BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Bob Garfield’s away. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
This week, the Democratic National Convention acted to distinguish its tone from the doom and gloom of last week’s RNC. In her historic speech Thursday night, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton pushed back against the idea that America is a country on the brink of chaos, suggesting, instead, that it is –
HILLARY CLINTON: A country where all our children can dream and those dreams are within reach, where families are strong, communities are safe and, yes, where love trumps hate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Despite images of harmony at the closing gavel, the press informed us throughout the week that all was not well in Philadelphia. There was an unruly element that threatened to burn right through the love.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Drama with a capital D. [LAUGHS]
MALE CORRESPONDENT: A capital D.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: - supporters booing every mention of Clinton’s name.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: People are booing, people are chanting, Hillary –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Late night comics seemed fixed on the tears of the thwarted opposition, fixed but unmoved.
DAILY SHOW’S TREVOR NOAH: There were so many white women crying, I thought Pinterest had died.
LATE SHOW HOST STEPHEN COLBERT: I have not seen that many crying women since [AUDIENCE LAUGHTER], since Bernie opened for the Beatles.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But as the comics and the pundits analyzed the agony and acrimony of the Bernie Battalion, the speakers at the podium were focused on a more existent threat.
FORMER NYC MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: The richest thing about Donald Trump is his hypocrisy.
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: Hand over your money, your jobs, your children's future and the Great Trump Hot Air Machine will reveal all the answers.
VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: He’s trying to tell us he cares about the middle class. Give me a break! That’s a bunch of malarkey.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Amid the shellacking, a deadly serious accusation, that Donald Trump may not be loyal to the nation he aims to lead. Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
FORMER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON PANETTA: He asked the Russians to engage in hacking or intelligence efforts against the United States of America to affect an election
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It was a thread that the press had been tugging at all week, set off by a leak of DNC emails, most likely executed by Russian hackers, released by WikiLeaks in an effort, some say, to tip the presidency to Donald Trump.
MSNBC’s CHRIS MATTHEWS: To get an idea of what a Trump presidency might look like, look to Putin's Russia, with its hyper nationalism, saber rattling and macho talk.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But in the latest New York Review of Books, journalist Masha Gessen, author of The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, says Trump is not Putin’s puppet, though he is clearly a gift. Masha, welcome to the show.
MASHA GESSEN: Thank you, great to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: At the start of your piece, you cite stories from The Washington Post, Slate, TalkingPointsMemo that all link Trump’s campaign and business ventures to Putin. In The Washington Post, first Josh Rogan, later Anne Applebaum, noted that Trump’s people were apparently indifferent to what was in the GOP party platform, except for one point when they blocked an amendment that would pledge weapons to Ukraine.
MASHA GESSEN: My argument is that it’s there but it’s not very big. Carter Page, who is the foreign policy advisor to Trump, who does have business interests in Russia - that’s documented - he was in Russia a week before the Republican convention. And as soon as he got to Moscow, the Kremlin leaks the information that he was in Moscow. Then they’re trying to spin the story that he was there for consultations with the Kremlin. Then they sent reporters to Page’s appearance at an economics university and the reporter asked him, will you advise Trump to lift economic sanctions against Russia? [LAUGHS] He answered in Russian by quoting Putin, to the effect that countries should not meddle in each other's business, so suggesting that Carter Page is a friendly presence to Russia in the Trump campaign.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
MASHA GESSEN: Then the amendment that would support lethal aid to Ukraine doesn’t pass. It’s blocked by the Trump campaign, but the plank promising to maintain and, if necessary, increase sanctions in Russia’s state, that remains; that’s in the platform. So I think what we’re seeing is somebody in the campaign, namely Carter Page, who wants to give his friends in Russia what he can, and it’s not very much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. Well, what about Josh Marshall's point in TalkingPointsMemo? He says that Trump’s most conspicuous foreign policy statements track with the positions that Putin cares the most about, Trump's suggestion that the US, and thus NATO, might not come to the defense of NATO member states in the Baltics, unless they paid up?
