Russian journalist Kseniya Kirillova explores how vulnerabilities in the American resistance movement are similar to – and different than – those in Russia’s opposition movement.
This piece was originally published in The Loyal Opposition
In 2015, I wrote an article in which I explored the primary methods that Russian propaganda uses to try to discredit the Russian opposition, and also the major mistakes made by the Russian opposition in countering the propaganda. Now, against the backdrop of Donald Trump’s presidency, arguably the largest opposition movement in the modern history of the U.S. has emerged. Russian propaganda, often amplified by Trump and the U.S. right-wing media, is also being used against the American opposition movement to Trumpism. This article explores the vulnerabilities in America’s resistance movement, and how they are both similar to and different from the opposition movement in Russia.
1. Attitude towards patriotism.
I have noted on many occasions that one of the most successful tactics of domestic Russian propaganda has been the imposition of false associative series, templates and clichés that not only cause clashes between different groups, but also cause clashes of different identities within individuals.
Kremlin propaganda tries hard to drive a person into a very narrow identity, thus cutting off the ability of associating oneself with several different groups at the same time, or even forcing a person to assume false identity.
One of the most striking examples of such tactics in Russia was contrasting the terms “liberal” and “patriot” and creating a stereotype that “a liberal cannot be a patriot.” Unfortunately, the liberal intelligentsia in Russia has largely succumbed to this stereotype and accepted the Kremlin framing that one cannot be both a liberal and a patriot. In recent years, a number of figures in the Russian opposition movement have been trying to get away from this cliché, but these attempts have not yet met with success.
Similar tactics are used by the right-wing media outlets in the United States, which, through the imposition of false labels, distort the picture of reality. Thus, the supporters of Donald Trump try to bet on patriotism, stressing that they are the only “real patriots” of America, whereas Trump’s opponents are, in Soviet terms, “rootless cosmopolitans”(or in American terms, coastal elites) who secretly hate their country and periodically burn the American flag.
To the credit of the American opposition, it has for the most part avoided this trap. On the contrary, most people who oppose Trump emphasize that their opposition is based on patriotic motives. However, some representatives of the extreme left, primarily the radical anarchist groups, certainly took the victory of Donald Trump as an excuse to strengthen their anti-government stance and amplify their favorite thesis that modern America is evil and represents the forces of oppression. Representatives of this movement are relatively few, but right-wing propaganda successfully uses them at every opportunity to illustrate their thesis, and tries to portray them as representative of the opposition. Russian “trolls” also actively use these examples of the radical left to deepen chasms in American society.
It is interesting that the extreme right-wing American nationalist groups also view modern America as an absolute evil, and call for secession from it, including through a bloody civil war. Such views are held, for example, by the organization “League of the South“, which is openly sympathetic to Russia and even created a section in Russian on its website. However, against the backdrop of the Trump administration’s periodic “flirting” with the nationalists, the anti-state rhetoric of the far right is now declining, while separatist and radical tendencies on the left side of the spectrum, are, on the contrary, intensifying as a natural protest against the rhetoric coming from the White House. Key U.S. institutions, such as the Department of Justice and U.S. intelligence services, often end up being hit from both sides – the president and far-left radicals.
2. False “politicization” of criticism.
Trump’s right-wing propaganda has had more success in spreading other clichés, in particular, attributing to all of his opponents certain political views and distorting those views.
A similar tactic is used in Russia, where all of Vladimir Putin’s opponents are called “liberals.” This word in the minds of “Putin’s majority” is associated, thanks to propaganda, with “foreign agents” who dream of “plundering Russia” and plunging it into chaos and poverty on the orders of their “overseas masters”. In turn, right-wing propaganda in the United States often seeks to present the opposition movement exclusively as left-wing – a kind of “communist plot” that aims to destroy America with open borders and the destruction of capitalism.
As noted earlier, this picture is very far from reality. The Democratic Party is a broad coalition of people of along a wide spectrum of different views, and its extreme left-wing is relatively small. In fact, much of the American “left” is often to the right of the European socialists in their views – not to mention the Communists.
Although right-wing propaganda works to attribute opposition to Trump in strictly partisan terms, it is extremely inaccurate to reduce anti-Trump feelings strictly to political differences. Trump is criticized by people of many different views, including national security specialists and special service veterans, who, because of their work, often do not have any party sympathies. Moreover, a small but significant part of the Republican Party, especially at the level of ordinary members and party intellectuals, categorically rejected Trump early on. Suffice it to say, that it is for this reason that some formerly loyal Republicans broke away from the party and created an alternative conservative movement.
3. The need to talk with people about acute social problems.
Unfortunately, the Russian opposition realized the need to focus on some acute problems of many ordinary Russians until quite late. The American opposition still has a chance to capture the attention of the “heartland,” speaking about the problems of the American middle and lower-middle class which crosses racial and gender lines. For example, several media outlets noted that some of Trump’s policies may lead to job losses, and “trade wars” usually lead to lowering of living standards.
Trump’s demagoguery and the simplicity of his fear-driven solutions can be difficult to counter because real solutions are often complex. However, the American opposition needs to articulate real solutions to these problems impacting much of the middle and lower middle class of the country across racial and gender lines. If not, demagogues will fill the void with simplistic and fear-driven ideas pitting groups against each either.
4. The disunity of the opposition.
Above: Russian opposition commemorates slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. Below: Millions march against Trump in America
The American opposition is broader and deeper than the Russian opposition. On the one hand, the large-scale nature of the American opposition is a definite plus and enables people of different political views to unite around common, fundamental values. On the other hand, in practice such unification is very difficult. The symbols of patriotism have frequently been associated mainly with conservatives and many Americans have taken little interest in national security issues, leaving those to the experts. Core patriotic topics related to freedoms in America – freedom of religion, speech, press and assembly have been largely taken for granted. This results in more unifying patriotic topics often being replaced by a political agenda.
It is fair to say that the foundation for this confusion was laid by Donald Trump himself, when he called political opponents “traitors” for refusing to applaud him. However, the use of the labels “traitors” and “enemies of the people” has also been picked up at the other end of the ideological spectrum, and fanned by propaganda.
So-called “radical progressives” are too often ready to declare as enemies their fellow members of the “resistance” if they hold different views. American experts have noted that an effort to widen the differences and discord between more progressive and more moderate democrats is now becoming the main target of Russian “trolls”, which, according to analysts, continue to operate quite successfully in the American information space.
Nevertheless, the American opposition still has every chance to overcome the schisms and not repeat the mistakes of their Russian counterparts. Despite all the heterogeneity and lack of a common agenda, at least it is not marginal and, in fact, represents the majority of American society. Another important difference of this American opposition is that it is formed “from bottom up,” based on civil initiative, and not on the instructions of political leaders. However, because the ideological spectrum is so wide and the U.S. operates on a party system, unless the leadership of the Democratic party nominates sufficiently popular figures, the views of this majority of citizens will not be represented in government.