Garry Kasparov is chairman of the Human Rights Foundation and author of “Winter is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped.”
Donald Trump’s dark and frightening speech at the Republican National Convention on Thursday had pundits and historians making comparisons ranging from George Wallace in the 1960s to Benito Mussolini in the 1930s. As suitable as those comparisons may be, the chill that ran down my spine was not because of Trump’s echoes of old newsreel footage. Instead, I saw an Americanized version of the brutally effective propaganda of fear and hatred that Vladimir Putin blankets Russia with today.
This isn’t to say Trump plagiarized Putin verbatim. The language and tone were comparable the way that the Russian and American flags make different designs with the same red, white and blue. Nor was it merely the character of the text; Trump’s mannerisms and body language — toned down from his usual histrionics — were startlingly similar to the sneering and boastful delivery Russians know all too well after Putin’s 16 years in power.
In both cases, the intent of the speaker is to elicit the visceral emotions of fear and disgust before relieving them with a cleansing anger that overwhelms everything else. Only the leader can make the fear and disgust go away. The leader will channel your hatred and frustration and make everything better. How, exactly? Well, that’s not important right now.
The demagogic candidate must paint a bleak picture of the status quo, citing every catastrophe and failure before presenting the even darker future ahead if he isn’t granted the power to act, and act now. You might believe a campaigning politician would prefer to evoke positive emotions in prospective voters, but this does not fit the profile of the strongman. Instead of telling people what he will do if they elect him, he threatens them with what will happen if they don’t. The democratic leader needs the people. The tyrant, and the would-be tyrant, insists that the people need him.
Putin, long in power, must downplay Russia’s crisis. Trump, the outsider, must exaggerate the United States’. Trump has focused on terrorism and divisive domestic issues such as illegal immigration to populate his enemies list. He has also joined Putin’s crusade against NATO, a bizarre stance for an American presidential candidate if he actually considers global terrorism to be a serious threat. Strategic cooperation in the free world is more important now than ever. I am writing this from Tallinn, Estonia, which, without NATO, would indeed soon be in the “suburbs of St. Petersburg,” as Trump admirer Newt Gingrich recently put it.
Terrorism is a serious and scary problem, and the United States should be leading a serious international conversation about how to deal with it. Instead, Trump does his best to make sure people are as terrified as the murderers hope they will be. It mirrors Putin’s bombastic rhetoric as he produces his own deadly reality show in Syria, where Russian forces are carrying out massacres that will create millions more refugees and inspire another generation of jihadists.
Trump’s imaginary border wall is the quintessence of strongman rhetoric. The enemy is clear, and the benefits are apparent, while its innumerable impracticalities and drawbacks are more complicated. For Trump, as with Putin, solutions are always clear and simple — when they are given at all. That they are also impossible, or that they go unfulfilled, is irrelevant, because by the time this becomes obvious the strongman already has the power he wanted.
Contrast’s Trump’s campaign message and Putin’s propaganda with Ronald Reagan’s acceptance speech at the Republican convention in 1980. America and the world were facing many dire threats, from the failing economy to the energy crisis and the never-ending showdown between nuclear superpowers. And yet Reagan’s demeanor was cheerful, his language full of positives. He was relentlessly upbeat about the bright, new day and the grand opportunities that lay right around the corner for an America that united on shared values.
Americans believed Ronald Reagan and, because they believed him, they made his vision come true to the great benefit of the nation and the world. Many Americans believe Donald Trump today; the votes cannot be denied. But if Trump’s vision comes true, it will be a nightmare, not a dream.
It is painful to admit, but Putin was elected in a relatively fair election in 2000. He steadily dismantled Russia’s fragile democracy and succeeded in turning Russians against each other and against the world. It turns out you can go quite far in a democracy by convincing a majority that they are threatened by a minority, and that only you can protect them.
The final and most worrying similarity between Putin and Trump is that so many are unwilling to believe that someone like Trump could ever become the leader of the most powerful nation in the world. In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed to great jubilation, we never would have believed that a former KGB agent would become the president of Russia just nine years later. The moral: Be careful whom you vote for, it could be the last election you ever have.