Vladimir Putin's prize pupil is almost ready: Trump's final exam in authoritarian rule

Donald Trump has studied authoritarian stagecraft with the Russian master. The 2020 election poses his biggest test

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published August 20, 2020 7:00AM (EDT)

Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Donald Trump has been called Vladimir Putin's puppet, but he is more than that. He is Putin's willing and eager apprentice.

As Election Day approaches, Trump is rapidly escalating his assaults on American democracy, freedom, the rule of law and the country's political and social institutions, as well as the American people themselves. In all, Donald Trump is following through on every lesson from the authoritarian's playbook with speed and enthusiasm.

The evidence for a teacher-student mentoring relationship between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump is overwhelming. As senior Democratic adviser Simon Rosenberg told me recently in a Salon interview: 

I believe that 20 years from now [Mick] Mulvaney and [Mark] Meadows and the other chiefs of staff and senior Trump officials are going to acknowledge that they believe that Putin was Trump's coach. He has checked every play in the authoritarian playbook — and done it very fast. Donald Trump is not very smart. He is likely being coached by Putin and other authoritarians. They are giving him ideas and pushing him in certain directions. We know that Trump has spoken to Putin seven times in the last few months, in a time when he has ratcheted up his attacks on democracy and started the beginnings of a domestic crackdown here in the United States.

Moreover, teaching takes place in many ways. Children imitate their parents and other role models. It is a rare occasion when a parent explicitly says to a child "I am going to teach you today." In that sense, Vladimir Putin is the father and Donald Trump is his fawning, admiring child.

Trump has repeatedly said that he may not respect the outcome of the 2020 presidential election if he loses. Like Putin, China's Xi Jinping, Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other authoritarians, Trump is eager to change his country's laws in order to stay in office indefinitely. His interference with the U.S Postal Service in order to sabotage mail-in voting is part of the same strategy.

Acting on Trump's commands, Attorney General William Barr and acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf have created a de facto secret police force to be used against the regime's "enemies" — meaning the majority of Americans who do not support Donald Trump.

Trump is reportedly marshaling a force of 50,000 "poll watchers" he hopes to use to harass and intimidate Democratic voters on Election Day. He is using Fox News, the One America News Network, the Sinclair Broadcast Group and (soon) the once-revered Voice of America as his personal mouthpieces and propaganda machines.

In many ways, these final weeks before Election Day are a type of final exam in authoritarianism for Donald Trump and his movement.  

Donald Trump's daily coronavirus "press conferences" are primarily an opportunity for him to receive the narcissistic fuel that he has been deprived of from his canceled rallies. But they serve another and more important function, as an integral part of a propaganda campaign against truth and empirical reality. To that end, the Trump regime has even inserted right-wing operatives into the White House audience. The Intercept describes this subterfuge:

In an apparent effort to make his daily news conferences even more like campaign events than they already are, the White House press office has been packing the briefing room with supporters of President Donald Trump from far-right media outlets who can be relied on to toss him softball questions and initiate attacks on his political rivals.

Although the importance of this spectacle was largely lost in the breathless churn of the 24/7 news cycle, Trump's "press conference" at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club two weeks ago displayed what he has learned in his earnest study of authoritarian stagecraft, manipulation, and messaging.

During his remarks, Trump claimed that his executive actions had somehow "extended" unemployment benefits for the tens of millions of Americans who are unemployed because of the pandemic. In reality, Donald Trump does not have that power, and his executive order actually reduced the amount of money available to struggling Americans from $600 to $300 a week -- and only for a few weeks until the funds run out. By claiming to have presidential powers he does not in fact possess, Trump is again challenging the boundaries of the law — before fully breaking them later.

By making an official appearance in Bedminster, Trump elevated his personal property to the level of the White House. Both symbolically and literally, Donald Trump presents his own personal interests as identical to the American people's.

Fascism consists of political thuggery and corruption. In Bedminster, Trump also ordered the temporary suspension of the payroll tax, and suggested ending it entirely — which would fulfill a right-wing goal of imperiling the solvency of Social Security and Medicare. Trump then promised that if he is re-elected he will make the payroll tax cut permanent, an obvious attempt to bribe the voters. 

At the same event, Donald Trump used the White House press corps as stooges, to be jeered and mocked by the members of his golf club, who stood in the back of the room clapping for the president and deriding reporters as bearers of "fake news."

