Joe Biden v. Vladimir Putin: This week's dismal propaganda war had no winners

Biden's press conference — let's be honest! — was a disaster. Putin's tedious history lesson only wins by default

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published February 11, 2024 6:00AM (EST)

Biden and Putin. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Biden and Putin. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

At one point in Tucker Carlson’s 127-minute “interview” with Vladimir Putin last week — which was more like a tendentious, digressive history lecture, occasionally interrupted by a dim but obsequious schoolboy — Carlson made the Russian president laugh. It was a creaky, troubling sound, something like the door of an antique iron safe being swung back and forth. One can only imagine how much Kremlin insiders hate that sound.

Carlson had asked why Putin didn’t try to score a “propaganda victory” by revealing information that might implicate the CIA in the still-mysterious Nord Stream pipeline bombing of September 2022. 

Putin laughed. Creak, creak, squeak. “In the war of propaganda, it is very difficult to defeat the United States,” he responded, “because the United States controls all the world’s media and the European media.” 

Well, OK. Let’s start with the obvious irony: Putin is no slouch in the propaganda wars himself, and is well aware of his reputation in the West as a master manipulator. Why was he talking to, or rather at, Tucker Carlson in the first place? 

We’ll get back to that. But there’s a second layer of irony, which even Putin could not have anticipated. His Carlson conversation was released online directly opposite Joe Biden’s hastily arranged White House press conference on Thursday evening. The contrast could hardly have been more striking, or more bizarre.

It’s both unfair and unreasonable, no doubt, to draw a direct comparison between the two presidents’ media events, which took place in dramatically different circumstances and for different reasons. But politics, whether global or national, has nothing to do with what is fair or reasonable and everything to do with appearance and perception. 

If Putin was the winner of this week’s propaganda battle, that was largely by default. As usual, Biden’s performance both demanded and deserved our compassion and empathy, even as we devoutly wished he were someone else, or somewhere else.

The president addressed the cameras for about five minutes, fueled by tangible human emotion and reportedly without a Teleprompter, before taking a few questions from reporters. Everything he said and did in that brief appearance, up to and including his now-infamous confusion of Mexico with Egypt, is defensible or at least explicable when viewed through the distortion lens of American partisan politics. Commentators on MSNBC and elsewhere in the liberal-inflected media demonstrated that to the best of their ability over the next day or two. 

What-about the White House press conference all you like: Trump is infinitely more dangerous, Biden struggles with a lifelong speech impediment, his Mexico-Egypt gaffe was entirely typical. OK, yes. But it was a catastrophe.

But if we could, just as a thought experiment, push ourselves away from that warped perspective, and ignore the orange-hued hobgoblin whose endless campaign speeches are laden with far worse misstatements, not to mention ludicrous delusions and outright fabrications — well, no, I realize we can’t do that. Donald Trump has transformed and stupefied American public discourse far more profoundly than he could ever have imagined was possible, and evidently we will remain mesmerized by him until he’s dead or we all are, and perhaps after that. (Will the MAGA movement have him stuffed and mounted, like Lenin, or carry him around on a plywood platform, like a medieval saint?)

But if we pretended, just for a minute, to notice that there are several billion people in the world who view the United States from outside with a mixture of terror, wonder and sheer mystification, we might also notice that what they saw in the White House on Thursday was the octogenarian leader of the most powerful military power in history, confronted with a report (from his own government!) that described him as an “elderly man with a poor memory” who suffers from “diminished faculties,” responding in an angry, mumbled monotone that was difficult to follow even if you knew what he was talking about and featured a spectacular mistake that he never noticed or corrected. 

What-about that all you like: Trump’s evident derangement is infinitely more dangerous, Biden has a lifelong speech impediment that can lead to verbal tics and mangled diction, his Mexico-Egypt transposition is entirely typical of the “gaffes” heard throughout his public life. All of that is true, or at least plausible. But if we can pull away, once again, from “What does this mean for the Democrats?” and the ghoulish social media gloating of Individual 1 and his many fans, and regard this pseudo-event from the perspective of Tanzania or Indonesia or Mars, I think the verdict is clear.

It was a catastrophe. A complete and total insert-a-profane-gerund disaster. Not just a political disaster, although probably that too. More of a global WTF: How in all the names of God in all the world’s religions did that guy end up as the most powerful individual on the planet, not to mention the supposed defender of so-called democracy against an insultingly idiotic fascist renaissance? 

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To say that Putin looked good by comparison isn’t even damning with faint praise. I wouldn’t argue that he looked good at all. But in the face of Western media accounts that have depicted the Russian president as paranoid and isolated, he made an effort to appear statesmanlike and well informed. His history lessons were tendentious and highly selective, but his facts and dates were largely accurate. He appeared to view Carlson, understandably enough, with the attitude of a mildly bored spider who isn’t sure whether the small insect being wrapped in its web is even worth eating.

Let’s return to his creaky laugh and his answer about the risks of fighting a propaganda war with America. Putin is nowhere near being a deep thinker or an intellectual (Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is the brains of that operation), but as an intelligence professional he’s skilled at throwing shade, clouding the issue and twisting the knife.

