As Donald Trump prepares to meet with Vladimir Putin, many onlookers view the two leaders and their countries through a geopolitical lens that is essentially two-dimensional — a map with imperial borders that shift as great powers rise and fall. And the US, with its morally corrupt and vulnerable leader falling under Putin’s spell, is a power in decline, they say.
What they’re missing through this outdated worldview is a third dimension, in which a global cultural and political fault line is cutting through the US, Russia, and most of the EU — with Trump and Putin on the same side of the divide. The two leaders represent the same strain of a rising global culture: that of viciously xenophobic tabloids, politically biased infotainment TV, tacky showbiz, irresponsible populism, rabid nativism, and oligarchic kleptocracy.
You may not see that if you visualize Russia as a cross between Tolkien’s Mordor and the Star Wars Empire, rather than the fairly modernized and easily travelable nation of quality coffee shops, craft beer, and hipster-ridden gentrified industrial sites experienced and genuinely admired by World Cup fans in recent weeks.
You may also have trouble seeing that if you don’t understand how Putin governs Russia: through TV channels modeled on Silvio Berlusconi’s infotainment TV and Fox News (or even launched by former Fox staff, as in the case of the rabidly imperialist Tsargrad TV channel) and vicious tabloids that look and sound exactly like the Sun and Daily Mirror. Then there’s the militant Christian fundamentalism, copycatted down to the minor details from the US evangelical right, and the massive trolling of the notions of tolerance and human rights — a practice imported wholesale from the European far right, notably France’s National Front.
But if you mingle with the Trump and Putin crowds — or, as in my case, interview their respective supporters during election campaigns — you’re struck by the cultural similarity. These two groups share more in common with each other than they do with their compatriots on the other side of the divide: their view of politics as a form of entertainment, their vulnerability to obvious fakes and outsized confirmation bias, their outlandish ideas about the workings of outside world, their cult of imaginary past and fear of cultural or racial otherness. Such traits are almost entirely identical in Wilmington, Ohio, and in Kemerovo, Western Siberia — and to be fair, so is their well-justified apprehension of liberal snobbery.
The other side of this global divide is hardly made of intellectually and morally impeccable elves, but it knows enough to realize that the collective dementia of Trumpism or Putinism is potentially suicidal and requires urgent treatment. In Russia, this group is infinitely smaller, but also more refined. Putin was first elected in 2000, in a vote that international monitors described as generally in line with democratic standards, and has since spent 18 long years suppressing and co-opting the opposition. The anti-Putin movement shrank to the point of virtual negligibility by the end of his second term, but it reinvented itself and has been on the rise ever since the Bolotnaya protests of 2012 — and it has a clear and truly capable leader, Aleksei Navalny.
The anti-Trump train in the US, in comparison, is still full of accidental passengers who will soon get off because they are culturally closer to the Trumpists. These accidental passengers aren’t that different from their opponents when it comes to blaming their country’s ills on foreign conspiracies and spitting out xenophobic vitriol against their chosen enemy — Russians in their case. Wait to see how this part of the movement looks at the end of Trump's second term. Or his fourth.
The same cultural divide — between irresponsible nativist populism and weak, disoriented liberalism — defines the political landscape in Europe. Some countries, like Britain, Italy, Poland, and Hungary, have already been radically altered by their versions of Trumpism-Putinism, while others — notably Germany and France — are successfully repelling the onslaught.
They’re also becoming more explicit in explaining the gap that has emerged. “We do not share the same model of civilization; clearly we don’t share certain values,” a French government spokesperson said in late June when describing the Trump administration’s policy of separating families at the Mexican border. Naturally, he spoke only for a part of French society. On the other side of the global barricade, millions of French supporters of Marine Le Pen’s far right are on the same wavelength as Trump on issues like immigration and borders.
What the Trump–Putin summit really highlights is the end of sovereign domestic politics as we know it. Yes, Kremlin operatives meddled in a foreign election. So did the Obama administration when it financed Russian election monitoring groups, whose successful work to expose vote rigging triggered the Bolotnaya protests in 2012. Russian officials were also subject to hacker attacks, as in the case of Putin spin doctor Vladislav Surkov, whose emails, released in October 2016, at the height of the US hacking scandal, exposed the extent of Russian involvement in stirring up conflict in Ukraine.
In other countries of the former Soviet bloc, like Georgia, it is hard to say whether the US merely meddled or actually took over elements of governance, so deep and direct was its influence on the country’s politics. But ask pro-Western Russians or Georgians and they’ll have few bad things to say about this kind of meddling. Many Trump supporters are also quietly content that Putin might have lent them a hand.
In this new globalized political divide, there will be more, not less, foreign influence and meddling in domestic politics. The emerging global political movements, such as the one that unites Trump, Putin, and European far-right populists, are already threatening old territorial alliances, notably NATO and the EU, as well as international trade agreements.
A dark shadow behind this Illiberal International is what commentators tend to describe as a mafia state, which spans from Siberian oil wells and mineral deposits plundered by Putin’s entourage to European financial centers in London and Zurich and virtual offshores in Delaware and Nevada. It has a huge interest in obscuring cross-border financial dealings and preventing international cooperation on money laundering.
Meanwhile, a global liberal bloc is taking time to emerge, although Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron are already providing its core. This is a brave new world and we should all learn to live in it.
Leonid Ragozin is a freelance journalist based in Riga. He is a Lonely Planet author who has reported for the BBC and Russian Newsweek.