a country; the former Soviet factory workers and cooperative farmers who saw their livelihoods and identities disappear; the elderly who never got their pensions from the bankrupt state. This huge disenfranchised group looked back on Soviet times with nostalgia and saw only bad times ahead. Democracy—associated by many Russians with the economic degradation of the 1990s—became a tainted concept.
The Soviet Union was an early victim of globalization.
The Soviet Union was an early victim of globalization in the late 1980s and 1990s. It was hopelessly uncompetitive outside the energy and arms sectors in global markets. People and industries were scattered across a vast territory, with sprawling supply lines and crumbling infrastructure. The big factories, mines, and metal works had no new customers when the bottom fell out of Soviet central planning. Russia’s communities were devastated, its towns and cities cut off from each other by poor roads and weak communications. Life expectancy plummeted, pushed down by rampant alcoholism and smoking, and then by a heroin epidemic (with HIV and tuberculosis nipping at its heels). Outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, life in Russia could be grim.
During Putin’s first two terms, a fortunate, sustained rise in oil and gas prices improved circumstances considerably. The state had revenues to redistribute. Moribund industries were revitalized. Wages rose. Pensions were paid. Putin’s economics team conducted a careful, even exemplary, fiscal policy. Mobile phones and the internet helped connect far-flung places. A new urban elite emerged, benefitting from the energy boom. Moscow transformed itself into a glitzy capital with high aspirations to become a world-class metropolis.
In 2008, limited to two consecutive presidential terms by the constitution, Putin swapped positions with his close associate Dmitry Medvedev and became Russian prime minister. Medvedev’s presidential performance did not play well for Putin; and in 2011, he announced that he would run again for a third term. For many, his re-election was a foregone conclusion. Not so in the Russian capital. The new professional elite and NGO community took to the streets. They called for alternatives to Putin and more political participation. Russia was changing. Society had reached a tipping point. Moscow turned against Putin, much to his chagrin.
As he launched his presidential campaign in late 2011, Putin repudiated the urban elites, accusing them of seeking to bring down the state. Putin lost the Moscow popular vote in 2012—more people either voted against him or stayed home—but he prevailed elsewhere by playing to a base that resented the wealth and privilege of the capital, Russia’s “establishment.”
Today, Putin still draws his support from the regions outside Moscow, and the Kremlin remains obsessed with shoring up that support. Putin and his team are in permanent campaign mode. The Kremlin maintains armies of pollsters to gauge the national mood, to figure out what people want, to look for signs of trouble, and then to decide how to play to the emotions of the Russian people.
Putin is, himself, a political performance artist.
TV and the internet are important tools. Putin once quipped that 50 percent of internet content is pornography, and politics is presented in the media as salacious entertainment (sex tapes of prominent political opponents often find their way into public viewing, for instance). Putin is, himself, a political performance artist. Putin’s appearances are carefully orchestrated to suit the mood of his audience. The wars in Ukraine and Syria are frequently covered like sporting events. The U.S. election, too, was a popular distraction for Russian audiences—turning their minds away from Russia’s own economic and political travails. The Kremlin happily portrayed the mud-slinging nature of the U.S. campaign to denigrate American and Western democracy.
During the campaign, Putin’s team was also parsing the U.S. polls and taking the popular pulse. From the Kremlin perspective, the frustration and public dissatisfaction of a large segment of the American public, in the wake of a great recession and industrial dislocation, looked a lot like the frustration and public dissatisfaction in the USSR of the 1980s and Russia of the 1990s. The economic and societal ills of small American cities and rural areas, were familiar to the Kremlin. U.S. grassroots grievances resonated with Russian resentments. Donald Trump’s 2016 slogans had shades of Putin’s 2012 campaign: bashing out-of-touch elites, championing the little guy, projecting the image of the strong leader who could get the people what they wanted, making his country great again, and teaching everyone else a lesson in the process.
Putin and the Kremlin seemed to recognize that this election was really a referendum on America’s future. The November 8 ballot, as Trump also understood, was more like the June 23 Brexit vote in the United Kingdom. In that case, the British people sought to “take their country back” from an out-of-touch establishment (ostensibly in Brussels) against a backdrop of bitter political divisions, a prolonged economic crisis, and alarm at the rapid pace of demographic and social change in the country. Nearly three million British voters who did not participate in the previous U.K. general election took part in the referendum (mostly in favor of Brexit). As a result, the pollsters never saw them coming. Similarly, in the United States, pollsters appear to have significantly underestimated both the number of hidden Trump voters who would head to the ballot box and how many people would simply sit this election out. As in the United Kingdom in June, the U.S. national mood—the electorate’s general feelings about the direction of the country—was the critical element in the November election.
Putin and the Kremlin recognized Americans’ anger with the political establishment, because they are always on the alert for it at home. Putin’s presidency is hyper-personalized. There is no political party behind him—rather, his presidency relies on mass support. Putin has to be fully in tune with people’s emotions to be “their” president. He always has to play to the crowd. Slogans, catch phrases, and pithy put-downs for opponents are more important to Putin than facts and issues, which are always fungible. Based on their own experience, the Kremlin judged (correctly) that in America’s essentially “Russian moment,” a U.S. “Bolshevik” and showman would better fit the angry mood than the alternative from the ancient régime.
Cover photo by Thomas Depenbusch