Ride or die.
Support The Bulwark.
  Join Now

Trump’s Men in Moscow

Russian media revels in Trump’s nonsensical claims of fraud as enemies of democracy reap propaganda harvest.
November 14, 2020
Featured Image
Vladimir Solovyov, chuckling over America’s woes.

When Donald Trump unexpectedly won the presidential election four years ago, the pro-Kremlin political establishment in Moscow literally toasted him with champagne and Vladimir Putin’s servile parliament, the Duma, cheered him with a round of applause. Trump nash—literally “Trump is ours,” but meaning something like “Trump is one of us” or “Trump is our guy”—became a popular catchphrase. Eventually, the romance cooled. But during the 2020 election season, it appears that Trump is nash after all: so far, Putin is the only major national leader to have held back on congratulating Joe Biden on his victory. Meanwhile, the Russian state-run (or state-friendly) media have alternated mostly between open gloating over an American election in chaos and equally open sympathy for Trump.

Two days before the election, on November 1, the government-run channel Rossiya-1 aired a one-hour special by Mikhail Taratuta—who worked as a Soviet and then Russian correspondent in the United States from 1988 to 2000—called “The Hunting of the President.” After a montage of clips from anti-Trump protests (and a couple of Trump rallies), Taratuta gravely informed his audience that “not a single [U.S.] President in recent history was subjected to such an onslaught, to such organized hounding”—from the media, from feminists, from human rights activists, and others.

Trump’s real crime in his enemies’ eyes, Taratuta asserted, was that “he wasn’t supposed to win.” He did concede that some of the hostility was an understandable response to Trump’s behavior and policies, from boorishness toward women to the parent/child border separations. Yet overall, the program’s portrait of “Trump, The Hunted” was one of injured innocence marred only by minor flaws. (The segment on Trump’s woman problem, for instance, noted that he “could have been more respectful to women”—a bit of an understatement—and mentioned Trump’s spat with Megyn Kelly, but left out the infamous Access Hollywood tape.)

On November 4, discussions of America’s election drama on Russian airwaves eclipsed a patriotic holiday at home (Russian Unity Day), and the pro-Trump cheerleading grew more heavy-handed. That evening’s edition of the political talk show Big Game on TV-1, Russia’s main federal channel, was almost entirely dominated by pro-Trump voices. “The majority of American voters want law and order, and today, alas, only Trump symbolizes the idea of law and order,” declared host Andranik Migranyan, adding that Democratic governors and mayors not only allow rioters and looters to operate with impunity but even “get down on their knees and kiss the feet of blacks.” (Migranyan, a 71-year-old academic, pundit and devout Putinist, has impeccable authoritarian bona fides: just recently, he lauded Putin for tweaking the Russian constitution to give himself another term in 2024 and thus ending “the abominable chatter about a successor.” More notoriously, Migranyan penned a 2014 column arguing, in response to comparisons between Putin’s annexation of Crimea and Hitler’s 1938 seizure of the Sudetenland, that pre-1939 Hitler was basically fine—a patriotic statesman “gathering German lands.”)

One of the guests, veteran journalist and Moscow State University dean Vitaly Tretyakov, lauded Trump as “an American Stolypin”—a reference to Putin’s hero Pyotr Stolypin, Russia’s reformist Prime Minister in 1906-1911 (a complex figure who was both a successful modernizer and an oft-brutal authoritarian). “He says, ‘You want great upheavals, but we want a great America,’” rhapsodized Tretyakov, putting in Trump’s mouth an Americanized version of Stolypin’s “great Russia” retort to Russian liberals.

The Trump nash trope resurfaced as well. “He said repeatedly that he wants to meet with Putin, but they tied him hand and foot in that so-called free country,” lamented Tretyakov. “But in his next term he’ll meet with Putin, and they will definitely reach an agreement.” Leaving aside the fact that Trump and Putin have met more than once, the casual assumption that there would be a next Trump term seems remarkable. However, that was par for the course on Russian state television, where Trump’s allegations of rampant vote-stealing were taken quite seriously.

The next evening, the American election was the focus of the popular Evening with Vladimir Solovyov on Rossiya-1. Solovyov, who stands out even among the Russian TV pundit class as a particularly aggressive pro-Kremlin propagandist, opened the program with the smirking announcement that “while the counting of votes in the United States is not yet over, it’s already hilarious.” Informing his viewers that “absolutely nobody [in the U.S.] trusts the electoral system,” Solovyov asserted that “some precincts simply barred observers” from watching the vote count: “It’s just brilliant. This is what they call an electoral system.” He also put up a (fake) graphic supposedly showing voter turnout well over 100 percent in several states, including 125 percent in Nevada and 109 percent in Pennsylvania, and repeated the (already debunked) claim that at one point, a batch of 128,000 votes, for Biden, was added to the vote tally in Michigan.

