It’s terrifying to think that the Trump administration is simply winging it, in a swirl of lies, contradictions, and Twitter rants. A scarier possibility is that there is, in fact, a plan, taken straight from Putin 101.
On March 12, 2014, the Russian author Natan Dubovitsky published a short story titled “Without Sky” in the literary journal Russian Pioneer. In the story, which takes place in a dystopian future, a man recalls the events of the fifth World War, decades earlier. He describes these events as the first “non-linear war.” Instead of fighting in a traditional sense, as a battle between two sides, World War V was a more byzantine conflict. Multiple nations all fought one another at once and could switch sides at any time. Simplistic approaches to victory were seen as obsolete, as armed conflict itself was just one phase of a longer, more insidious “process.” Some even joined conflicts to facilitate their own defeat. Around the midpoint of the story, Dubovitsky writes that the complexity of the war was only “realized and analyzed later by historians and economists.”
Natan Dubovitsky, as many Russians know, is the literary pseudonym of Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s longtime political technologist and a chief architect of the Kremlin propaganda machine. Just days after “Without Sky” was published, Russia carried out a masterstroke of the “non-linear war” described in the story—the annexation of Crimea. In the weeks leading up to the March referendums in Crimea, in which Crimea’s parliament and local population voted on whether to join the Russian Federation, Surkov and the Kremlin carefully orchestrated an elaborate political spectacle to create the appearance of strong support for the annexation. This spectacle is known in Russian as dramaturgia, or theater craft.
Heavily armed “little green men” that Putin claimed were local self-defense units began popping up at key outposts on the peninsula. The Night Wolves, a notorious Russian motorcycle gang, rumbled into Crimea to join forces with Cossacks and other separatists in pro-Russian demonstrations. The referendums themselves, shady, black-box affairs, nevertheless gave the impression of widespread enthusiasm for joining Russia. It was an intoxicating swirl of political actors who all seemed to be expressing a furious loyalty to Russia.
But what looked like a vibrant coalition of support for Russia’s annexation was really just the booming sound and fury of Kremlin dramaturgia. Moscow, with puppet master Surkov largely at the helm, was choreographing the entire thing, directing its patriotic ensemble in order to confuse and misdirect the countries and international organizations that might otherwise have intervened against an act of war. At home, the effect was to warp Russians’ sense of reality by clouding their vision and rousing their nationalism.
Everything happening in Crimea and eastern Ukraine passed through the Kremlin’s prism, so that by the time any news reached Europeans, Americans, or Russia’s own citizens, it had been transformed into falsehoods supporting an alternative reality favorable to Russia. This was the futuristic non-linear warfare Surkov had slyly telegraphed in his dystopian story. It is a strategy, he has said, that uses “conflict to create a constant state of destabilized perception, in order to manage and control.”
The Trump team, both during its transition to power at the end of 2016 and in the early stages of its administration, can come across as an indecipherable swirl of contradictions, conflicting reports, and apparent hypocrisies. This can seem, at first blush, like the obvious result of an inexperienced, seat-of-the-pants president and a leadership style that favors flash over substance. We hear talk of draining the swamp, yet billionaires and special interests seem to have quickly infiltrated a White House that Trump assured his supporters would disavow elites. As former Federal Election Commission member Ann Ravel put it in November, “The alligators are multiplying.” Meanwhile, as controversial Cabinet picks like Jeff Sessions, Scott Pruitt, and Rex Tillerson went through the confirmation process, Trump continued sucking up media attention, picking fights on Twitter, doubling down on long-discredited lies, and sparking biweekly conflagrations. The effect is a permanent state of disorder: a de-stabilized media, an exasperated citizenry, and a fractured opposition, divided and pulled into mudslinging sideshows. In some ways, it resembles Surkov’s non-linear warfare.
What if all the Trumpian chaos that the “mainstream media” have come to take for granted as pugilism and vanity was part of a more cunning plan? What if Trump and chief strategist Steve Bannon were actually drawing from a sophisticated postmodern propaganda model developed by none other than Vladimir Putin, Vladislav Surkov, and their political technologists at the Kremlin? While Trump may not have state-controlled media at his disposal, as Putin does, to serve as 24-7 propaganda organs both domestically and abroad, his team is finding ways to shrewdly approximate Putin’s capacity to shape narratives and create alternative realities.
Trump and his team’s espousal of fake news, embrace of “alternative facts,” and relentless lying to reporters, political adversaries, and the American people sabotage a democratic playing field that has existed in this country for more than two centuries. Trump’s use of Twitter is equally destructive. By hijacking headlines and warping the news cycle through sheer gravitational force, Trump is rupturing the journalism landscape, one land-mine tweet at a time. The effect, it would seem, is to undercut any attempt at vigilant analysis or coherent investigation into his administration. He is the Distracter in Chief, a decoy in the bully pulpit whose self-perpetuating charade provides the perfect cover while shadier actors systematically transmogrify the democracy concealed in his prodigious shadow.