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  • David Savill

Tinker, Tailor, Celebrity, Spy: In the age of Putin and Trump, the danger to our democracies is not

1. The Businessman and The Spy

When in 1996 members of Boris Yeltsin’s inner-circle invited Vladimir Putin to be part of the ailing president’s political team, it appears none of them envisioned the little known assistant to the Mayor of St Petersburg would be president in four years’ time. Certainly no-one could have envisioned he would still be president twenty years on.

Putin was tapped by Yeltsin’s team for his skills as a case officer in the KGB. In a country where publicly owned businesses were becoming private, Putin had helped the St Petersburg council gather information on the new ‘bandits’ of private enterprise. Bandits who were fast becoming oligarchs by amassing wealth and power.

A former intelligence agent, Putin was adept in gathering the kind of financial information which is useful ‘leverage’ in making deals. What Yeltsin needed was a man who could help him tackle the power of the oligarchs.

Putin was skilled in ‘working with people’. In the language of Andropov’s KGB, this phrase was used in two senses. Firstly, a KGB case officer learned to study the psychology of his counterparts. Knowing a person’s vulnerabilities was key to running agents and turning enemies into double-agents. ‘Working with people’ also meant the KGB at large should understand the psychology of the population. Russia’s Intelligence Agency should be capable of predicting, and then controlling, the country’s behaviour.

When he became President, Putin proved he could contain the power of the oligarchs by prosecuting and jailing Mikhail Khodorkovsky. This began the transfer of enormous private assets not to the state, but to politicians, many of whom were friends and colleagues from Putin’s KGB years.

Putin then took financial, and editorial control of his country’s media. In the chaos following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia’s press had shown great courage but also a susceptibility to be bought. As in the West today, Russian journalism was weak and an easy target for politicians. In the next decade many investigative journalists and a number of opposition politicians would be executed on Russian streets, cases never resolved.

But perhaps more insidious than the executive transfer of power from the private sector to the KGB or the arrest of press freedom, Putin’s story demonstrates how political changes rely on cultural changes, both in institutions, and the public consciousness. When Putin became President, the culture of the KGB became the culture of the Kremlin. Russia became a population of paranoid assets.

Donald Trump would probably make the world’s worst spy. (Unless, in the double-think world of the intelligence agent, this qualifies him for being the best). The new President of America is a businessman and celebrity. But like Putin’s ascent to the Kremlin, Trump’s victory also appears to represent a cultural change, not just in the balance of national opinion, but in the institutions of government. Anyone with faith in liberal democracy, must ask serious questions about the nature of this change.

If Putin has turned the Kremlin into an intelligence agency with an autocratic director, Donald Trump appears to be turning the White House into a surreal combination of corporation and reality television show. Republicans once sceptical of candidate Trump now gather around the President and praise his skills as a ‘businessman’. Those who cannot defend Trump’s diplomatic skills or moral turpitude, can find only his ‘business’ skills to praise. The media play to the narrative of the corporation boss, hiring and firing.

Putin also plays this game. The rhetorical and practical affinity between Putin’s treatment of the Presidency and the function of a CEO, has been well-analysed. In what has been called ‘Russia, Inc.’ Putin is the strategic manager. The operating managers of government do his bidding.

Is this what American politics has finally become? America Inc? In his private behaviour, Trump displays worrying signs of the CEO who cannot accept insubordination, especially from the press. How will he behave when his operating managers question the direction set by the boss?

Putin’s first steps in power included promoting old intelligence agency friends to sit in the Kremlin alongside the political establishment. He also invited artists and former media men into the Kremlin to play the role of ‘political technologist’. These men began to protect Putin’s power with the language of disinformation.

Treating the White House like an episode of his television show, Trump has invited characters from his own drama to the table of power, including family members and the executive chairman of a news agency whose professional standards and interest in accuracy and balance are far poorer than the establishment media they attack.

Putin took direct control of the media; Trump has another means of undermining the democratic function of the press. From the office of the President, he questions the integrity of journalism, and brands everything a conspiracy. Nothing appears to be true. It is little less than the tactic of an intelligence agency in the field. (And it is no small irony an intelligence agency helped Trump to power).

In Russia, a former intelligence agent strangled liberal democracy at birth in order to maintain the country’s stability. In America, a businessman and celebrity may be neutering democracy in its middle-age, with the excuse of healing its divisions.

2. The Celebrity and The Spy

Trump is not just a businessman. He is also a celebrity. To understand the culture Trump has used and abused, we also need to understand the culture of celebrity.

What the culture of the celebrity and the spy have in common is the primacy of appearances. In the world of the intelligence agent and the world of the celebrity, nothing is what it seems. Life is a performance.

