Lucas: Trump appears to wish that America were more like Russia, finding legal constraints on executive power outrageous
"Whataboutism" was a favorite Kremlin propaganda technique during the Cold War, he says
Editor’s Note: Edward Lucas is a senior editor at The Economist, where he was the Moscow bureau chief from 1998 to 2002. He is also senior vice president at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a Washington, D.C., think tank. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
It is chilling to hear hoary Kremlin propaganda tropes used by the leader of the free world. But that is exactly what President Donald Trump did in his recent Fox News interview, in which he casually accepted that Vladimir Putin was a killer, but said that America was “not so innocent” and had lots of killers too.
“Whataboutism” was a favorite Kremlin propaganda technique during the Cold War. It aimed to portray the West as so morally flawed that its criticism of the Soviet empire was hypocritical.
Any criticism of the Soviet Union (the war in Afghanistan, martial law in Poland, persecution of dissidents) was met with a list of Western abuses (supporting fascist dictatorships, trampling trade unions, racial oppression).
It was well encapsulated in a joke about the fictional Radio Yerevan (a staple of Soviet-era humor) in which a caller asks what is the average wage of an American manual worker. The real answer would undermine Soviet claims to economic superiority, so after a pause, the pundit replies: “Over there they lynch Negroes.” By the time the system collapsed, that phrase had become a derisive synecdoche for Soviet propaganda as a whole.
“Whataboutism” seemed to have died in the 1990s when Russia’s official aim was to become like the West. But it made a comeback under President Vladimir Putin, whose propaganda machine specializes in spreading FUD (Fear Uncertainty and Doubt) in the West.
If Americans, Britons, Germans and others can be made to believe that their rulers are crooks and idiots, and that legality and liberty are a sham, then they will be much less likely to take risks and make sacrifices in defending their own countries.
To some extent, “whataboutism” is a sensible tactic in argument. Criticism delivered from a purported moral high ground deserves special scrutiny.
We shouldn’t take lessons from Russia about minority rights, say, given the way that the Kremlin mistreats its own indigenous populations – Maris, Buryats, Komis and the like.
But unlike Putin’s Russia, the West is genuinely well placed to make such criticisms. We are not perfect. But we are self-critical and self-correcting. The cornerstone of our system is contestability.
Of course, our elected representatives and government officials make mistakes – but they are constrained and challenged for them. They risk civil and criminal legal actions, impeachment, media scrutiny, public protest and being tossed out of office into a lifetime of disgrace.
These checks and balances are imperfect too, but they do work. President François Hollande has misruled France only mildly by Russian standards. But whereas he won’t get a second term, President Putin can stay in office as long as he wants.
President Trump has made an outrageous mistake in his visa ban and has immediately run into legal obstacles. When was the last time a Russian court told Putin that his actions were illegal?
All this is lost on Trump. He appears to wish that America were more like Russia. He finds legal constraints on executive power outrageous.
That view is not just mistaken: it is dangerous. All over the world, people look to America as a beacon of freedom and justice. It sets a standard (albeit sometimes a theoretical one) by which other political systems are judged. That represents a huge store of political capital. Trump is squandering it with every word he utters.
Moral relativism corrodes sentiment in the frontline states of the new cold war. In places like Bulgaria, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, pro-Western figures are feeling that their struggle is doomed. Why bother fighting for freedom when the leader of the free world has given up?
Worse than this, the thinking will spread that maybe Putin is right: the world is all about power and money, and the political currency that really works is coined from lies and fear. If those are the real rules of the game, then better to play them. It seems to have worked for Trump, after all.
Edward Lucas is a senior editor at The Economist, where he was the Moscow bureau chief from 1998 to 2002. He is also senior vice president at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a Washington, D.C., think tank. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.