Trump, Putin and their kind are still dangerous — but their time is almost up

Old-guard autocrats like Trump, Putin and Erdogan can't control information — in the end, that will destroy them

By Brian Karem


Published April 14, 2022 8:30AM (EDT)

Vladimir Putin; Donald Trump (Getty/Salon)
Vladimir Putin; Donald Trump (Getty/Salon)

Longtime White House correspondent Brian Karem writes a weekly column for Salon.

My phone vibrated, indicating a new text message.

I checked and found one from a Turkish colleague who occasionally visited the White House during the Trump presidency: "I'm a 26-year-old journalist. I don't want to end up in jail."

At the time I was in a private screening of the movie "Navalny," about the Russian politician who is widely considered to be Vladimir Putin's greatest national rival. Alexei Navalny survived an attempt on his life, by way of poison applied to his underwear, only to be arrested upon his re-entry into Russia from Germany, where he had been recovering from the attempt on his life in Siberia.

That text message felt even more ironic and surreal as I waded through a sea of happy NHL fans outside the Capital One Arena in D.C. to get to the private screening, hosted by former congressman Joe Walsh and the movie's producer, Olivia Troye

From behind prison bars, Navalny has called for protests against Putin's chosen war in Ukraine, where Navalny has ancestral roots. He is viewed by Amnesty International as a "prisoner of conscience" and re-entered his country knowing he might be jailed for up to 20 years because he wants to fight the "corruption and thieves" at the heart of the Russian government.

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As for my friend Ibrahim Haskologlu in Turkey, he reported on news that the authoritarian regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan didn't like. He was called "Fake News" and told me that pro-government groups "started to share my home address and identity information." He reports that he's gotten threatening messages and Turkey's minister of the interior sent him a message that there was "an investigation launched against me."

"There is no false news we have made, we have conveyed what happened completely," he said. "If international journalists do not react on this issue, unfortunately I may not be among you. I don't know where I will be."

There is no doubt we live in dark times. Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was killed, dismembered and apparently incinerated by a hit squad that was almost certainly working for Crown Prince Mohammed, the effective leader of the Saudi government. Those who tried to kill Navalny have been linked to other prominent deaths in Russia. In January 2021, Bellingcat, Insider and Der Spiegel linked the unit that tracked Navalny to other deaths, including activists Timur Kuashev in 2014 and Ruslan Magomedragimov in 2015, and politician Nikita Isayev in 2019. Another investigation found that Russian opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza was followed by the same unit before his suspected poisoning.

Authoritarian forces are at work around the world, trying to support their greed and avarice by stifling dissent, and dividing the populace through means and methods known and understood by despots since the beginning of time. In the process, they are locking up, killing and jailing the reporters who are trying to get the truth out to the general population — even if the population adopts the voices of grifters and con men like Donald Trump and calls us "fake news."

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Make no mistake, Trump remains one of the leading figures in this authoritarian movement. He is out of office and off social media, but he continues to command a following, including wannabe dictators and Putin lovers across the world, like Erdogan of Turkey. The single greatest threat Trump represents is the march of authoritarianism under the guise of democracy. Trump is the ultimate con. He learned the grift well and has coddled up to and embraced Putin, Erdogan and others who rule with an iron fist. He longed to be like them, and they learned from him. There is no doubt among those of us still capable of independent thought and reason that Trump had a heavy hand in the Jan. 6 insurrection — and that he explored any means of staying in power. As he told me and the world from the Brady Briefing Room on Sept. 23, 2020, a full six weeks before the election, if we stopped counting ballots there would be no change of power.

But what Trump and the rest of these old, dangerous, atavistic, arrogant authoritarians haven't learned yet is that their time is up. It's done. The Navalny documentary — partially shot on cellphone — the text sent by my colleague in Turkey, the home videos posted on a variety of apps by those suffering from the Russian invasion of Ukraine and even the videos posted from Trump rallies are exposing these cretins for what they are: narcissistic power-mongers who care about no one but themselves. Because of social media, they cannot hide and lie with impunity as they could in the past.

