Putin's Horror Moves West, Thanks to His Protégé

The Horror Moves West

The bleak dawn of Donald Trump’s regime brings to mind Heart of Darkness. Joseph Conrad’s withering attack on the smugness of Western countries whose veneer of civilization masks unacknowledged depths of savagery and barbarism. Subterranean currents of authoritarianism, tribal violence, and open bigotry are now ascendant in America and Western Europe, societies that flatter themselves as being immune to such dark impulses by virtue of their cultures and institutions. The foundation of liberal democracy appears to be much more threadbare than we thought, and it would be unwise to delude ourselves into believing that fascist dictatorship is something that only happens in other times and places. The heart of darkness, “the horror, the horror” of which Conrad warned, lies not in some distant jungle but right here in our midst. 

As a transgender woman, I believe that certain signs of danger are more visible to me than to most people. Authoritarian regimes rarely display the outward trappings that the imagination ascribes to them, and for most people living under them, not much changes as democracy recedes. However, for those belonging to certain groups, for example, minorities, activists, and journalists, the upheaval is far more pronounced. Transgender people, especially women, are among the first individuals to experience expressive and physical violence when the norms of civil behavior disappear as well as being barometric victims of the sacrifice of science and truth over irrational and fear-driven lies. Fascist elements often single us out, along with the rest of the queer community, as their first target. In many ways we are the canary in the coal mine, and I sense the air is becoming noxious. The current revival of populism, parochialism, and authoritarianism that the West is experiencing is tearing away at the delicate fabric of civil society and the unwritten rules of democracy. 

The reign of Vladimir Putin, greatly admired by right-wing leaders in both America and Europe, provides significant clues as to what lies ahead. Putin’s repressive instincts have been evident since he first became president in 1999. The politically motivated arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once one of the wealthiest men in Russia, was an early signal of Putin’s merciless approach to opponents. Khodorkovsky had been an outspoken critic of the corruption endemic in the Russian government, and he provided substantial financial backing to progressive political parties opposed to the regime. Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience, and there was international pressure to address the lack of due process, but he was sentenced and imprisoned until his pardon by Putin in 2013 on the condition that he would promise to avoid politics. 

For years, the impunity with which the Kremlin stifled dissent while wreaking economic havoc and violating human rights was something to behold. Opponents were jailed or murdered, cronies of the power elite were recruited into an expanding kleptocracy, and Putin’s power became steadily more entrenched. Today, critics are afraid to speak out against him, the state-owned media has a monopoly on communications, and he has successfully created a self-sustaining aura of invincibility. This degree of monocratic power would be impossible in a society possessed of a free press, fair elections, an independent judiciary, and other elements of a democratic society. All of those democratic pillars are the focus of a despot’s destructive machinery, and Putin eliminated them with ruthless efficiency.

Putin’s exploitation of LGBT vulnerability went beyond serving to distract the public from his corruption and mismanagement, and was a chief constituent of his war plan against the fledgling post-Soviet democracy. The crippling attacks on Russia’s queer community include legislation passed in 2013 effectively banning LGBT individuals from public life, and these were calculated tactics to weaken civil society, solidifying oppression while supplanting truth and fact with fear and hysteria. Human Rights Watch issued a report titled “License to Harm” documenting the rise in vigilante homophobic and transphobic violence coinciding with the passage of the 2013 law, finding that “most people who spoke with Human Rights Watch said that this [violence] intensified in 2013.” Anti-LGBT vitriol is central to the cult of strongman hypermasculinity to which tyrants frequently appeal. 

Putin has invested much into cementing this image, coupling gratuitously cruel anti-LGBT laws with extralegal brutality and mob violence involving legions of young men who idolize the violent power of the manly autocrat. A common instrument to buttress a man’s masculinity is to openly defile women and “sissy” culture, of which transgender womanhood is considered the apotheosis. I recall, shortly after reading about the new indignities being legislatively inflicted on queer Russians, coming across a YouTube video of a transgender woman being assaulted and viciously beaten in a Moscow park. According to “License to Harm,” “hundreds of such videos have been posted online” of kidnappings and violent humiliation of queer adults and teenagers by networks of “radical nationalist men.” The report details that “such encounters have often involved perpetrators pouring urine over their victims and in some cases forcing them to drink it … they hit their victims with dildos … and/or sprayed them with construction foam in the genital area.” The report concludes, “Victims face insurmountable obstacles seeking justice. The result is widespread impunity for homophobic crimes.” This is Putin’s Russia, and the disturbing trends we are witnessing indicate that it may soon become Trump’s America.

The principal outcome of attacking a stigmatized group, whether it is gay people, trans people, or ethnic and racial minorities, is that the social psyche starts to normalize such actions. Invisible constraints begin to fray, opening the way for authoritarian rule. As with Jews in Nazi Germany, it is often convenient for the regime to select the group that is most despised by society and hence most easy to dehumanize. Queer people and particularly transgender women happen to be that group in many parts of the world today. Transgender women are widely considered sexual deviants or mentally ill, and are acutely socially isolated. A high number of people, even in Western nations, regard transgender women as a blight on society deserving of abuse and violence, and even higher numbers of people who are ignorant, fearful, and uncomfortable with trans identity. A 2015 Williams Institute paper by Andrew Flores reports that only 11 percent of Americans are estimated to know a transgender person, compared to 58 percent who know someone who is gay or lesbian. 