The first part of Putin’s statement, in larger historical terms, is pretty much true: He is no doubt better informed than most Americans about the ideological importance of U.S. “soft power.” But the second part, about American control of the media, is about halfway between cranky conspiracy theory and acerbic Noam Chomsky commentary: Yes, the Western press has a built-in bias toward liberal democracy and market capitalism. Breaking news! 

Putin deployed that rhetorical approach repeatedly with Carlson: He starts with a premise that is approximately true, or at least has some basis in reality, then leaps forward to increasingly contentious and illogical conclusions. 

Ukrainian nationality is a modern invention, the Russian leader argued in his extended opening monologue — which he told Carlson would be “30 seconds or a minute” and went on for nearly half an hour — and the present-day Ukrainian state was constructed from territory that at various times belonged to the Russian Empire, the kingdom of Poland, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and who knows what else. Sure! That’s all true, but it doesn’t follow that modern Ukraine has no right to exist, or that Russia is justified in clawing much of that territory back by force.

Present-tense Ukraine is a modern invention, Putin told us, made up of bits and pieces of defunct empires and kingdoms. True! But that describes most countries in the world, and we've concluded they have the right to exist.

Someone brighter than Tucker Carlson might have observed that all modern nation-states, pretty much, are artificial constructions. Nothing resembling present-tense Germany or Italy could be found on maps of Europe before the middle of the 19th century, and 200-odd years after the creation of the United Kingdom, the relationship between its constituent nations remains unsettled. One of the basic premises of post-Enlightenment global politics is that when a large majority of the people in a given territory decide that they’re a nation, as the Ukrainians have clearly done, the world is supposed to take them seriously: “When in the course of human events,” and all that.

Similarly, Putin made the familiar case that the U.S. and NATO broke a post-Cold War promise not to expand the Western military alliance into the former Soviet bloc, let alone all the way to Russia’s western border. He’s definitely got a point, although the fine-grained details are contentious and the actual history is more complicated than that. Next comes the argument that the 2014 Maidan “revolution” that overthrew the pro-Russian government of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych — who was corrupt and incompetent but had more or less been legitimately elected — was actually a CIA-sponsored coup. I don’t think that has a yes-or-no answer. It's more like a “both-and”: Ukrainian nationalists turned decisively against Yanukovych and Russian influence, and the U.S. not-so-covertly helped force him out.

Even if we give Putin the W on that one, for argument’s sake, that’s when he runs out of rope. His following claim is that the U.S. and NATO engineered a civil war between government forces and pro-Russian militias in eastern Ukraine, and that his “special military operation” of 2022 — to the rest of the world, an unprovoked invasion — was simply an effort to settle that conflict. To give Carlson minimal credit, he keeps asking what possible threat Putin perceived in Ukraine that justified two years of grueling warfare, but doesn’t appear to notice how thoroughly that question has been bulldozed beneath a structure of halfway plausible, irrelevant or thoroughly specious claims.

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As many other commentators have observed, Carlson played his useful-idiot role faithfully: He never mentioned Russian war crimes, the suppression of internal dissent or the increasingly vicious crackdown on LGBTQ people and civil liberties more generally. But he was entirely unsuccessful at baiting Putin into endorsing Donald Trump — the Russian leader mentioned Trump just once, in passing — or into proclaiming some alliance with right-wing Christians in the West. Putin's vague remarks about religion were artfully dull and entirely unspecific, and to Carlson's ears might have sounded alarmingly like Western moral relativism. (There's a good reason for that: Less than half the Russian population identifies as Orthodox Christian, and nearly 40 percent profess no particular religion.)

All this confirms my sense that the larger audience Putin looks toward is global, and that contrary to the fantasies of some of his American or European fanboys, he has no interest in being identified as the leader of a white supremacist, Christian-centric campaign of reconquest. Russia’s most important actual or potential allies are the other BRICS countries — Brazil, India, China and South Africa — not Steve Bannon or Mike Johnson or the fractious white nationalists of Western Europe. Unsurprisingly, Carlson hadn't done his homework: Russian nationalism is built on the concept of a hybrid "Eurasian" identity — as explored in a recent New York Review article by Gary Saul Morson — which certainly has elements of racism but is entirely distinct from Euro-American notions of "whiteness."

Americans largely haven’t noticed, or haven’t wanted to notice, that most developing nations in the Global South have remained on the sidelines of the Ukraine conflict, at best, and have turned decisively against U.S. policy in the Middle East since Israel’s Gaza invasion. Vladimir Putin is acutely aware of those realities, and believes he can exploit the intractable qualities demonstrated by Russia over the centuries — patience, stubbornness and a remarkable tolerance for pointless suffering — to turn them to his advantage. Joe Biden, as we have lately witnessed, is still struggling to come to grips with those facts.

Would Putin prefer Trump to Biden? Without a doubt, but I’m not sure it matters to him as much as the hypnotized American political classes believe. He told Carlson that the personality of individual leaders isn’t important, and that the big historical question about the United States is whether its imperial decline comes suddenly and painfully, or more gradually over a longer period of time. He avoided saying whether he'd enjoy one of those options more than the other, graciously observing that it wasn’t up to him. 

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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Commentary Joe Biden Media Propaganda Russia Tucker Carlson Ukraine Vladimir Putin War