As every artist knows, this privileging of appearance over reality creates a disconnection with the real. In this disconnection lies the undemocratic power of both Putin and Trump’s government. When reality is disconnected, paranoia and conspiracy fill the space left behind. In paranoia and conspiracy, journalism - the medium of writing most suited to challenging power - dies.

In the eyes of most American people, Trump is not primarily a businessman. He is a larger than life character who hires-and-fires on a television show. He is a performer. Putin’s own performances are legendary, and go far beyond the baby kissing performances of politicians past.

Putin is the action hero flying helicopters over forest fires, the agony aunt with a weekly call-in show, the hunter shooting bears, the mafia boss publicly roasting inadequate civil servants in front of the cameras. These performances leave Tony Blair and Bill Clinton at the edges of the stage, limply strumming guitar and blowing into a saxophone.

Of course, public life has always involved performance. The old kind of politician was a public figure. The public persona often contradicted the private self. But before the age of the celebrity and the spy, the public expected the truth of politicians to at least not contradict the facts of reality. If a politician championed women’s rights, he could not be a misogynist sex abuser.

In philosophy, correspondence theory belongs to material realists. They reason that truth is that which accords with reality, because material reality itself is not a problematic concept. But in the world of the celebrity and the spy it is the philosophy of metaphysical idealists which holds sway.

For the metaphysical idealist, truth is that which accords with our beliefs, because the fact of reality is difficult to establish. When the world was flat, it was true the world was flat — right up until we discovered the world was round.This is how Trump treats the truth. He believed climate change was a conspiracy until it was expedient not to believe it.

It is also how we have treated the truth in electing Trump. It was not just the news stories which were faked. Given the choice between two candidates very few people wanted, we chose to believe things we knew were not true. We faked our feelings.

And beyond the fake news stories which shamed both sides in the election, the manner of Trump’s victory speaks of a deeper malaise in American democracy. We are becoming incapable of perceiving reality. Indeed, something like this inability to hold reality to account was at work in the transparent lies of the Brexit campaign in Britain.

Lies in politics used to be massaged truths. Now they are naked deceit, seemingly without consequence. Strange to report, it could be in part the pervasive culture of celebrity which has allowed this to happen.

Celebrities lead false lives in the public eye, with plot lines written by newspapers. It is a business created by publicists for profit. The reality of a celebrity’s life lies somewhere between the performance, and the world we cannot see. It is a lie which we accept. And celebrity culture has prepared us to accept lies.

Trump is a creature of Reality Television. An extension of celebrity culture, Reality Television is a kind of ‘faction’, the most ontologically uncertain and dishonest of narrative forms. It is an uncertainty our culture now extends to its reading of politics. The world is a reality television drama, and we have almost lost touch with the idea that what happens on the public stage, has real consequences.

3. The narrative construction of an autocracy

Modern autocracies like that of Putin’s Russia don’t monopolise truth. They make reality inconsequential by destroying a peoples’ ability to create truths. To do this, they manipulate narrative. This is serious, because we comprehend the world as narrative.

Dramatic narrative is the manipulation of reality. When we call a story ‘fiction’, the artificial and manipulative nature of dramatic narrative is transparent. We know that what we are watching or reading is not real, only a simulation of reality. In this respect fiction may not be true, but it is honest. Because it is honest, fiction is not the tool of the autocrat.

Faction is.

Reality television works by confusing the viewer. We watch it precisely because it might be real. Fiction’s proposition to the audience is this: “I can make you believe anything, but I am never real”. In fiction, we can vicariously experience the most extreme behaviours because the ontological space around events is still safe. Reality television’s proposition is much more dangerous. Reality Television says: “You won’t know what to believe”.

This is an exciting idea. It is why reality television has been so successful. It is how reality television gives us a different experience to fiction even as it borrows the technique of fiction.

One of the techniques reality television steals from fiction, is drama itself. Characters in reality television embody dramatic values – hope, hate, love, venality. They are emblematic personalities. But as every producer of reality television knows, the public characters do not have to bare any relationship to the private characters. Indeed, as we all know through the performance of our own lives, our identities can be changed when we play a role.

Reality television is scripted to fulfill the desires of the viewer. In the same way, Trump exists to fulfill the desires of those who created him as a President. Only the viewers, are now the voters. Trump convinces us he is the real thing; unmitigated, uncensored. But the form demands drama, and drama demands a higher level of deceit.

The representational dichotomy of reality television and celebrity culture has convinced us that what a person does in reality is of no consequence, as long as they maintain the performance we enjoy. Kim Kardashian is good at being Kim Kardashian, it doesn’t matter who she really is. As long as the public Trump keeps saying the right things to the right people, voters don’t seem to care to examine the private reality.

