Russian Journalist Speaks on Trump-Putin Similarities
Issue   |   Wed, 02/01/2017 - 01:19

In a talk titled “The Trump-Putin Connect: What We Imagine and Why,” prominent Russian journalist and activist Masha Gessen spoke of the similarities between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Johnson Chapel at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 26.

Gessen, who was invited by President Biddy Martin to speak at the college, was born to an Ashkenazi Jewish family in the former Soviet Union, and has moved several times between the United States and Moscow.

She has written books as well as articles for The New York Times and The Washington Post. Dean of the Faculty Catherine Epstein introduced Gessen and praised her as a leading journalist in Russia, a critic of Putin and an LGBT activist.

Gessen, Epstein said, is a controversial journalist who was dismissed from Russia’s oldest magazine and has criticized the American LGBT community and Trump.

Gessen began her talk by discussing the Syrian refugee crisis. Relating their situation to her own when immigrating as a refugee to the United States, she said that “the situation we were escaping … was much less dire than most of the refugees in the world today are facing.”

She then discussed the similarities between Trump and Putin. Before describing them, she cautioned the audience that they are not completely alike and that Trump is “not Putin’s puppet.”

Gessen said that Trump, like Putin, lies in order to assert “his right to say whatever the hell he wants.”

Because Trump uses his lies to assert power, she said, the media’s extensive fact-checking is not enough. Instead, she said the media should write about not only individual facts, but also “the bigger picture.”

Both men also live in their own reality, she added, consuming only the news that reflect their own beliefs. According to Gessen, Putin watches Putin TV, and Trump watches Fox News and other conservative media.

Gessen also worries that people will soon be drawn into a false sense of security. “We will wake up one morning, probably next week, and there will not be a barrage of heartbreaking news, and that will feel like a relief,” she said.

Trump and Putin, Gessen said, have “interests rather than priorities.” She said their actions did not consistently reflect goals for the country, but instead simply kept them happy.

In addition, both have “absolute, utter disdain for government.”

Because Trump’s agenda does not align with those of some of the departments within the federal government, he appointed cabinet members who opposed these departments’ goals, Gessen said.

Putin, too, had condemned his own government after a submarine was destroyed, according to Gessen.

Another similarity between Trump and Putin is their “disdain for moral authority.” Gessen said Trump felt threatened instinctually by Representative John Lewis’ moral authority and attacked him for several days.

Both share a “disdain for the public sphere,” Gessen said. Conservatives tend not to hear ideas different from their own, while liberals do and the discussions in liberal media threatened Trump, Gessen said.

She said that now “media has become the opposition party,” while Trump threatens democracy and the health of the public sphere.

Gessen’s final comparison of Putin and Trump dealt with their belief in themselves as “chosen people.”

“While we see Putin as being less legitimate, he sees himself as more legitimate, because despite his lack of qualifications, he ended up being [the] Russian president,” Gessen said.

She compared Trump’s lack of experience in public office or the military to Putin’s experience before becoming president.
After her talk, Gessen answered questions from the audience and received a standing ovation at the end of the event.

Alex Gurvets ’18 attended the talk and said that he found Gessen’s analysis of the two men’s personalities interesting, particularly how Gessen “reminded us that Putin and Trump are more or less average people,” he said in an online interview.

“Her perspective on how each president has a worldview based on the media he consumes especially seemed to ground them as people,” he wrote.

Another attendee, Julian Brubaker ’20, especially appreciated Gessen’s insight into Trump’s character.

“She compared Trump and Putin in simple terms, but her analysis of their personalities was provocative, and made me think in a new and helpful way about my new president, however painful that is to say,” he said in an online interview.

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