In sum, Trump's Bedminster performance was surreal, an act of authoritarian stagecraft in which the president depicted himself as benign and almighty, while accusing the Democrats of "stealing" the election from him through "rigged" voting — and while his court of sycophants loudly heaped praise upon him like a laugh track for a bad sitcom. 

It was a highly Putin-like spectacle.

In his books "Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible" and "This Is Not Propaganda," journalist and media scholar Peter Pomerantsev details how Putin and his agents have used digital technology and other forms of media to craft an authoritarian politics and society in which "the truth is unknowable."

In "Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible," Pomerantsev writes: "The brilliance of this new type of authoritarianism is that instead of simply oppressing opposition, as had been the case with twentieth-century strains, it climbs inside all ideologies and movements, exploiting and rendering them absurd."

In this fourth and perhaps final year of Trump's presidency, the regime's use of Vladimir Putin's playbook is escalating. In a 2017 essay for Vanity Fair, Mark Mariani warned about this:

Putin has been in power, on and off, for close to two decades. But the Trump team is catching on fast.

The first technique that the Trump administration appears to be appropriating from Moscow is a kind of chaos theory. By clogging the news with mini-scandals, bald-faced lies, and provocative tweets, the White House sends journalists and media outlets into a haphazard frenzy. President Trump's lies alone have become their own beat, forcing publications to devote precious resources to invalidating the many outrageous claims he makes daily, sometimes within a single interview. White House press secretary Sean Spicer's early press conferences suggest that he too will serve as media antagonist, baiting reporters with arrogant fallacies and extending the Trump regime's brand of bullying truth and democratic values into wary submission…. The press is constantly scrambling to respond to a never-ending river of slime, and the system is gradually overwhelmed. Over time, this chaos creates what Pomerantsev describes as a "fog of unknowability."

What should the American news media do, in its role as supposed guardian of democracy, to counter Donald Trump's Putin-esque attacks on the truth and the country's social and political institutions? How can they bring clarity and truth to this "fog of unknowability"?

  • Assume everything that Donald Trump and his spokespeople say is a lie until proven otherwise. The Trump administration deserves no presumption of honesty or an assumption that its behavior is well-intentioned.
  • Journalists and reporters must not allow themselves to be used as human props by the Trump regime at his press conferences and other events. If that occurs, they should turn their backs in protest or simply walk out.
  • The Trump regime's assaults on the rule of law, the Constitution, civil and human rights, and human decency are not errors or mistakes. The human devastation caused is not accidental or incidental, but willful and intentional and part of a much larger pattern of authoritarian behavior. Accept and acknowledge that.
  • Report on the Trump regime and its followers and allies in the same way one as one would if the United States were a foreign country. Doing so will help to get around the blinders of American exceptionalism.
  • Stop avoiding the objective truth. It is objectively true Trump and his regime are authoritarian. It is objectively true that Trump and Stephen Miller are white supremacists. "Both-sides-ism" and "fairness" are acts of surrender to fascism and authoritarianism. Journalists and opinion leaders who use such framing when discussing a fascist regime are complicit.
  • When Trump or his spokespeople lie, they should be directly confronted with the facts and follow-up questions.
  • There are role models to follow. Last week, HuffPost White House correspondent S.V. Dáte asked Donald Trump, "Mr. President, after three and a half years do you regret at all, all the lying you've done to the American people?" Dáte will likely be barred from the White House, perhaps forever, but he provided an example of the principle that a reporter has a sacred responsibility to the truth.

Since 2015, the mainstream American news media has mostly betrayed its best principles by helping to normalize Donald Trump and his movement. With about 10 weeks left until Election Day, the media can now try to salvage some of its reputation by telling the objective truth about the dangerous reality of Trumpism and how the 2020 election is a matter of life and death for American democracy -- and the American people in the era of the pandemic.

The self-inflicted harm of the mainstream media's early surrender to Trumpism, and of its foolish hopes that he would become "presidential" and would "rise to the office," cannot be easily repaired.

But these final weeks before Election Day offer an opportunity for America's Fourth Estate to engage in critical self-reflection and then recommit to being guardians of democracy. Either that or it can capitulate further to Trump's authoritarian presidency and take on the role of curators and commentators to a failed pseudo-democracy. 

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Authoritarianism Commentary Democracy Donald Trump Editor's Picks Fascism Media Russia Vladimir Putin