One of the enduring mysteries of the internet is how and why certain motifs catch on and go viral. I suppose if anyone could answer that question they could predict and replicate the phenomenon and quickly become masters of the world.
For instance, many people pretend to know exactly how Donald Trump captured the imagination of the American people and rose to prominence sufficient to (barely) win the office of the presidency. They are all wrong, of course. Were it otherwise they (or someone like them) would replicate it. Many have tried.
But it’s still true: a failed blowhard, a racist, an inept and incoherent fool, used the internet and social media to become president of the United States. We have lots of racist, inept and incoherent fools among us, but none are serious contenders for the presidency in 2024. None have gone viral the way Trump went viral. It could happen, but no one really knows the formula.
But the game Trump played with the truth, which was nothing new by the way, is available to everyone, including Vladimir Putin. And Putin is using it to some effect among the simpler folk in Russia. He began his horrific war with Ukraine by vilifying Ukrainians as “Nazis” whom he could easily destroy and claiming he could do it in “two days.” When those two days came and went and he still found himself not only still embroiled in the conflict but actually losing it, he had to change the narrative.
And change the narrative he did. The actual truth, of course, is that he screwed up. He underestimated the Ukrainians, a near fatal mistake that has cost him significant losses in men and materiel. He isn’t the first to make that mistake. Napoleon underestimated the British at his very first encounter with them — Waterloo — and it was an unqualified disaster for him on that account.
Putin’s new narrative is that he’s now fighting NATO troops. That lie is so brazen and obvious that many Russians believe him. He claims that the reason he didn’t defeat the Ukrainians in the first two days wasn’t because he was wrong about them. That would be admitting that his analysis was flawed. No, the reason he’s losing is because American and European troops have joined the fight, and they brought with them state-of-the-art firepower.
It’s almost as if Putin asked himself “What would Donald do?” When Donald loses it has nothing to do with him. It’s the corrupt system that cheated him out of the election through “fraud” and by “rigging the system.” Trump couldn’t have lost the election because he’s “perfect.” By the same flawed logic, Putin can’t be losing the war because he’s perfect.
It’s a game humans let dictators get away with because they’re either stupid or too frightened to dare to contradict them. It’s part of the toolset of the fascist, the despot, the autocrat, the oppressor. Those tools are known and have been used to one degree or another since humans first began to terrorise other humans. The great harm Trump did to the world was to remind us that those tools are still available and they still work.
But it’s also evidence of the depths of Putin’s own delusion. The only way he will ever back off is if he does so in a way that convinces him and his people that he somehow won. We don’t have to do that for Trump, but the world community may have to do that for Putin. This costly and toxic war isn’t just damaging to the world community, it could be deadly dangerous.
It goes without saying that Putin’s war is costing the earth’s precarious climate incalculable damage. There’s also the clear and present danger that Putin could escalate the war to the use of nukes. Putin needs to be stopped with whatever means possible, including tangible concessions and sops to his ego that might be difficult for the international community to stomach.
But the alternative is too horrible to contemplate. Besides, we can always take them back after he dies or is deposed. But one way or another Putin needs to be stopped. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.