The Russian View of Trump-Clinton Debate

Russian media is much more nuanced than the U.S. public is led to believe, even showing a perceptive approach to describing the Trump-Clinton presidential debate, as Gilbert Doctorow observed first-hand.

By Gilbert Doctorow

On Sept. 25, I received a phone call at my Brussels home inviting me to Moscow to participate in a political talk show on a state-run station to analyze the first Trump-Clinton debate, which was clearly the flavor of the day for Russian television programming.

I was not surprised when shortly thereafter I got an email invitation to participate in another talk show on a competing state channel also devoted to this subject. As a Russian-speaking “talking head” carrying a U.S. passport and willing to go to Moscow, I am part of a thin group. Out of consideration of professional ethics, I declined this second invitation but took a rain check to join them on Nov. 9 for a U.S. election postmortem.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. (Photos by Gage Skidmore and derivative by Krassotkin, Wikipedia)

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. (Photos by Gage Skidmore and derivative by Krassotkin, Wikipedia)

The political talk show that was the first to invite me, called “Sixty Minutes,” is entirely new, launched at the start of the fall television season and runs daily Monday through Friday. Its name self-consciously recalls a similarly named long-running American television news program, though the format here is not pure news but more talk show.

Yet, the program borrows much from its American namesake. It’s slick, show-biz in visual impact with well-researched scripts that the presenters, a husband and wife team of widely known young and bold journalists, Yevgeny Popov and Olga Skabeyeva, deliver with panache.

The show on Tuesday evening – a day after the debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump – was not ideal, but I was grateful to my hosts for being brought to Moscow for the event. The invitation forced me to get up in the middle of the night, European time, to watch the Clinton-Trump debate from beginning to end and to direct my full attention to it, which I would not otherwise have done.

It also forced me to read the Russian press fairly thoroughly on my way to Moscow in order to anticipate the angle of interest there. And most importantly, once I was on the panel, it gave me an insider’s look into how Russia’s elites view the contest between Trump and Clinton, not only from what was said during the show but also from our exchanges in the breaks and immediately after the broadcast in the relaxation room with snacks before we headed our various ways.

The premise of the show’s producers was that the debates would hold great interest for a good many Russians because their country has figured large in the U.S. campaigns of both parties.

The Clinton camp has repeatedly and publicly accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of interfering in the U.S. political process. Russian hackers were blamed for the very embarrassing publication of internal emails from the Democratic National Committee showing a bias against the candidacy of Bernie Sanders during the primaries. Moreover, Clinton and her assistants have portrayed Trump as a kind of modern-day “Manchurian candidate” who would betray American interests to Putin, his supposed friend.

For his part, Donald Trump publicly criticized the Establishment position of escalating conflict with Russia and China to which Hillary Clinton has long contributed. He has said that he saw nothing wrong in redirecting relations to cooperation and has praised the Russian military action against the Islamic State jihadists in Syria.

Trump also has made clear his accommodative stance on Russia’s reunification with Crimea. Plus, Trump challenged directly the relevance today of NATO with its focus on countering Russia’s recovery of its great power status, coming at the expense of distracting from the threat of Islamic terrorism. Trump broadly hinted at a possible reduced U.S. presence if not withdrawal altogether from the alliance for failing to carry its own weight in the common defense.

All of these aspects of the American campaign have been brought to the attention of the broad Russian public by its mass media over recent months.

Assessing the Russian Role

The proposed message of the talk show’s producers last Tuesday night was Russia as an important factor in the U.S. debates, which they measured by the number of times each of the candidates made reference to Russia. There is some merit to this argument, given that only a few separate countries were mentioned by either candidate during their 90 minutes: Russia, China and Iran in descending order of frequency.

Russian President Vladimir Putin answering questions from Russian citizens at his annual Q&A event on April 14, 2016. (Russian government photo)

Russian President Vladimir Putin answering questions from Russian citizens at his annual Q&A event on April 14, 2016. (Russian government photo)

However, the two contexts for mention of Russia – the alleged hacking of the DNC server and the renewal of a nuclear arms race – were both old news. The far more striking feature of the debates was the failure of either candidate to raise and discuss the alarming escalation in verbal confrontation between the two countries in and on the sidelines of the United Nations Security Council over the preceding two weeks.

During that time you had U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power calling Russian action in and around Aleppo “barbarism.”  And you had Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov stating in an interview that it seemed the Pentagon was no longer under the control of the White House. This type of rhetoric from both sides marks a 30-year low point in relations and could be described as what you hear just before countries engage in hostilities.

The escalating confrontation with Russia had two book-ends. It began one day into the cease-fire when a U.S.-led air attack on an isolated Syrian Army position at Deir Ezzor resulted in the death of more than 60 Syrian soldiers. At the other end, a week later, was the combined Syrian and Russian heavy bombing of East Aleppo, which Power denounced.

The show’s hosts must be congratulated for trying hard to convey the essence of American political culture to their audience, and they did some effective research to this end. Whereas French and other Western media devoted coverage on the day after the debates to the physical appearances of the candidates, Russia’s “Sixty Minutes” tweaked this aspect of the debates to find politically relevant commentary.