While Solovyov was literally chortling at the troubles besetting American democracy, one of his guests, political analyst Sergei Stankevich, knitted his brow in a mien of deep, sorrowful concern, professing to feel “regret” at the unfolding events. “Most likely, the Democrats will be able to torture the arithmetic until they get a win—that is, Biden will be declared president of the United States. But he will be a president without legitimacy, because a thick cloud of doubt will hang over his presidency for many Americans,” mused Stankevich. “Millions of his votes came from mail-in ballots, and no one will ever know how many of those votes were from real people.”

Nearly a week later, the November 11 edition of another political talk show, Time Will Tell, ran with the same themes. When Moscow-based American writer Michael Wasiura (who frequently appears in the thankless role of the American guest on Russian television) described Pompeo’s remark about “a smooth transition to аsecond Trump administration” as an “attempted coup d’état,” host Artyom Sheinin quickly parried, “And when Biden declares himself to be the winner of the election based on some unclear procedure and starts to take on matters of state, is that also an attempted coup?”

Wasiura, who has an enviable gift for remaining unflappable while serving as the designated punching bag, replied that it was perfectly clear: foreign leaders such as Boris Johnson and Angela Merkel, he pointed out, have no trouble understanding that Biden is the legitimate President-elect. But Sheinin and co-host Anatoly Kulichev pressed on: How could anyone know? Just because the news said so? When Wasiura replied that he had seen the numbers on the websites of state election boards, Kulichev broke into a patronizing smile: “Come on, Michael, we’re not children. Oh well, blessed are those who have faith.”

On the set of Time Will Tell: Anatoly Kulichev is standing on the left; Artyom Shenin is standing in the center; Michael Wasiura is sitting on the right.

At the end of the program, another guest—Alexei Mukhin, director of Moscow’s Center for Political Information—dropped several bombshells. Or at least, they would have been bombshells if true. Did you know that besides firing Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Trump has also fired the directors of the FBI and CIA? Neither did I; but according to Mukhin, he has, and it means he may be planning to stay in office by force. (In reality, the possible firings of the FBI’s Chris Wray and the CIA’s Gina Haspel have been rumored since late October.) Also, did you know that Biden no longer has the 270 electoral votes necessary to secure a victory because RealClearPolitics has rescinded its decision to call Pennsylvania in his favor? Neither does RCP editor Tom Bevan, who flatly refuted Rudy Giuliani’s tweet making this claim on November 9. (RCP never called Pennsylvania for Biden.) Yet there was Mukhin, repeating the fake news on November 11.

Pro-Trumpism aside, pro-Kremlin Russian punditry is clearly basking in schadenfreude at the thought of American elections being compromised after all the times the United States has lectured other countries—and, specifically, Russia—about elections that failed the “free and fair” test. Tretyakov suggested that any other country with such a mess on its hands would have been the target of U.S. interference. RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan made a sarcastic post on the Telegram social media platform asking if “we have already declared the American elections illegitimate,” citing “numerous violations,” “the lack of foreign monitors,” “non-transparency of the process,” “numerous reports of corruption,” media bias, and “popular protest.”

The only anti-Trump voices in Putin’s Russia came from the dissidents. Opposition activist Alexei Navalny, currently in Germany recovering from a poisoning widely blamed on Kremlin agents, congratulated Biden and Kamala Harris on their victory in a “free and fair election.” Writing in the independent online magazine Sobesednik (“Interlocutor”) on November 3, the brilliant poet, writer and critic Dmitry Bykov predicted that Trump would probably win, but added that he badly wanted to be wrong: “I really want him to lose, because any victory of flagrant, self-assured, obvious evil is morally harmful. And also because the vilest of pundits and commentators on both sides of the Atlantic are rooting for him.” Bykov explained that he thought Trump would win because the populist wave led by “mindless, obscurantist and cynical forces” was not yet over—not for a few more years. “But if I’m wrong,” he concluded, “thank God for that.”

In an interview on Ekho Moskvy (Moscow Echo), a rare, still-free Russian radio station, satirist Viktor Shenderovich offered an unusual take: that the dispute over the election was not a sign of democracy’s crisis but of its health. “I’ve been watching CNN for two days, and it’s a very powerful, impressive spectacle. … Everything really does depend on the voters. No matter how you feel about Trump or Biden, Americans will get to decide—unlike us, who will be told who our leader will be.” As for Trump’s legal challenges, “can you imagine Putin needing more votes and trying to go to court to get them, instead of just writing in 90 percent or 110 percent?”

It’s an appealing view. But Shenderovich can offer it because he is confident that all the talk of fraud “has turned out to be nonsense.” For less discerning people in Russia and elsewhere, the claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 election will surely undermine not only America’s moral authority, but that of her democratic institutions.

And that’s on the people who have spread or condoned these toxic fictions.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a columnist for Newsday, a contributing editor to Reason, and an associate editor at ArcDigital.