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Russian TV channels spent months championing Donald Trump ahead of the U.S. election as an ally of Russia and possibly even part of a Kremlin plot—all on the basis that he would lose. Now that he has won the election, this strategy looks set to backfire on the Kremlin, as the future president is unlikely to make good on the promises of Russian propagandists, leaving Russians disenchanted with their government’s foreign policy.
For several months, the U.S. presidential election was among the top news items on Russian television. The face-off between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was presented as a bigger deal than Russia’s own parliamentary elections in September, which got very little attention on TV. Russians were discouraged from worrying too much about their own elections because the Kremlin hoped for a low turnout, so the public’s thirst for political intrigue was quenched with American adventures.
Russian coverage of the U.S. campaign followed a simple but effective strategy. Trump’s persona was at its heart: here was an unsophisticated but streetwise guy taking on deceitful establishment politicians and greedy corporations; a man of the people (the fact that he is a billionaire and the son of a billionaire was glossed over) up against Clinton, who exemplified all the flaws and faults of the elites.
The Russian version of the Trump myth revolved around one crucial idea. The mogul was presented as a friend of Russia: one of just a few in a hostile world. Trump himself hasn’t said much about his fondness for Russia and he frequently contradicted himself, but his occasional flatteries were recycled over and over. This image was supported by Clinton’s campaign, which directly linked Trump with President Vladimir Putin.
Many news stories hinted that Russia was helping Trump and thus proving a point once again to the United States. When Washington accused the Kremlin of hacking Democratic National Committee servers, this played right into the hands of the Russian spin doctors: Russian officials denied the allegations, but the media effectively winked and nodded.
Adding to his support in Russia, the Republican candidate was always under attack in the United States from establishment politicians, journalists, and businessmen—and Russians love an underdog. Finally, the key refrains of Trump’s campaign were ones that Russian voters could really relate to: opportunistic officials, corrupt elites, unpatriotic corporations, and immigrants.
There was similar hype on social networks, where hints that Trump’s campaign was an intricate plot by Putin were even less subtle. Pro-government experts and foundations made no secret of their support for Trump and simultaneously tried to come up with reasons why America would vote for Trump. The essence of the Russian coverage of the U.S. campaign was that a victory for Trump would be a victory for Russia.
This Trump myth was successful: he has quite a few admirers in Russia, many of whom supported him more fiercely and sincerely than any Russian parties or parliamentary candidates. The U.S. presidential campaign became an integral component of Russian public life.
The catch was that Russian audiences were being prepared for the idea that Trump would be prevented from winning, cheated of his victory despite the support of the common people. This was the message conveyed by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and Trump himself spoke of expected falsifications and violations.
So on one hand, Russian TV viewers hoped that under the good Trump, the United States would stop plotting against Russia, there would be peace on earth, and the new U.S. president would immediately repeal economic and political sanctions slapped on Russia over the Ukraine conflict. On the other hand, TV viewers were being prepped for the announcement of a stolen victory, which would serve as yet more proof that the shortcomings of the Russian electoral system are par for the course, and that fraud and falsifications can be found everywhere.
These constructs do not fit with a Trump victory. The narrative was needed only to reiterate how great a role Putin plays on the world stage, and how cunning and unscrupulous the American elite is. The Kremlin was counting on a Clinton win.
But suddenly, the dream came true, and Trump won. State Duma deputies applauded, Putin congratulated the president-elect, and the nationalist LDPR party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky threw a victory banquet in Trump’s honor. The Republican candidate’s followers on social networks rejoiced and the media painted a moderately optimistic picture, which perhaps also reflected Putin’s hopes for a possible reset in relations.
Now the winner must fulfil his campaign promises to the Russian people: to repair the relationship with the Kremlin, end sanctions, and find a compromise with Russia on spheres of influence. There is just one problem: Trump never made any such promises. Republicans tend to prefer a harsher foreign policy, and rhetoric is particularly important for Trump himself—he must meet the expectations of his supporters, who want him to “Make America Great.” Compromises do little to bolster a country’s image as a superpower. Furthermore, Trump likes dramatic and flashy moves—he might threaten new sanctions, order more military exercises, and make provocative statements.
Russian audiences might soon learn that their country’s new friend, brought to power with the Kremlin’s help, is actually an enemy. Even if Russian officials did somehow help Trump, this assistance was negligible—but Russians overestimate it. Expectations are high now, so Russians will view an absence of significant progress in Russian-U.S. relations after Trump’s inauguration as a foreign policy mistake by the Kremlin.
For many years, Russians unconditionally trusted their government where foreign policy was concerned, largely as a result of propaganda. However, the making and unmaking of myths gradually erodes such trust. Russia has made too many about-faces, as in the case of Turkey, which went from close ally to bitter enemy and then back to friend again in less than a year. The same thing might now happen with Trump. Russian propaganda is getting more and more caught up in the creation of alternative contradictory realities.
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