The US media went ape over Donald Trump’s interview with Larry King, accusing him of treason for positive remarks about Vladimir Putin, the authoritarian Russian president seen in the US as hardly better than a dictator. The Sunday Times’ two-pronged attack in the form of an Oped and a front-page article suggest it’s time to compare these two types of leadership.
The US crusade to impose “democracy” around the world assumes that it’s better to have a president who cannot fulfill his promises rather than one who is able to prevent special interests from sabotaging the greater good. Going back a century, dictators are perfectly acceptable to the US when they’re our dictators, whether we’re talking about Fulgencio Batista in Cuba, or the Saudi Royal family that probably played a major role in the 9/11 attack, and is using US weapons to wage a vicious air war against tiny Yemen.
The label ‘authoritarian’ is relatively recent and refers to strong leaders who are elected by universal suffrage but insist on getting their way. In the case of Russia, after some house - cleaning following a disastrous decade under Boris Yeltsin, who literally gave away the store, Vladimir Putin made it clear to Russian oligarchs that they are free to continue business as usual, as long as they don’t get in the way of the president’s plans to bring his country up to Western living standards.
The US media claims that elections that give Putin a comfortable parliamentary majority are rigged, as are his 80+ ratings. Apparently, the average Russian recognizes that “managed democracy” prevents the popular will from being thwarted by special interests.
Trump’s success among less educated voters suggests that they too would welcome a president who will not be prevented by Congress from fulfilling his electoral promises, whether or not they realize that single payer is more efficient than privately billed healthcare, or that climate change is a major threat. It has long been recognized that the US congress is more likely to reflect private interests than those of the majority, but few observers draw the obvious conclusion: far from being the most powerful man in the world, the American President is prevented from doing anything that interferes with the pursuit of wealth by a few.
When campaigning for the people’s vote, candidates present a to-do list serving the interests of ‘the majority’. But due to the power of money, even when a president enjoys a congressional majority, the special interests espoused by individual representatives take precedence over his lofty projects, as they scratch each others’ backs.
Considering the ability of Congress to thwart the winner’s program, why does the presidential election dominate the news for more than a year? One reason may be to keep Americans from noticing their government’s aggressive behavior around the world, which takes precedence over the domestic to-do list. Surrounded by ‘advisors’, it’s not far-fetched to suggest that the president of the most powerful nation in the world is a figure-head, expected to do as he is told by the financial/industrial/military complex. The media’s job is to chronicle that obeisance, spinning American values into a veritable cocoon around its ‘exceptionalism’, leaving voters no mental space to independently evaluate world events and other leaders.
Polls suggest if the American electorate were presented with the portrait of a leader anonymously based on the words and actions of the Russian president, they would prefer him/her to any American president of recent memory, as Donald Trump likes to say. American voters will probably never get to participate in that experiment, for the simple reason that Russia is the largest country in the world, with a treasure-trove of resources, in close alliance with a country whose own ‘managed democracy’ has brought the greatest number of people out of poverty in history.
Consider also that twenty-first century America is light years beyond the founders’ agrarian society, whose relatively simple goals could be voted up or down by individuals and their neighbors. Given the finality of both nuclear war and climate change, “managed authoritarianism” may ultimately be a better 21st century choice than our distorted version of Athenian democracy.