To make their point, presenter Yevgeny Popov came on stage in a blue suit and blue tie very similar in coloring to Trump’s, while co-presenter Olga Skabeyeva was wearing a garment in the same red hue as Hillary. They proceeded to note that these color choices of the candidates represented an inversion of the traditional colors of the Democratic and Republican parties in American political tradition.

And they took this a step further by declaring it to be in line with the inversion of policies in the electoral platforms of the candidates: Hillary Clinton has taken over the hawkish foreign policy positions of the Republicans and their neoconservative wing; and Donald Trump has taken over the dovish foreign policy positions normally associated with Democrats.

Moreover, Trump also has gone against the free-trade policies that were engrained in Republican ideology until now, while often rejected by Democrats with their traditional backers from labor unions. All of these observations are essentially correct and astute. It was curious to hear them coming from Russian journalists, when they are largely missed by West European and American commentators.

Of course, a talk show is only partly formed by its producers and presenters. The greater part of the program is the opinions put forward by the invited panelists.

As is typical of such shows, the panel changed slightly during the course of the three 20-minute segments, with some panelists replaced by others who were waiting on the benches for their turn. And of the seven or eight on stage at any one time, two or three were foreigners. I was one of two Americans, and the third foreigner was a Brit, the long-time Moscow correspondent of Newsweek magazine.

Russians Debating Russians

Sometimes foreigners are important to the Russian talk shows to add pepper and salt. In this case, we were largely decorative. The lion’s share of the program was shared between the Russian politicians and journalists on the panel who very ably demonstrated that Russian elites are split down the middle on whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton is their preferred next occupant of the Oval Office.

A military parade on Red Square. May 9, 2016 Moscow. (Photo from: http://en.kremlin.ru)

A military parade on Red Square. May 9, 2016 Moscow. (Photo from: http://en.kremlin.ru)

The reasons given are not what you hear within the U.S.: that Trump is vulgar, that Trump is a bigot and misogynist. Instead the Russian Trump-skeptics were saying that he is impulsive and cannot be trusted to act with prudence if there is some mishap, some accidental event occurring between U.S. and Russian forces in the field, for example.

They also expressed the cynical view that Trump’s positions in the pre-election period are purely tactical, to differentiate himself from all competitors first in his own party during the primaries and now from Clinton. In that view, Trump could turn out to be no friend of Russia if elected.

A direct answer to these changes came from the pro-Trump members of the panel, best enunciated by the senior politician in the room, Vyacheslav Nikonov, a Duma member from Putin’s United Russia party, the chair of the Education Committee in the Sixth Duma. He is also chair of a government-sponsored organization of Russian civil society, Russian World, which looks after the interests of Russians and Russian culture in the diaspora abroad.

Nikonov pointed to Trump’s courage and determination which scarcely suggest merely tactical considerations driving his campaign. According to Nikonov, Trump has gone up against the entire U.S. political establishment, against the whole of corporate mainstream media and has been winning. Nikonov pointed to the surge in Trump poll statistics in the couple of weeks preceding the debate. And he ticked off the four swing states which Trump needs to win and where his fortunes had been rising fast. Clearly, this presentation was carefully prepared, not something casual and off-the-cuff.

During this exchange between doubters and backers of Trump, one doubter spoke of Trump as a “non-systemic” politician, which may be loosely interpreted as meaning he is anti-establishment. But in the Russian context it has an odious connotation, for instance, applied to Alexei Navalny and certain members of the American- and European Union-backed Parnas political movement, including its head Mikhail Kasyanov. The word suggests seditious intent.

In this connection, Nikonov put an entirely different spin on who Trump is and what he represents as an anti-establishment figure. But maybe such partiality runs in the family. Nikonov is the grandson of Molotov, one of the leading figures who staged the Russian Revolution and governed the young Soviet state.

Who won the first Trump-Clinton debate?  Here the producers of “Sixty Minutes” gave the final verdict to a Vesti  news analyst from a remote location whose image was projected on a wall-sized screen. We were told that the debate was a draw: Trump had to demonstrate that he is presidential, which he did. Clinton had to demonstrate she had the stamina to resist the onslaught of a 90-minute showdown with Trump and she also succeeded.

In summation, the talk show analysis of the first U.S. presidential debate that I saw up close in Moscow may have been more glitzy and had less gravitas than Charlie Rose’s postmortem session at Bloomberg TV, but it was, in its own way, a value to its audience, which probably numbered in the tens of millions.

Gilbert Doctorow is the European Coordinator of The American Committee for East West Accord. His most recent book, Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015. © Gilbert Doctorow, 2016

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11 comments for “The Russian View of Trump-Clinton Debate

  1. Mark
    October 3, 2016 at 00:52

    “The London mayor even endorsed Clinton – as If that would sway any Americans.”