It has long been one of the most cruel and disturbing aspects of living in Britain that our Royal Family act as a never-ending reality television show, living out a national myth of superiority and beneficence to the world. Many will think we also ask them to live out positive, progressive values, but the dishonesty of the narrative construct has always troubled me.

Expecting that nothing is true, we have no way to gauge reality or hold politicians to account. In Russia, the situation is even more unreal. Most Russians don’t believe the west is out to destroy Russia, but at the same time, many feel it is a useful truth to believe. The celebrity turn in our narrative culture is fast leading us down the same nightmare rabbit hole.

4. Fighting ‘Post-Truth’, With Fact (and fiction)

And yet, I do not think this is the culture of Post-Truth. It is something more dangerous. It is the culture of Post-Fact.

Everyday, the novelist is reminded in her work that there is no binary position on the definition of truth; a truth, and a non-truth. In the fictional laboratory, character proves to the writer that two opposing ideas can be true. In testing and exploring behavior and human relationships, the writer learns that what is true for one character can be false for another, or that a single character can simultaneously believe opposing truths.

And don’t we all know this? Anyone who has ever been in a bad relationship knows there is your truth and their truth. The truth of Leavers, the truth of Remainers. The truth of Trump land. The truth of the Liberal ‘establishment’. There can be no post-truth world, because truth has always existed in plurality and contention. When two lovers come together and agree their differences, they discover a greater truth. When two opposing ideologies find common ground, a new ideological truth can be formed.

The real danger of the celebrity and the spy, is not this false idea of a ‘post-truth’ world. The idea of a post-truth world is itself dangerous because it denies our capacity to change, understand each other, and develop new truths. Post-Truth is the autocrat’s word, because it assumes there was only ever one, immutable truth in the first place.

The danger which lies in the power of the celebrity and the spy, is that they give birth to a world which is post-fact. It is facts we must consider in moving toward new truths. And the people who know this better than anyone, are not the novelists or producers of reality television, but the journalists. This is why the autocrat must first weaken, and destroy them.

The power of the journalist, lies with the anti-narrative properties of her form. The craft itself is the weapon. Woody Guthrie knew his craft was the weapon when he scrawled the words “This Machine Kills Fascists” on his guitar, and then travelled America, challenging people with his music. Today, it is journalists we should turn to. Journalists to whom we owe our respect, and who must go to battle with their pens, and pyramid-structured stories. Good journalism kills fascists, but cannot do so without good readers.

In teaching writing to students, one of the most powerful lessons in form comes from the comparison between the structure of a short story – the dramatic form borrowed by reality television and celebrity culture – and the structure of a news story.

Good journalism, must represent and order facts. The journalist may choose which facts to represent and in which order to place them. But the news story, in its simplest form, has an incredible power. Its source is transparent. Its reasoning is evident, and it stands alongside the stories of other journalists, so that we may weigh its value.

It is then our role as the good citizens of a democracy to read carefully, and widely. If we do not, we are wasting the greatest power we have. The citizen who reads nothing but the most venal tabloid press, gets the weakened democracy he deserves. The citizen who reads only opinion and commentary, will form no real opinions.

We need to recognise that not all journalism is the same, to know what the likely biases of our press are, but also to consider its strengths. Not every day is a good day in journalism, but the facts are out there, scattered across the political spectrum of our press.

Facts however, like all precious resources, are expensive because they are so often hard to come by. Every journalist working today knows the pain of establishing and verifying an accurate fact. Newspapers have less money to pay journalists to discover facts. To make a living, journalists turn to commentary and opinion because commentary and opinion are cheap.

In America, poor regulations governing ownership have for decades weakened the credibility of the press, and in Britain, things are not much better. A commercially owned and monopolised press is one of the most destructive ways in which free-market capitalism does the job Putin achieved by force. The demagogue and the autocrat take advantage of this weakened voice to sow the paranoia and conspiracy which destroy democracy.

And so, to prove his commitment to democracy, Trump could do no better than to champion journalism. Instead of inviting newspapers to a dressing-down and appointing a propagandist as White House Chief of Staff, he could take steps to reinvigorate models of direct public funding which ensure facts are resourced and independently gathered.

But at the time of writing, everything suggests he will not do so. At the time of writing, Trump is installing a Republican old guard in his White House - another disconnect with the bombastic image of outsider he sold the public. It may also be a sign that he intends to make himself, unlike Putin, free of policy-making; in the end, no more than a Republican sop to masses, with whom the Republican elite could not hold a conversation.

But whatever he proves to be in political terms, what Trump's victory tells us about the quality of public debate in our democracies is profound. His treatment of the media suggests paranoia and conspiracy remain the weapons of choice. There is a real danger his presidency will respect democracy about as much as the spy he seems to love.

(Picture Connor Toole / Alec Macdonald:

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