Unlike a lot of Brooklyn voters, I didn't face any problems voting in last Tuesday's Democratic primary -- for me, things started to get surreal after I left the polls.
What happened was this: After voting for Bernie Sanders at the polling station inside the Brooklyn Museum, I noticed a man with a video camera and a woman with a microphone milling around outside. I approached them, asking them if they were journalists. The woman, who had a Russian accent, said that she worked for "international TV" and asked me if I had anything to say. I couldn't really think of any grand statements to make, so they asked me who I voted for, and I said, "Bernie."
"That's too bad," the woman with the microphone said, "because we are looking for supporters of Donald Trump."
"I could pretend!" I offered. Much to my surprise, the woman said, "Great!" and her companion started filming me.
Why did I, a Bernie Sanders fan, pretend to be a Trump voter for a foreign media outlet? To be honest, I mostly just wanted to appear on TV, which is something I have always dreamed of. But the prank aspect of it appealed to me, too: I was raised by Andy Kaufman fans who may have unwittingly taught me that pulling the wool over the eyes of the media (like Andy did in his infamous appearances with Jerry Lawler on the David Letterman show) is one of the highest virtues. But the difference between my situation and those of some of history's great guerilla satirists is that the journalist I talked to knew I was lying when she interviewed me.
After I voiced my preference for Trump and was asked why I felt that way, I found myself in a quandary: How could I come up with a reason to be pro-Trump that wouldn't also leave indelible videotaped evidence of myself as a racist? In an instant, I came up with the idea of voting for him because I liked "The Apprentice," which is, of course, ludicrous, but not without precedent in a country that has elected Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger to higher office. I continued by stammering on about how his experience as a real estate developer meant that he would be able to really improve America's economy and help get this country back on track. I was pleased with myself, that I managed to say the exact opposite of what I really believed without coming across as a horrendous bigot.
Still, I didn't want my name attached to these ideas, so when the reporter asked me to identify myself, I invoked my mother's maiden name, to come up with the pseudonym "Steve Conroy." When asked what I do for a living, I faced another improvisational hurdle, since my actual profession -- graduate student studying to become an ESL teacher in the New York City public school system -- is so contrary to everything Trump stands for that I knew it would strain credulity to mention it. Inspired by Joe the Plumber from 2008, I said I was an electrician.
After it was all over, I asked the journalist if I did okay. "You are a good actor," she replied in a smiling, ironic tone that put extra emphasis on the last word. I started to walk away, but then I realized that I should get a photo of the TV crew to illustrate the Facebook post I knew I would write about this whole incident, so I walked back and took some photos of the reporter and cameraman.
We then chatted a little bit about how Russia's just about the only country that wants Trump to become president and the reporter pointed out that it makes sense, since Trump is one of the only pro-Putin politicians around. I pointed out that the candidate I actually preferred, Bernie Sanders, would probably be "the Pussy Riot candidate," which provoked some laughter from the Russians. I offered to re-do the interview with them if they wanted one with less stammering and awkward pauses, but the reporter again complimented my "acting" and said it would work fine.
The fact that these TV journalists were so willing to go along with that they knew was a prank and pass it off as reality was, of course, totally insane from an ethical point of view. I acknowledged as much when I wrote the comment "#russianjournalismethics" on the Facebook post I put up a few minutes after the interaction ended.
The whole affair was so patently farcical that I didn't think I would ever actually end up on TV. In fact, I didn't even know how I could check if I did make it on the air, since I don't speak Russian, I didn't know the name of the TV station involved, and I have no clue how to type in Cyrillic. So imagine my surprise when a Russian-American friend of mine found the news story featuring my interview on the website of St. Petersburg's Channel 5 the next day! There I was, saying "Donald Trump all the way!" in English before the voice dubbing me into Russian drowned me out. According to a Russian-speaking friend, what my Russian self said was: "Donald Trump -- no question. He's awesome as a showman, and I've loved watching him on TV. He's a good developer and knows how to handle money. He's the only one who'll make America even greater." Pretty accurate, all things considered!
Some Russian bloggers found my Facebook post where I explained the whole thing and wrote about it in Russian, which led to a curious non-denial by the TV station, as reported in a blog: "The person who introduced himself to Channel Five journalist Nina Vishneva as Steve Conroy voluntarily spoke to the news show 'Right Now' and expressed his support for Donald Trump. The comments he made to the camera appeared unchanged in the segment." It's true that I never gave them my real name, but what's not mentioned is that they knew my support for Donald Trump was a total lie, or, as they said, "acting."
Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined a week ago that my willingness to say anything to get on TV would end up exposing the shady practices of Russian TV news on a blog called "Noodle Remover" -- but now that it's happened, I gotta say that I feel pretty satisfied. I'm following every new blog post about it with avid interest and bugging my Russian-speaking friends to translate it all. I've gotten way more attention from this than anything else I've ever posted on Facebook, and now I'm even getting friend requests from random people in Azerbaijan. Now if I could just figure out a way to pull the same prank on the American media.