On any given nightly news broadcast, Vladimir Putin, face devoid of expression, voice quiet but martial, interrogates a cabinet minister or a director of a state-run factory or a utilities chief. If the economic news is good, the subordinate is off the hook and the next segment comes on.
But if prices have spiked, or salaries are low, or costs have gone way over budget, then Putin lays into the unfortunate bureaucrat — “What’s wrong with your head?” “Are you crazy?” “What are you saying?”— as the cameras roll and the Russian president’s quarry stammers and squirms.
It’s populist political theater that makes for really, really awkward television. But it helps explain the riddle of the enduring popularity of a ruler who has no checks on his power, no serious opposition, and who presides over a country mired in an economic slowdown.
Even as Putin plays the role of grand inquisitor, he has also positioned himself as the one person in the country to whom citizens can turn at a time when faith in government institutions is low.
… “the underlying goal” of Putin’s domestic disinformation is less to persuade than “to engender cynicism”: “When people stop trusting any institutions or having any firmly held values, they can easily accept a conspiratorial vision of the world.” Putin’s Kremlin is weaving a web of incongruous but useful strands.
In many worrisome ways, the 1930s are being reprised. In Europe, Russia is playing the role of Germany in fomenting anti-democratic factions. In inward-turning, distracted America, the role of Charles Lindbergh is played by a presidential candidate smitten by Putin and too ignorant to know the pedigree of his slogan “America First.”