    The UK; more specifically England, is viewed in the US as part of the Global Elite that have bankrupted the west and destabilized the middle-east for profits. Of course the BBC endorses Clinton; just part of the corporate controlled media supporting the crony capitalists and banksters. The endorsement only sways us to vote against Hillary; a conformation. Trump may have a New Yorker’s foul mouth, but the American people are fed up with the establishment and Clinton’s disregard for the law.

    • Tsigantes
      October 6, 2016 at 05:32

      “The endorsement only sways us to vote against Hillary; a conformation. Trump may have a New Yorker’s foul mouth, but the American people are fed up with the establishment and Clinton’s disregard for the law.”

      This is music to the ROW’s ears Mark, including (and especially) the majority of Europeans – whose views are NOT represented by their corrupt, phony governments and the much despised NATO.

  2. pherd
    October 2, 2016 at 23:34

    Seriously, who cares about the Russian reaction to our presidential debate. Honestly the fact that Trump can barely get his mouth off of Putin’s dick long enough to debate shows all the more why we as Americans should not let other countries influence our politics…

    • backwardsevolution
      October 3, 2016 at 04:02

      Aside from Israel, what other countries influence U.S. politics? Doesn’t the U.S. do most of the bullying – I mean intimidating – I mean influencing? Trump is right, wrap up the wars. What you describe Trump as doing is what most of the rest of the world has had to do for decades. You also just described the Clinton Foundation extremely well.

  3. Kiza
    October 2, 2016 at 22:09

    Yes, it is identical in the Australian MSM – Clinton all good, Trump all bad. Only, I do not know if Australian MSM are copying the old colonial masters, the British, or they are copying the new colonial masters, the US. Most of the anti-Trump programs are being picked up from US and British networks, but a few of the local political media sleezbags are producing their own Trump bashing pieces (political journalist is a budding politician). Also, both sides of the Australian Parliament are pro-Clinton (surprise, surprise).

    As to the Russians who prefer Clinton, they probably fall into two totally disparate categories:
    1) the pro-Westen Russian Liberals, people who consider themselves to be the Russian business and political elite, the leftover from the time that US Ziocon almost controlled Russia under Yeltsin and
    2) the Russian hard-liners and the beneficiaries of the Russian military-industrial complex, who have benefitted so far and would benefit further from the confrontation.
    Dr. Doctorow mentions only the latter, but this is probably because the Westerners are already aware of the former. The owners of Clinton in US are the best friends of the Russian liberals.

    Very good insights from Russia, Dr. Doctorow, always enjoyable reading your articles. I would love to read your opinion on how prevalent the line of Trump as a faux-change, faux-anti-establishment candidate is in Russia? Also, who advocates in Russia this line of Trump to-good-to-be-true candidate, is it the Russian Liberals or someone else?

  4. James lake
    October 2, 2016 at 20:53

    Very interesting insight.
    I am in the UK and the media here are totally pro Clinton.
    Trump is viewed with complete horror
    He is presented as a clown, who is racist and sexist.

    As usual the bbc tells us what to think.Clinton good, Trump bad
    There is a lot of coverage here of the candidates. The UK acts as the 51st state of the US.
    The London mayor even endorsed Clinton – as If that would sway any Americans.

    • Tsigantes
      October 6, 2016 at 05:27

      The BBC, British media and the London Mayor endorse Clinton to demonstrate / prove to the US administration and MIC/NATO that they are loyal, gutless, obedient parrot-puppets.

  5. Gregory Herr
    October 2, 2016 at 12:30

    I agree about the lack of substance, but they at least noted the duopolistic inversion.

  6. Annie
    October 2, 2016 at 12:13

    To be honest I thought the debate, which I was really looking forward to, was a total bore. Personally, I detest Hilary Clinton for her history of hawkish behavior, and I don’t want her philandering husband who overturned glass steagall and gave us NAFTA running the economy. I’m not a Trump fan, but using mainstream media to glean objective information about him is an impossibility. I recently watched Frontline’s “The Choice” which was heavily biased towards Clinton, once again presented Trump as a rogue candidate. I must admit I wasn’t impressed by Russia’s handling of interpreting the debate either, even though it tried to be more even handed, it lacked substance, at least the way it was presented here.

  7. October 2, 2016 at 11:44

    Mr. Doctorow didn’t have much to say about the program’s take on Ms Clinton. Did none of the panelists find any fault with her? From this report one might infer the entire program involved talking about Trump. In the Occident, Clinton is steadfastly portrayed as the “good guy” and Trump the “bad guy”–at least by corporate mainstream media of communication. I’m left to assume, due to her conspicuous absence from Mr. Doctorow’s report, the Russian program accorded Clinton similar deference.

    • Gilbert Doctorow
      October 2, 2016 at 18:01

      Your assumption is wrong. Russians are not deferential to Clinton.
      Clinton is simply the devil they know, whereas Trump is the devil no one knows and is therefore controversial. Moreover, his positions on Russia seem to some too good to be true, hence the cynicism about his real intentions after election day.
      And there is another factor at work, particularly among the Trump-skeptics within Russia: they are often people who prefer to view America as the enemy so as to justify Russia’s own nationalism. For their purposes, Mrs Clinton fits the bill.

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