U.S. Media Blames Putin Conspiracy for Homegrown Trump Phenomenon

Election '16

Donald Trump is the media’s favorite excuse to bash Official U.S. Enemies. His Rorschach politics that shift almost weekly allows overworked writers to project onto Trump whatever traits they need to make an analogy stick (and deadline met).

Over the past year Trump has been Nicolas MaduroJoseph Stalin, Kim Jong-Il, Saddam Hussein, an African dictator, Bashar al-Assad, Bernie Sanders, Fidel Castro, Ayatollah Khomeini, Hugo Chavez (a dozen times!), Mao Zedong, a Chinese communist (present day), a Chinese communist (1980s), Caligula, Rodrigo Duterte, Jeremy Corbyn, Pinochet, Norse god LokiBrexit, Napoleon, Barry Goldwater, Mussolini, Nero, Andrew Jackson, Voldemort, Groucho Marx, Adolf Hitler, Moqtada al-Sadr, Joseph Goebbels, L. Ron Hubbard, King George III, Richard Nixon, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Basically the entire cast of Game of Thrones, Batman vs. Superman, and Donald Trump himself. Twice.

The Daily Beast alone has accused Trump of simultaneously being a communist, a fascist, an Iraqi Shia cleric, an Iranian Shia cleric, a Republican president from the '70s, a Russian president from the present, a Roman emperor, and a cult leader.  

Put simply, Trump is whomever we need him to be.

And the most popular—and geopolitically convenient—person pundits need him to be is Russian “strongman” Vladimir Putin. The liberal hawks who comprise a great deal of the Democratic and media establishment love nothing more than to use far-right boogeymen like Trump as a means of bashing foreign enemies, and Putin satisfies this impulse with little effort or imagination. Trump bad, Putin bad, both vain and ideologically unpredictable, the takes practically write themselves. Above all, the Trump-bashing as a means of mocking Official Enemies permits one to appear anti-fascist and anti-racist while still properly ingratiating oneself to the NatSec crowd. For careerist center-left pundits it’s a win/win with no downside; thus its ubiquity.

With regard to Putin, this trope has been taken one step further. Not only is Trump similar to Putin, he is now secretly plotting with him. This innuendo-laden take reached new lows with a Slate piece earlier this month by Franklin Foer, a fellow at the U.S. State Department-funded (see, guilt-by-association is fun) New America:

Putin’s Puppet: If the Russian president could design a candidate to undermine American interests—and advance his own—he’d look a lot like Donald Trump.

The entire premise of the piece relies on the paranoid assumption that Putin wants to "destroy the West":

Vladimir Putin has a plan for destroying the West—and that plan looks a lot like Donald Trump.

Wait, what? Putin may want to undermine the West. He may want to curb the expansion of NATO, but destroy it? Is he Magneto? This is the type of unhinged, over-the-top language that goes unchallenged when discussing the U.S.' favorite Eastern menace.

Note, the author never outright says Trump is actually “Putin’s puppet," only that they have been nice to each other in the past and Trump’s nominal lack of hostility toward Russia serves the interests of Putin. But the provocative headline and political attack ad-like scary black-and-white photos of a menacing Putin leering behind Trump let the reader's mind fill in the blanks. Indeed, if you’re trying to link two people who have never actually met, just photoshop them together. That’s how photojournalism works, right?

The primary complaint of the piece is that Trump and some of his advisers have overlapping business interests in Russia. But this, of course, is true of Clinton with several countries. The problem isn’t the underlying issue of conflicts of interests (an otherwise serious problem), it’s who those conflicts are with. This is a political issue, not an ethical one, rendering Putin-Trump pearl-clutching arbitrary at best and hypocritical at worst.

Is it possible that Putin prefers Trump? Of course, it is. But the gap between other countries leaders liking a candidate and secretly controlling them is light years wide. On Monday, liberal hawk Jon Chait of New York Magazine took it one step further, asking the positively Alex Jones-esque question: “Is Donald Trump Working for Russia?

