Tens of thousands of Americans took to the streets this past summer to protest the murder of George Floyd and countless other black men and women by uniformed police officers. The Trump administration’s draconian response to these protests — including seemingly indiscriminate beatings, gassings, and shootings — shocked many Americans who believed such scenes were confined to news broadcasts from abroad.
Trump at first seemed unsure how to respond to the cascading crisis, retreating to the White House bunker as protesters clashed with Secret Service officers outside its walls. But after a phone call with Vladimir Putin-ostensibly about Russia’s place in the G-7, the president was ready to double down on his promise to aggressively stamp out protests. Excoriating the nation’s governors as if he were a king and them his feudal barons, Trump essentially threatened to employ military force against the entire country in a Rose Garden speech.
Putin knows a thing or two about riot control.
The Russian president was a low-level KGB officer in Dresden in 1989 as the Soviet Union’s peripheral empire collapsed, where he supposedly stood down protesters attempting to storm the Soviet Consulate while “Moscow was silent.” Since coming to power 20 years ago, Putin has brutally quashed numerous protests against his rule, most famously in 2011, when he captured his approach to handling dissent in an interview: “The Soviet Union collapsed … the very existence of the Russian state was in question. For that reason, we had to tighten the screws, to be blunt.” Trump is trying just that.
Once, the United States sought to remake Russia in its own image. But with an irony worthy of Russian literature, it is now actually Americans who are becoming more like them. The French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that the United States and Russia were the twin drivers of modernity, two nations that, as he put it, started out from different points but tended toward the same end. He may yet be proved right.
Challenges long familiar to Russians-perennial questions of identity, creeping political ennui, a declining life expectancy driven by substance abuse and suicide-have caught up with an America that rode a…