Archive for January 2017
This op-ed was originally published by the Norwegian newspaper Morgenbladet
The 2015 Norwegian series “Okkupert” may not have had the captivating power of the House of Cards, but it also contained a strong prophetic element. I don’t mean the idea of Russia occupying a neighbouring country, which is a bit too direct. But suggesting that Western superpowers might collude with Russia to undertake something as vile as occupying independent Norway felt both shocking and original.
Now with Trump moving into the White House, it also doesn’t sound wildly improbable. The US press and major politicians are in fact close to directly accusing Russia and team Trump of colluding to fix the US presidential election in Trump’s favour. In many ways, this scenario looks even more fantastic than the plot in the Okkupert.
Bringing in another cinematographic analogy, in this new reality a country like Norway may find itself turning into something akin to a Rebel Alliance planet, like the ones which provided refuge for rogue freedom lovers in Star Wars. Unless, of course, it is taken over by the same brand of far-right crypto-authoritarians as Russia and the US.
The Star Wars analogy is however flawed, because Trump is not an undercover Sith who communicates with the Dark Lord of the Kremlin, when night falls on New York. He is a product of cultural and political crisis that has engulfed the US and the rest of the world. Investigations striving to reveal his Putin connection may or may not yield any tangible results (the material published so far looks dubious to say the least), but ultimately Putin hysteria in Western media reflects the state of denial which replaced the shock caused by Trump’s election. It would be so nice to explain Trump as a foreign agent, but the bitter truth is that he is a homegrown product which didn’t need Russia’s help to succeed.
For hapless old-fashioned liberals, It is equally convenient to see Russia as an evil alien empire that is trying to conquer free world. In reality it is an integral part of what we tend to call the West, which historically employed some of the worst Western ideas and governance practices, like Communism and authoritarian nationalism. It is Dorian Gray’s picture of the West, an image of its real self, which the model is hiding from everyone in the attic. With the election of Trump, Brexit and the ascent of far-right populists in Europe, the model is looking increasingly like the horrible image on the painting.
Today, both the US and Russia are divided by the same barricade. The divide ethical as much as political. There are people on one side of this barricade who believe that evil – lies, bigotry, violence, torture and aggression – is not only acceptable, but in many ways attractive and even cool. All around the world, from Maharashtra and Siberia to English Midlands and Ohio they call themselves conservatives. But in reality they are radical revolutionaries who want to undo the imperfect yet totally functional and rather comfortable liberal world that emerged in parts of the planet after the fall of Communism.
There are also people, naive and weak as they are at the moment, who are trying to preserve and protect the liberties and the sense of unity achieved in Europe and North America in the last quarter a century. One might call them genuine conservatives.
The difference though is the breakdown. Whereas in Russia roughly 15% of people consistently oppose Putin’s policies, according to multiple polls, in the US Trump was elected by a relative minority of voters. That said, Putin received only 53% of the vote when he was first elected in 2000, but he managed to build a much broader support base thereafter.
The likes of Putin, Trump and both far-right politicians across the globe love to explain tensions emerging in the world in terms of clash of civilizations – East vs West, Christians vs Muslims, Europeans vs Asians. But in reality liberal-minded cosmopolitans in Europe, ex-USSR, America and Muslim world have more in common with each other these days than with their “conservative” or simply more backward compatriots. In simple terms, they watch same films, read same books, go through same fashion crazes and generally strive to live very similar lifestyles.
In the same way, while talking to Trump supporters in the swing states of Ohio and Pennsylvania around the election date last November, I couldn’t help feeling that these were very same people as pro-Putin villagers in Russia’s Pskov region I had met just a couple of weeks earlier. Their standards of living might be different (though not as radically as one might think), but what makes them so similar is their vulnerability to fake news and hate-inciting rhetoric, their childishly short span of attention and their attitude to politics as a brand of show business, in which they are passive spectators rather than pawns moved towards the edge of the cliff by evil manipulators.
These two parties are becoming truly global as illustrated by the synergy created by Putin, Trump, British Brexiteers and other far-right politicians in Europe which benefits each of these players. In terms of internationalism, liberals are lagging far behind the far-right populists because they are still poisoned by nationalism and regionalism. The epoch Trump will usher in when he moves into White House will be dominated by a supranational confrontation between these two (or more) global parties. Let’s see if at the end of day one calls it a global cold civil war.