These autocrats have experienced success up to this point by using the old methods of controlling access to information — jailing, killing and smearing the opposition and the reporters who try to report the truth.

Social media is the tipping point. Putin can't cover up genocide. Trump's followers are scared, aging white people. These guys are still a menace — but they're not the future.

But social media is proving to be the tipping point. Putin can't cover up genocide. He can't sell his propaganda because he cannot control the dissemination of information, even as he tries to shut down access to the internet in Russia. Erdogan cannot stop the word from getting out because he can't control the 21st-century printing press — the cellphone.

Trump can no longer succeed as he once did because he cannot control social media either. Those left worshiping Trump are, for the most part, scared, aging white people (many of whom are racists, misogynists and religious fanatics) who rely only on Trump and Fox News for the information they receive. 

This is not the future. Trump isn't the future. Putin and Erdogan are not the future. The future belongs with teenager Darnella Frazier, who recorded video of George Floyd's death and won a special Pulitzer for it. It resides with brave young reporters like Ibrahim Haskologlu who can reach out across the globe to tell the truth. And it resides with younger politicians like Navalny who — as is clearly shown in a well-constructed documentary — know how to reach out through a variety of social media applications and interact with millions of people who might otherwise never know his name. With millions of followers on YouTube, there is no way to silence him — which is why Putin apparently tried to kill him, though he still won't say Navalny's name.

Social media is much maligned by those in power, and by those who operate large media companies. CNN launched an online streaming service that has so far garnered little more than 10,000 viewers — but that's less an indictment of social media than of the corporations struggling to keep up with the independent and "citizen" media that has become such a dynamic and important player across the globe. Corporate media, slow to react to change, and convinced of the star power of many of its anchors, remains a step behind.

The latest person to fall victim to Putin's rage against the dying of the light is Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian politician mentioned above who has been a strong critic of Putin and his disastrous war against Ukraine. Kara-Murza said in a CNN interview this week that Putin's government is "not just corrupt, it's not just kleptocratic, it's not just authoritarian, it is a regime of murderers." 

Of course Russian police arrested him almost immediately. Of course they sentenced him to jail on charges of disobedience. Of course Putin was behind it. 

Putin, as it turns out, is the true phantom menace (with apologies to George Lucas). No matter how strongly he tries to squeeze in order to become the 21st century's pre-eminent totalitarian, more countries will continue to slip through his fingers. 

Make no mistake, Putin and others like him still have the ability to sway a large number of people. Navalny, quoting many before him, says in the documentary, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." That will always remain true.

But it's becoming easier by the day to rouse people from their slumber.

Putin cannot and will not succeed. His chosen war with Ukraine will ultimately be his downfall. It will cost Russia untold billions, if not trillions, of dollars — and threatens to take the nation back to where it was in 1917: destitute and starving.

The more desperate Putin becomes in trying to hold onto power, the more tenuous the survival of our species becomes. He has world-ending cards to play, and has threatened to use them.

Expect people like Putin, Trump, Erdogan and others to continue playing the cards they believe they were dealt. But all will eventually fail.

The future threat comes from autocrats who know how to manipulate social media, not stifle it. The first of those to emerge will be truly dangerous and terrifying — even more so than an aging sideshow clown who once anchored a network entertainment show and an aging ex-KGB officer who resorts to elaborate Cold War stunts to stifle the opposition.

But as long as there are despots, there will be journalists trying to expose them. Many will be young men and women who will risk prison, or worse, to deliver the facts to a needful public — even if some of the public don't want to hear it. 

Read more from Brian Karem on the Biden White House:

By Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the former senior White House correspondent for Playboy. He has covered every presidential administration since Ronald Reagan, sued Donald Trump three times successfully to keep his press pass, spent time in jail to protect a confidential source, covered wars in the Middle East and is the author of seven books. His latest is "Free the Press."

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Authoritarianism Commentary Donald Trump Media Recep Tayyip Erdogan Russia Social Media Ukraine Vladimir Putin