In a TV studio in Kyiv, on the bright and very early morning of November 9, 2016, I was supposed to be calmly dissecting the US presidential election’s voting results in the remaining swing states: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin. When the CNN screen started flashing “red” – for a projected victory of Donald Trump – I shut down and could with difficulty stammer only a few perfunctory comments. To me, the world as I knew it came crashing down at that moment – the world of agreed-on rules of political engagement and decency. In its place came a world of willful deception, bullying, and chicanery.
In Ukraine’s crowded field of political pundits I am known as a rabid anti-Trumpist. I have been intimately familiar with Trump and his antics since moving to his native New York in 1999. In 2006, together with my fellow-students at Columbia University, I had a dubious privilege of sharing an elevator ride with the future president into the heights of the Trump Tower.
True to form, I have carried my intense skepticism of Trump to the international affairs talk-show, which I co-host on a Ukrainian TV channel. The show’s guests are often incredulous at hearing me ring alarm bells about the state of the American democracy in the age of Trump: “Yes, he’s kind of a clown, but isn’t the US economy firing on all cylinders?” “Hasn’t he, Mueller’s investigation notwithstanding, been tougher on Russia than Obama”? My answer is an unequivocal “No.” Behind the seemingly innocent and amusing facade, Trump has been steadily eroding the norms and standards of political discourse, which are the very foundation of the American democracy.
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It does matter when the American president tells lies at the rate of 50 untruths a day, for a total of 10,796 so far, according to The Washington Post’s latest count. It does matter when the American president makes fun of a handicapped reporter. It does matter when the American president tells American-born congresswomen of color to “go back to their countries”; labels African states as “shithole countries”; disparages Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “criminals”; and considers participants of a neo-Nazi rally as “good people.” And it does matter that when the American president does not like media reports about him, he simply dismisses them as “fake news” and labels the reporters as the true “enemy of the people.” A normalization of hateful rhetoric sets in, and hateful action is not long in following: witness the October 2018 massacre in a Pittsburgh synagogue (11 dead) and the very recent shooting in El Paso (20 dead).
Indeed, America is living through a bitterly ironic moment when, economically, it is doing better than ever, while its social fabric is tearing apart at the seam and a majority of Americans claim in poll after poll that their country is not on the right path.
The truth is that America, as many other countries, finds itself swamped in “abundance of information,” while simultaneously suffering from a decrease in popular consensus regarding basic truths and the very rules of political engagement. This concept is central to the new book by journalist Peter Pomerantsev, “This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality.” Pomerantsev has been an early prophet of doom, correctly predicting that, having “weaponized information” in his hybrid war against Ukraine, Vladimir Putin would extend his tactics to the West - a prophecy vividly confirmed by Russia’s meddling in the US 2016 election. For, although Robert Mueller was unable to point to a precise incident of Russia-Trump collusion that would stand in a court of law, Trump benefited from the involvement of Russian trolls and bots, and has subsequently – Putin-style – attempted to obfuscate Russia’s role.
Presenting his country-specific case studies of politics of disinformation and deception through the use of armies of trolls and bots – including the Philippines, South Korea and Mexico, among others – Pomeantsev makes a persuasive argument that there is a veritable International of real and would-be authoritarians – Putin, Trump, Duterte, Xi Jinping – who learn from and perfect each other’s playbooks.
Indeed, one of the most effective (though not always so subtle) and copied forms of subversion and manipulation, which has thrived in the current climate of informational abundance, has been to dispute real facts by throwing up a multitude of “alternative facts” – from the utterly ridiculous to the semi-plausible.
Alas, the world is at an early stage of this informational counterrevolution, where we have understood the dangers inherent in the informational abundance but have not yet come up with the tools to check and counter them.
Viewed in this light, the juvenile incident involving the head of Ukraine’s Presidential Administration, Andriy Bohdan, whereby he is said to have leaked a mock letter of resignation was a serious misstep and not worthy of a country that has been proclaimed Europe’s “first line of defense” against Russia’s war on truth. Following President Zelenskiy’s announcement of plans to launch a Russian-language TV channel which would seek to counter Kremlin’s lies by targeting viewers in Russia and other post-Soviet states, Ukraine’s leader would do well to ponder his country’s message to the world and the means to convey it.