The article went on to do what any YouTube conspiracy theory video does: make a lot of innuendo, show a few links and use a “hey, I’m just asking questions” framing. Chait doesn’t actually think Trump is working for Russia, but it doesn’t matter. Donald Trump wanted to take some bellicose language out of the RNC platform aimed at Russia and this is a gesture that can only be done by someone who is a secret FSB agent. Never mind that by removing support for lethal aid to the pro-U.S. Ukrainian government the RNC’s position is now exactly that of President Obama’s. Chait had Cold War paranoia to sow and a candidate to mock.

Huffington Post joined the “Putin controls Trump” drumbeat Tuesday with “The Real Winner at the GOP Convention Is Vladimir Putin,” co-authored by Akbar Shahid Ahmed who writes for the Global Post, a joint partnership between Huffington Post and the billionaire-funded pro-EU think tank Berggruen Institute:

Who’s to blame for the tensions between Putin and the West? Weak Europeans, for failing to deal with their continent’s problems, and President Barack Obama, for failing to make Putin respect him. Add in, of course, anyone who has a problem with Putin’s persistent support for the dictator of Syria, a man Trump sees as an “A”-grade leader despite his responsibility for the rise of the Islamic State group and the ongoing refugee crisis, and others who dispute Putin’s cleverly twisted depiction of American foreign policy.

First, it should be noted the link that supposedly shows Trump saying Assad is a “grade A” leader is 100% false. ABC is mixing up, either deliberately or accidentally, something Trump said about Putin, not Bashar al-Assad.

Here’s what ABC wrote:

"I think in terms of leadership, he's getting an A and our president is not doing so well," Trump said of al-Assad during an interview with Fox News in September.

And here’s what was actually said, as tweeted out by Fox News last September:

.@realDonaldTrump on Putin: "I think in terms of leadership he's getting an ‘A’ and our President is not doing so well." #OReillyFactor

While this “mix up” may seem relatively benign, it displays how little fact-checking or thoroughness goes on when one is using the Trump spectacle to fan the flames of Cold War rhetoric.

The piece went on to repeat a claim that Trump adviser Michael Flynn has “quite literally been on the payroll of Moscow” for taking a speaking fee from RT, a staunchly pro-Russian government cable network. By this standard, any pundit or journalist who has taken a speaking or appearance fee from RAND, Voice of America, the Urban Institute, New America Foundation, Brookings Institution or dozens of other think tanks and media outlets has “quite literally” been on the payroll of Washington since the U.S. government provides funds for these organizations. But it doesn’t matter since the same standards, as we know, don’t apply to both governments because only one is uniquely clever and sinister.

It’s important to be clear because this point will be lost on many: none of this is to defend Flynn or Putin or Trump because this trope isn’t really about any of them. It’s about policing foreign policy consensus and piling on anyone who comes close to deviating from it. Russia is an enemy of the U.S. and must be uniformly seen as such or those making gestures of rapprochement must be stooges or spooks.

Again, conspiracy theories that would never pass editorial muster are entirely routine when written about Official U.S. Enemies. One theory, casually repeated in a New York Times op-ed in September of last year, that the 1999 Moscow attacks were FSB false-flag attacks so Putin could have a pretext to invade Chechnya, sounds strangely similar to popular conspiracy theory stateside that would have one blackballed from proper company. American editorial standards when it comes to bashing Russia, it seems, are in direct proportion to the tensions between our two countries.

It bears repeating once more, for those who will invariably (and likely deliberately) misread this piece, this is not at all a defense of Putin, nor is it a defense of Trump, who is indeed a xenophobic, sexist, racist demagogue. But a secret plot by Russia is not needed for an American leader to possess such qualities. And the assumption that it is, just as with those who blamed Putin for Brexit, displays an arrogance and denialism on the part of Western media about their own countries’ faults. Certainly our otherwise tolerant and liberal political discourse could never breed such an extremist, right? No, clearly it must be a foreign influence.

Like delusional middle-class parents convinced their drug dealer son is being corrupted by hip hop, Western media needs Russia to explain away its inability to keep its own house in order. In this case the U.S.’ own well-documented history of racism, xenophobia and chauvinism that, inevitably, vomited out the Trump spectacle. Blaming this entirely homegrown problem on Putin is an all-too-convenient trope and one that isn’t any less convincing when couched in ostensibly liberal, pro-Democratic Party trappings.  

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