Americans as Soviets: The Problems of Washington Postmodernism
Dmitry Shlapentokh, Associate Professor of History at Indiana University South Bend, argues that the United States has serious economic problems. Instead of addressing these issues, the Washington elite blames Russian propaganda and Trumpism. They look quite similar to those in the Soviet Kremlin, but unlike most Soviets they are true believer. They assume that smooth transition to improved "normality" would take place after Trump's departure, but can be wrong like Gorbachev.
Recently, American lawmakers have engaged in prolonged public hearings focused on Russian propaganda, which emerged as almost a major threat to America's very existence. The U.S. democracy is in danger because of the Kremlin. And not just the USA, which is on the brink of an abyss. Europe faces a similar crisis. The EU and NATO are crashing, and this is also Moscow's fault, and could be attributed to the Kremlin's Machievallian play. While I watched the discussions on the TV screen, it struck me as being very familiar, similar to what I saw in the USSR forty years ago.
Indeed, I am old enough to remember well the late Soviet era, and how the Kremlin's residents presented the world around them to the hoi polloi. The average Soviets were informed that both the USSR and its satellite countries of the Warsaw Pact were almost ideal societies. The people of East Europe, as they were presented by the Soviet mass media, were deeply attached to the Soviet Union and were grateful to Moscow for bringing them socialism – this almost ideal society. The numerous ethnicities of the USSR were also in love with each other, and in full harmony with the regime; in fact, the Soviet regime was almost an "end of history" with Communism, the true omega of history, lying ahead. Still, the Soviets were aware that East Europe was brooding with discontent and this was easily explained: it was due to the malicious Western propaganda, mostly disseminated by such outlets as Voice of America, Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe. The emigration of Russian Jews – thousands of them had left already during the late Soviet era – was also due to malicious propaganda from the West. In some cases, the Soviet elite also hinted that some people in the USSR were not satisfied with their lives. This was also explained as being caused by Western ideological subversion, for life in the USSR was clearly almost problem-free, and definitely much better than in the West.
While the people in Washington look quite similar to those in the Soviet Kremlin, they were different from one very important perspective. It is true that Soviet leaders spent considerable resources on the work of their propaganda machine. Still, they were not brainwashed by their own propaganda. They clearly understood the difference between the constructed images of their propaganda and reality. Soviet leaders were not postmodernists. Consequently, they always understood that what they pontificated to their flocks were lies. Indeed, they were fully cognizant of the fact that East Europeans deeply hated Moscow; various ethnicities of the USSR were not friends of each other, and living standards of most Soviets hardly fit their expectations. Logically, they made the appropriate decisions: they had never reduced the iron grip of the Kremlin over the USSR and its empire, and the Secret Police assiduously watched, and, if needed, punished the Soviet flock. And needless to say, any popular movement not fully controlled by the authorities was nipped in the bud. And this was one of the major reasons why the regime had survived for several generations, despite all odds. The situation with those who participated in the discussed hearings, and a good part of the U.S. elite seems to be different, for they, most likely, believed in what they said. They have no doubt that the USA has indeed reached "the end of history," and, in general, flourishes despite all odds.
For example, most of them undoubtedly assumed that the U.S. economy has clearly progressed in the past few decades, albeit not as quickly as they would like. And how could they or anybody else could doubt this "self-evident truth"? This assumption is supported by statistics and a variety of economists with formidable credentials; some were Nobel Prize laureates in economics. The very fact that closed American factories had covered the American landscape as tombstones – Trump's apt comparison during his inaugural address – could be ignored plainly because the USA had moved from the outdated industrial era to a more advanced "service" economy, in which bank speculation or insurance fraud is indeed what matters. American students owe to banks more than a trillion dollars, for they could not find the appropriate and well-paid jobs while taking out high loans from banks to pay for their educations. Still, official statistics, researchers from top universities and think tanks, and journalists from the influential New York Times asserted that most students become members of the middle and even upper classes upon receiving their degrees in women's studies, history, political science, astronomy and similar fields. The people who made these statements are not engaged in conscious lying; rather, they are sort of spontaneous post-modernists. They assume that reality does not mean much. It was constructed reality that matters. So when the events – e.g. the election in our case – moves in an unexpected direction, it is explained just by the presence of Russian propaganda, which seems to be a supernatural force, for it was successfully constructed opposite "reality." Indeed, the U.S. elite was especially perplexed by evidence of its dexterity. Is it not the USA where the leading universities, think tanks and famous mass media exist, and employ the most sophisticated folk? Many people in Washington were surprised by Russian efficiency. Still, a number of the elite believe that it was reality created by them that actually matters, and appropriate "discourse" would return society to "normality," to what they believe it should be. They are true believers and from their perspective, quite different from most Russian rulers for the last several generations. There is only one exception: Gorbachev.
Gorbachev was the only Russian/Soviet leader who believed in his own propaganda and assumed that constructed "reality" is equal to reality, and behaved accordingly, shaking the very foundations of the state. He was not concerned with early tremors, assuming that Soviet society was harmonious and so strong that nothing could endanger its existence. The result – exactly 25 years ago – is well-known. The message of "katastroika" (the word that combines "catastrophe" and "perestroika") seems to miss the ears of many chaps in Washington, who believe that the USA is absolutely different from the USSR, and constitute Fukyamian "end of history." They still hold that the tension in society is caused by either Russian propaganda or the "wrong" narrative of Trumpism. Therefore, they believe that they could encourage mass anti-Trump protests and some even, possibly, thought about plans to impeach Trump. They assume that nothing would happen, and smooth transition to improved "normality" would take place after Trump's departure. One might note here that Gorbachev thought in the same way.
Dmitry Shlapentokh is an Associate Professor of History at Indiana University South Bend. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Born in U.S.S.R. (Ukraine), he teaches World and Russian/Soviet and Post Soviet history. Dmitry started working at IUSB in 1991, which was the year of the collapse of the U.S.S.R.