All these factors combined render trans women easy targets for abuse and expressive violence, and I have personally received violent threats for asserting my right to use women’s restrooms. Recently, death threats were made toward 9-year-old transgender girl Avery Jackson and her family for appearing on National Geographic’s January 2017 cover, and such threats are a common weapon used to intimidate and silence openly trans individuals. Feminists are another group that has also frequently been targeted with threats of violence, rape, and murder for defying the patriarchal norms of society, as we have seen in the Gamergate campaign against female game developers.

It seems that challenging rigidly hierarchical and exclusively binary gender-sex norms provokes violent retribution from an apparently vast reservoir of latent misogyny simmering beneath our sociocultural terrain — and autocrats are richly rewarded when they tap into it. Perhaps for that reason, misogyny has long been a feature of populist strongmen such as Putin and Trump, and the power they grant male chauvinism by virtue of their public contempt for and exploitation of women augments their popularity. The maligned traits of compassion and compromise ascribed to the feminine are amputated from the body politic and replaced with socially heralded muscular repression applauded when coming from male leaders. There are few ways to curry favor among the public that are as effective as exploiting the inherent misogyny in our societies and projecting hypermasculinity while lambasting the feminine. 

Demagogues such as Donald Trump benefit from the assault on civility, in which norms of common decency and respect for others are dismissed as "political correctness." They assert that offensive behavior toward racial, religious, and sexual minorities, as well as women, is just a form of self-defense against the true threats to the white man. In his New York Times op-ed about the University of Wisconsin system, “Who’s Really Placing Limits on Free Speech?,” Donald Moynihan delves into these troubling double standards, writing, “Steve Nass, a state senator from Whitewater, has urged university leaders not to give way to ‘the political correctness crowd demanding safe spaces, safe words, universal apologies for hurt feelings, and speech/thought police.’” He continues, “But last July, Senator Nass also sent a letter to university leaders to complain about an ‘offensive’ essay assignment on gay men’s sexual preferences. A few days ago he said that a university program that explored masculinity ‘declares war on men’ after asking, ‘Will we have the courage to reform the U.W. system in the 2017-19 biennial budget?’ Is Senator Nass not demanding a ‘safe-space’ from queer literature and threatening budget cuts if he does not get it?” 

Such demagoguery is not restricted to this incident or to Wisconsin, and there is substantial pressure nationwide from Republican politicians on professors who teach courses on homosexuality, gender, and race. Transgender people are especially vulnerable in this regard, being a small and beleaguered minority facing multiple lines of attack from politically established opponents and culturally dominant forces. Conservatives declare expressions of trans and gender-queer identity as unsuitable for public spaces, workplaces, and schools, essentially demanding an extreme form of censorship. However, when trans people counter misinformation and offensive remarks targeting us or ask to be addressed with appropriate pronouns, we are labeled as the “politically correct thought police.”

Opponents of so-called political correctness have been exceptionally successful in flipping the First Amendment on its head by using it as a justification for expressive violence which silences and erases the very minority voices that free speech protections were meant to defend. This in turn opens the door for socially sanctioned — even encouraged — brutalization and oppression of other vulnerable groups and keeps them in a state of fear. Marginal groups provide authoritarian regimes with readily available scapegoats whenever needed to distract the public from their incompetence and misdeeds. 

Putin’s protégé Donald Trump has been immensely effective in obliterating the importance of ethics, facts, and truth. In doing so, he's well-poised to wreak havoc on laws and codes of conduct and demolish the institutions in free societies that essentially rely on public trust and confidence. Truth for a frighteningly large number of Americans is coming to mean whatever Trump tweets, regardless of verifiable and copious evidence to the contrary. No one should underestimate the violence American journalists, academics, and civil society will face under his control. Trump has shown complete disregard for the rule of law and every norm of liberal democracy, and the media have been his willing enablers. The future offers little reassurance of our institutions and public opinion holding him accountable when they have not done so to this day. It is delusional to suppose that we will be better equipped to push back now that Trump is in office, because history has shown us that is usually not the course despotic regimes follow. 

One need look no further than his Russian mentor, whose authority has only grown in the years since he came to power. Ten years ago, hired assassins murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya on Vladimir Putin’s birthday, allegedly as a gift to the autocrat. Though I was far from the elevator in Moscow where she was found dead with multiple point-blank shots, her murder consumed me with sorrow. Over the years, her courageous and incisive writing had marked me, and she was one of the lone voices from within Russia that brought attention to the atrocities visited upon a small ethnic group by one of the world’s most formidable armies. Politkovskaya exposed Russia as it gained international credibility and was being invited to the table as a key player in the global economy. She embarrassed its leaders by showing the world that its soldiers in Chechnya were engaged in mass murder, torture, and rapes. Anna Politkovskaya’s murder remains unsolved. The perpetrators were unsuccessfully brought to trial, and the evidence of who hired them has been buried. Politkovskaya’s assassination was an event that changed Russian journalism forever, and on its 10th anniversary Russian journalists gathered under the banner bearing the distressing reminder that “the sponsor is still at large.” Such “unsolved” murders of Putin’s critics have become a fixture in the Russian political scene, so routine that they no longer prompt shock or outrage. Night has fallen over the society presided over by Vladimir Putin. If we are not careful, we will find ourselves in similar darkness.

MISCHA HAIDER is a mother, activist, and researcher at Harvard University.

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