We are increasingly ruled not by people but by characters. Donald Trump's reality-show presidency or Vladimir Putin's cartoon authoritarianism recalls Charlie Chaplin's 1940 film, The Great Dictator. Yet in both Russia and the United States – polar opposites that have become near-mirror images – the Chaplinesque dictators' divisive, populist messages could be considered anything but comical.
Grappling with these absurd and disturbing characters requires that we consult more than just classic cinema. We need literature, the kind that reminds us why we are what we are. Great stories offer moral roadmaps, and when common sense is in short supply, they can keep one grounded amid chaos and uncertainty.
In the case of the US, for example, there is Sinclair Lewis's 1935 novel, It Can't Happen Here, or Philip Roth's 2004 novel, The Plot Against America. In Roth's alternative history of the 1940 US presidential election, Charles Lindbergh, representing the America First Committee, plays the role of the vulgar populist. But, unlike Lindbergh, who defeats US President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the novel, Trump's recent performance has merely made him weaker: he is now trailing Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic candidate, by ten points.
After long insisting that COVID-19 will just "fade away," Trump has been desperate to start campaigning for re-election. But his recent rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma (his first since the start of the pandemic), was a sparsely attended flop. So, he held another rally, marking Independence Day at Mount Rushmore, where he suggested that Black Lives Matter protesters are "bad, evil people."
Since then, Trump has taken to defending the indefensible: the racist legacy of the Confederacy, which even his own Republican Party has renounced. So much for America first.
Meanwhile, in Russia, where authoritarianism is a way of life, Putin, marking his 20th anniversary on the Kremlin throne, is becoming a composite of characters created by Nikolai Gogol in the nineteenth century, and by Vladimir Nabokov and Evgeny Schwartz in the twentieth.
After marshaling its own uneven and inconsistent response to the pandemic, the Russian government, in late June, suddenly suspended its quarantine measures in order to hold a parade for the 75th anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. Never mind that Victory Day was actually on May 9, the parade was merely an opening act for Putin's coup de grâce: a sham nationwide referendum to reset his constitutional term limits and ensure his hold on power indefinitely.
Like Trump, Putin was unwilling to wait for safer circumstances, and made his public appearances without a mask, undermining public-health messaging for the sake of appearing macho. But Putin's impatience is understandable. His popularity has been fading fast, owing to declining living standards and his regime's failure to pass meaningful reforms. "When you are Putin, your Russia is flourishing," quip irreverent Russians, for whom street satire has long been a coping mechanism under dictatorial regimes.
In fact, such whispers have often given rise to irreverent literature, such as Gogol's satirical masterpiece, The Inspector-General, in which a low-level clerk dupes a bunch of bumbling, incompetent city officials. The book has always offered obvious parallels to Putin's own rise to power. But following Putin's more recent actions, Nabokov's 1947 novel, Bend Sinister, is even more relevant. Nabokov offers a terrifying glimpse into the mind of a dictator, who just so happens to be short in stature, insecure, and vindictive.
This month, Ivan Safronov, a former investigative journalist who previously helped to expose secret arms sales and Kremlin shakeups, was arrested on charges of high treason. Safronov, now a media adviser to the government agency Roscosmos, stands accused of disclosing military secrets to NATO, even though he was a journalist at the time of the alleged offense. As a former clandestine operative, Putin is committed to keeping the affairs of his state from public view at any cost.
Likewise, Schwartz, a Soviet playwright who wrote lampoons of Hitler and Stalin disguised as children's fairy tales, could just as well have been ridiculing Putin. In his rendition of The Emperor's New Clothes (1934), he offers a familiar account of a petty and vain tyrant. In The Shadow (1940), a man's shadow, seeking to inflate its own importance, surreptitiously grabs power from him. And in The Dragon (1944), a clownish, terrifying, yet cowardly reptile shares a deep-seated desire to eat his enemies.
After 20 years in power, it was perhaps inevitable that Putin would become a literary caricature. Since Russian letters have a long tradition of mocking and satirizing political figures, Putin's adherence to form is no surprise. Less expected has been the extent to which America's president resembles Russian parodies, though Americans, accustomed to formal political cartoons or skits on Saturday Night Live, have yet to master the art of spontaneous street jokes. Perhaps the US is not doing badly enough yet.
Still, Trump is an impostor on par with Gogol's inspector general; and his top lickspittle, Attorney General William Barr, would be a fitting addition to any Gogolian tale of moral corruption. Trump is as small-minded and ignorant as Nabokov's dictator, and as cruel and petty as any of Schwartz's villains.
Trump even outdoes Putin, who at least is more strategic in his populist exhibitionism. Trump's Twitter-tantrums – "Sad!" "Presidential Harassment!" – are like something out of the work of nineteenth-century satirist Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin. In his 1870 parody, The History of a Town, Saltykov-Shchedrin describes a city official nicknamed "The Little Organ," who is capable of mustering only two responses to his subordinates: "I'll destroy" and "I won't tolerate."
Rude and unempathetic, The Little Organ issues endless decrees and brooks no opposition. In the end, the reader learns that his brain was actually a musical instrument with only two keys.
These and other classic works offer some consolation, reminding us that there are limits to despotism. Populism and self-aggrandizement cannot last forever, especially when the message is so at odds with reality.
Still, Saltykov-Shchedrin – whose original (censored) title was The History of Foolsville – would remind us that suffering under bad leaders is no excuse for acting immorally or idiotically oneself. Russia is deeply mired in its dictatorial past. But America is still a democracy – for now. Come November, Americans must demonstrate that they are not willing to be ruled by Little Organs.
Nina L Khrushcheva, Professor of International Affairs at The New School, is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute. Her latest book (with Jeffrey Tayler) is In Putin's Footsteps: Searching for the Soul of an Empire Across Russia's Eleven Time Zones.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Project Syndicate and is published by special syndication arrangement.