Russian lessons

By Sam Patten | Sep 04, 2020

My friends in Russian politics are in the opposition. One has been assassinated and two were poisoned. So it’s fair to say that it’s tougher, on balance, to be in the opposition in Russia than in America.

Since working with them around 20 years ago, I’ve watched from afar and made mental notes of what could be improved, given that I’m not getting my head cracked regularly or hauled in and out of jail by speaking about it inside their country borders.

“Russia without Putin,” was one slogan a couple of years ago, whose efficacy I came to question. Assuming Newton’s third law of physics holds, every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

While educated and worldly Russians (at most, 25%) have come to despise their president, to a substantial swathe of the population Putin is stability, order and dignity where before there was none. So just saying “get rid of all that” doesn’t work as well in practice as on paper.

As an admirer of Putin, the same holds for Donald Trump. Launching a campaign of “America without Trump” has a major flaw: That discussion revolves entirely around Trump, elevating him to the status of historical inevitability.

It is hard to build concentrated political support around what is an airy notion. In a country that was becoming steadily more polarized over the last three decades, framing the choice this way automatically inflates Trump support from around 30% to nearly 50%. People vote for things as much as they vote against them.

Still, over the past four years, the attacks on Trump fell into predictable patterns, making them less effective every time they’re used. The American opposition has many advantages over its Russian counterparts. If one is serious about getting rid of Trump, they need to conduct an honest assessment of what didn’t work to refocus efforts on what might. Here’s my back of the envelope list:

1. Stop talking about process. “He’s bending norms, assaulting institutions, imperiling democracy.” These are all abstract and fungible notions. Few people care how much he’s billed the Secret Service when the nation’s in flames, and talking about it makes you seem out of touch.

2. Focus on what is, not on exaggerated nightmare scenarios of what could be. Scaring people about the Postal Service is counter-intuitive to getting out your vote when the USPS is essential to every registered voter having their say.

Getting anxious about the possibility that Trump will refuse to leave office if he loses is another waste of energy. Crying wolf exhausts your base and motivates your opponents. Understand how impeachment helped Trump more than hurt him.

3. By that token, accept that the Russians didn’t elect Trump. Frankly, they were far more invested in the other side (yes, they dabbled in both with the aim of fomenting chaos). Denying Trump’s current term legitimacy insults his base and motivates them even more powerfully than your tiring anger propels you.

4. Try not to create any more victims. Mitch McConnell hired Covington, Kentucky student Nick Sandmann, who successfully sued CNN and The Washington Post for maligning him, to run his grassroots campaign after the Republicans made the pimple-faced kid into a martyr. Aim smart, not wildly.

As Russia’s opposition knows better than most, the rules of the game matter. In their case, the rules are stacked against them: no media access, funders harassed and imprisoned, and one of the world’s oldest state security forces arrayed against them. Fancy Nancy wouldn’t last long in Novosibirsk.

America’s opposition needs to frame the race without making it look rigged (like when Donna Brazile was sharing debate questions with Hillary Clinton in advance). If the race is run on bully terms, Biden loses. If it’s run on gentlemanly rules, Trump is in serious trouble.

Elections are emotional, not intellectual. The candidate that exudes hope, looks like he’s really trying, and creates a plausible narrative about his competitor will win. It is harder, even in America, to be in the opposition. Over the next two months, swing voters across the country are getting ready to decide quite possibly well before Nov. 3. So every moment counts.

That also means the time for haymakers is over, every punch needs to hit its target. Struggling for his life in a German hospital, Aleksei Navalny knows what it’s like to be in opposition in a tougher environment. It wouldn’t necessarily be foreign interference, if our own opposition were able to learn from others.

Sam Patten is a recovering political consultant who was raised in Knox County and worked for Maine’s last three Republican senators.


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