ATHENS – A Russian-born British journalist for The Economist who gave the keynote address last week during the 2017 Ohio University Baker Peace Conference said he is shocked and horrified to see President Donald Trump emulating the political tactics of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Arkady Ostrovsky spent 15 years reporting from Moscow first for the Financial Times and then as bureau chief for The Economist. He is currently the Russia and Eastern Europe editor for The Economist, based in London.
He is also the author of the 2016 Orwell Prize-winning book, “The Invention of Russia: The Journey from Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War.”
Ostrovsky argued during his speech that Russia is not moving toward the ideals of Western Civilization, but rather that the West is moving toward Russia. He cited the “Brexit” vote for the United Kingdom to withdraw from the European Union, the election of Donald Trump in America, and a general rise in nationalistic populism across the globe.
“The victory of Donald Trump was celebrated in Moscow with opening champagne bottles. It was a great moment,” he said of Putin and his allies in Russia’s ruling elite.
Ostrovsky said Trump’s victory was greeted as an affirmation of Putin, who long has maintained that America is no different or exceptional, that the West’s democratic ideals are mere hypocrisy, and that all of geopolitics is a power game.
“(Trump’s election) was a joy on Russian television channels, which still play a completely dominant role in sustaining Putin’s power,” he said. “The television channels rejoicing in Trump’s victory was a joy of recognition.”
This point was highlighted, Ostrovsky said, when President Trump appeared in an interview with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, and O’Reilly said of Putin, “But he’s a killer.” Trump responded, “There are a lot of killers. You think our country is so innocent?”
“That was – not just to those in Western Europe and not just to those at The Economist, but to myself personally – a moment of great shock and horror,” Ostrovsky said. “I grew up in the Soviet Union with the idea of America as being a very different place, as genuinely being a model of freedom and humanity and generosity. To hear an American president make that statement was quite a shock.”
Ostrovsky said the main plus of Trump’s victory as seen by Russians TV pundits who support Putin “is that America will finally drop all this PC nonsense wrapped in beautiful words such as democracy and human rights.” They see the era of the Western liberal interventionism that Putin so hated as being over, Ostrovsky said.
Ostrovsky said that it has been Moscow’s mission to subvert Western democracies since World War II. This has included starting rumors that the CIA invented AIDS, for instance, or had President Kennedy assassinated, or by bolstering racist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.
He said therefore that it should come as no surprise that Putin would want to interfere in the 2016 U.S. General Election.
“The fact that Putin would do this should not have been a surprise to any one. I don’t know why it was such a surprise in America,” he said. “What surprised us all was not that Russia was doing it but that… what changed is us. What changed is the West and the ability of the West to stand up to that sort of subversion.”
Ostrovsky said that he is equally troubled by the reaction of Democrats in America and their readiness to blame Putin instead of looking inward at the U.S. He compared Democrats blaming Putin to Putin blaming anti-Kremlin protests during the 2012 Russian elections on the U.S. and Hillary Clinton.
Ostrovsky said that the real reason the Soviet Union collapsed is because the worth of Western freedom, values and lifestyle were so apparent that no propaganda could convince people like Ostrovsky and his family living in the USSR otherwise.
Words and narratives matter, Ostrovsky argued, and the high-minded narratives of Western democracy and freedom and human rights won the argument. But things are going in a different direction today, he said, with men like Trump and Putin able to shape a new narrative that appeals to nationalism at the expense of the high ideals of 20th Century Western democracies.
Ostrovsky compared Putin’s rise to that of Trump, drawing a line to how they were both created by media narratives with dubious connection to reality – in Putin a “celebrity president” as KGB strongman, and Trump as a “celebrity president” as iconic American businessman.
“Television was crucial to both men coming to power,” Ostrovsky said. “I’m more troubled by the sense of kinship between Trump and Putin than any hacking.”
He noted the similarity of nationalistic appeal in Trump’s “Make America Great Again,” campaign slogan and Putin’s “Raise Russia from its knees” slogan.
He said that both men have been able to tap into the “mixture of insecurity and nostalgia” of nationalistic patriotism that doesn’t require facts or truth in history but only the feelings that appeal to the narrative.
“In fact, the less facts the better,” Ostrovsky observed.
D.C. DeWitt is a writer and man of sport and leisure. He has also written for Government Executive online, the National Journal’s Hotline, and The New York Observer’s Politicker.com. He is the Associate Editor of The Athens NEWS in Athens, Ohio. DeWitt can be found on Facebook and Twitter @DC_DeWitt.