MASHA GESSEN: This is where we really cross over true conspiratorial thinking, because what Trump said was perfectly consistent with everything else he has said and everything else he has done in his life. This is a man who doesn't pay his debts, this is a man who doesn't honor his partnerships. And he approaches politics in exactly the same way that he approaches business. And so he says, you know, why should we honor our obligations? To see traces of Putin there, that’s conspiratorial.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s good for Putin but that doesn't mean Putin had a hand in it. [LAUGHS]
MASHA GESSEN: Exactly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You think the media have totally missed the point, and you use a great metaphor to illustrate this. You wrote, “Imagine that your teenage child has built a bomb and has just set it off in your house. The house is falling down all around you and you’re blaming the neighbor's kid who threw a pebble at your window.” So Trump’s the kid with the matches and Putin's the kid with the pebble?
MASHA GESSEN: [LAUGHS] Yes. And the thing is, you know, your kid is still in the basement and now he’s building something even bigger -
- whereas the, whereas the neighbor’s kid, he just runs around the neighborhood throwing pebbles in everybody's window. I mean, we know he does that. What is fascinating to me is sort of the psychology of this desire to “other” the threat. It’s a very American thing to do. Somehow it becomes a little bit easier mentally to live with if it's other people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you think that's why the Putin-Trump connection is such an attractive narrative for the media?
MASHA GESSEN: I think so. It communicates things that sound credible, and I also think that we in the media have a very difficult time using big, scary words, for good reason. When the time has come to use the word “fascist”, to use the word “homegrown fascist,” which is actually the only kind that there is, we have a very hard time doing that. So this is a different way of communicating how terrifying we’re finding Trump. But it’s a bad way. It prevents us from seeing just how dire a threat Trump is.
In the middle of the 20th century, there was a whole cadre of great European exiled thinkers – Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse and Theodore Adorno – and I think the fact that they were exiles was very important because their imaginations were trained by what they had seen in Mussolini’s Italy and in Hitler's Germany, that modern industrialized societies create the conditions for the rise of fascism and at any time a charismatic demagogue can come and use those conditions to rise to the top. And that is an existential threat to any democracy and to any society.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You say that this emphasis on Putin as a big influence on Trump derives from a lack of imagination.
MASHA GESSEN: Yes, absolutely. Let’s say David Cameron who, when he called for a referendum on whether Great Britain should secede from the European Union, he clearly did so because he could not entertain for one second the possibility that the Leave voters would win. And his failure of imagination led to a referendum that didn't have to happen.
When we believe the unlikely and ignore the obvious, it is often a function of a failure of the imagination, and I think that’s also what’s happening with Trump.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I don’t know, to me it sounds a lot more like denial.
MASHA GESSEN: Well, I think denial is another word for a failure of imagination.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You got to work strenuously to keep up a healthy denial.
MASHA GESSEN: Oh, I see what you mean. So I’m saying you’re not doing enough and you’re saying, oh, you’re working really hard.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You wrote that we don't want to see Trump as a, quote, “thoroughly American creation.” So what would it mean to embrace Trump as a thoroughly American creation?
MASHA GESSEN: We need to start imagining what happens if he becomes president. Now, the American system doesn't actually give the chief executive a lot of power inside the country. There is an intricate system of checks and balances that will force them to mobilize things through rhetoric. And that basically means, I think, that we have to start imagining witch hunts, we have to start imagining kind of wars at home. We have to start imagining what kind of groups he is going to start blaming for all his problems and all our problems, whether real or imaginary. And those can be groups that exist now or groups that he has mentioned, like Muslims, and groups that aren’t even constituted as groups at the moment, like people who studied a foreign language in college.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So your advice to the news consumer?
MASHA GESSEN: My advice to the news consumer is imagine the worst.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, thanks a lot, Masha! [LAUGHS]
MASHA GESSEN: [LAUGHS] Yes, next time you want to have an uplifting conversation, call me.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Journalist Masha Gessen is the author most recently of a book about the Boston Marathon bombers, called, The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy. Her piece in The New York Review of Books is called, “The Trump-Putin Fallacy.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, the top migrant myths revealed! This is On the Media.