The most powerful men in the world

Masha Gessen writes: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s mode of public communication is the very opposite of Donald Trump’s: rather than tweet 140-character bursts, he stages elaborate, laboriously choreographed affairs that far outlast anyone’s attention span. He holds one press conference and one televised call-in show a year. Participants are pre-screened, question topics are pre-cleared, and many are pre-scripted. Each event usually lasts more than four hours. Each usually contains a memorable and informative passage that summarizes Putin’s current vision of himself in the world. There have been times when he positioned himself as the savior of a country on the brink of catastrophe, a conqueror, a victor. This year, in his press conference on December 23, he positioned himself as the most powerful man in the world.

Here is Putin’s scripted exchange with a state-media journalist (I am quoting both sides at length precisely because this is pre-written dialogue):

Journalist: Vladimir Vladimirovich, the world is undergoing a global transformation. We are witnessing nations expressing their will, voting against old political concepts, against the old elites. Britain voted to leave the EU, though we still don’t know how it’s going to play out. Many people are saying that Trump won because people were voting against the old elites, against faces that they are tired of seeing, among other reasons. Have you and your colleagues discussed these changes? What will the new global order be like? Remember, at the General Assembly, on the seventieth anniversary [of the United Nations], you said, “Can’t you see what you’ve done?” Where are we going? At this point we are still in the context of confrontation. The back-and-forth yesterday about whose military is stronger. During his last press conference your still-colleague Barack Obama said that 37 percent of Republicans like you and that Ronald Reagan is probably turning over in his grave.

Putin: What was that?

Journalist: 37 percent of Republican voters like you.

Putin: Really?

Journalist: Yes, and if Ronald Reagan knew, he’d be turning over in his grave. By the way, we as your voters are very pleased that you have such power, that you could even reach Ronald Reagan. Our Western colleagues often tell us that you can manipulate the world, pick presidents of your choosing, intervene in elections wherever you want. How does it feel to be the most powerful man in the world? Thank you.

Putin: I have addressed this issue on numerous occasions. But if you think that I need to do it one more time, fine, I will say it one more time. The current US government and the leadership of the Democratic Party are trying to blame all their failures on outside forces. I have some questions and a few ideas regarding this.

The Democratic Party lost not only the presidential election but also the election to the Senate, where Republicans have the majority, and to Congress, where Republicans have the majority. I wonder if that’s my accomplishment too. [Here Putin cracks a joke with a reference to a Soviet-era film about a hapless college student who gets in trouble and takes the blame for things he did as well as things he didn’t do.] None of this is true. All of it is testament to the fact that the current administration is facing systemic problems. I have talked about this before.

I think there is a gap between the elites and the broad masses, as we used to say in Soviet times, regarding what’s right and what’s wrong. The fact that a significant portion of, let’s say, Republican voters are supporting the Russian president is not something I take personal credit for. You want to know what I think? I think a large number of Americans share our ideas of what the world should be like, what we should be doing, where we face common dangers and problems. It’s good that there are people who share our understanding of traditional values, because it’s a good start for building relations between two countries as powerful as Russia and the United States, on this basis, the basis of mutual admiration of the people.

I wish they wouldn’t dredge up the names of their former leaders. I don’t know who would be turning over in his grave. I think Reagan would rejoice in the victory of his party and would be happy for the newly elected president, who had a fine understanding of societal mood and worked in that paradigm and went to the very end even though no one, except you and me, believed that he would win.

At this point Putin is interrupted by applause. After the break, he continues by chiding Democrats for being sore losers. Later in the press conference he dismisses the conclusions of the CIA that Russian intelligence services threw the American election through hacking, claiming (much as Donald Trump has done) that the hackers could have been anyone, including “someone lying on the couch or in bed.” But Putin is reveling in the idea that he is “the most powerful man in the world.” He is right: it doesn’t matter if Russian hacks were decisive in the election—what matters is that many people believe that they were. If Americans perceive Putin as the ultimate winner of the presidential race, then that is what he is. [Continue reading…]

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