I mostly agree with Matt Taibbi, Masha Gessen, and others that the Buzzfeed report, far from giving us reason to hope that Trump might be brought down, is, in its unverified sloppiness, prurience, and rumour-mongering, part of the same broad problem that gave us Trump in the first place.
I do take issue however with some of the reasons that Taibbi cites as grounds for doubting it. He writes of the treatment in it of Vladimir Zhirinovsky: “I’ve met Zhirinovsky. He’s the Triumph the Insult Comic Dog of Russian nationalism. He once told me Russia would invade Boston (I had told him I was from Boston) and re-seize Alaska. Nobody who knows anything about Russia would include Zhirinovsky’s ravings as evidence of anything. Assuming the intelligence agencies also know this, we have to wonder what the hell is going on.”
I’ve met Zhirinovsky too, and was made dangerously ill by the Zhirinovsky brand vodka, though I drank it in moderation, that he had released onto the Russian market in the mid-1990s as an enticement to vote for him. (Taibbi and I overlapped in our Moscow sojourns, though I never met him; if reports I have heard are correct, while I was holed up studying 9th-century birchbark glagoliths, he and his mates at The eXile were busy sending parcels of horse-shit to the offices of the Moscow Times.) Taibbi is right that Zhirinovsky is a loon, but what this misses is that in the current political climate the exclamations of loons are perfectly relevant for our efforts to understand what is going on at the highest levels of politics. Upon winning, for example, Trump called Alex Jones —Alex Jones!— to thank him for his suport. Zhirinovsky is certainly no more a loon than Jones. In fact there is good reason to think that it is Zhirinovsky, and not Putin, who is Trump’s closest counterpart in Russia, with the one difference, in my view minor, that Zhirinovsky has not been chosen as head of state. He is someone nonetheless who plays a role in the Russian political ecosystem, one that Putin evidently tolerates: if he didn’t, Zhirinovsky wouldn’t be there. He is one of the trashy loudmouths (again, like Trump) who gets to air things that the circumspect Putin does not, and in airing them helps to give shape to the broader political culture of fierce nationalism over which, in the end, Putin has control.
When I recently decided to start listening to Russian radio online again, I chose at random the most obscure live stream I could find: some call-in talk-radio show in Novosibirsk. And what were they discussing at the moment I tuned in? The invalidity of the Seward Purchase, by which, most Americans believe, the US acquired Alaska from the Russian Empire in 1867.
Zhirinovsky’s comment to Taibbi about Alaska, I mean, really is not so irrelevant to understanding the political culture that the Putin regime has brought about within Russia, especially when it is a question of trying to understand how that same regime is now trying to shape American political culture through another underling who, like Zhirinovsky, though specialising until recently in steaks and not vodka, Putin thinks can help him achieve his goals.