START AT HOME.
One of Donald Trump’s favorite gambits is to project onto his opponents or enemies the very characteristic he himself displays or the very action that he himself is taking. One example is Trump’s claim, ongoing and seemingly endless since before the November 2020 presidential election, that Democrats rigged the election, committed blatant voter fraud, and stole the victory from Trump.
Despite numerous lawsuits, virtually all of which lost in the courts or were thrown out, despite vote recounts and independent election audits conducted in multiple states, and despite assurances from Republican officials across the nation and within his own administration (including Trump’s Attorney General, Bill Barr) of a free and fair election, Trump insists that the election was stolen. Meanwhile, Trump’s lies about Democratic voter fraud and about election cheating distract from the work of the cabal of conspirators that he assembled who, along with Trump himself, set out to steal the 2020 election.
So, the claims of stealing and election fraud are projections onto Democrats of the crimes that Trump and his team committed.
This projection gambit is not Trump’s alone, and it certainly didn’t originate with him. Authoritarians around the world pull from their playbook claims of election fraud by their opponents, when, in fact, the claimants are themselves the cheats. They project onto their opponents the very tactics that they themselves deploy.
A blatant example of projection comes authoritarian Vladimir Putin who claims, as one reason for invading Ukraine, the need to “denazify” the Ukrainian leadership and thereby save Ukraine from the terrors of fascism. The war, claims Putin, is a “special military operation” intended to uproot alleged “neo-Nazi nationalists.”
But who is the “Nazi” here? Would we be surprised if Putin’s claim were really a projection of his own fascism?
Let us see whether Putin’s Russia fits the definition of Nazism.
First, let’s be clear on the terms used. Nazism is fascism with the additional ingredient of racism — a belief in the need to eliminate, at least from the motherland or fatherland, inferior races and groups.
Second, Nazism and its parent fascism are “totalitarian” organizations of society by a single-party dictatorship, intensely nationalistic, militaristic, and imperialistic. Each of these qualities — nationalism, militarism, and imperialism — is used to bring glory to the state. A totalitarian organization is also a political system that seeks to control all aspects of the people’s lives — a system that politicizes all aspects of life and controls those aspects from cradle to grave.
Fascists emphasize the unity and purity of the nation, of the nationalistic community. The single political party is a mass party — that is one with strong and widespread popular support — that works in an uneasy collaboration with elites to bring about the goal of unity and purity.
So, the crucial elements within fascism/Nazism are: a single-party dictatorship, nationalism, militarism/imperialism, and propaganda.
The most general definition of “propaganda” is the dissemination of information by any movement or organization to propagate some practice or ideology. In the 20th century, the definition took on a pejorative meaning as fascists and then Nazis slanted such information by using misinformation and biased information to favor themselves and to smear their enemies.
To maintain the desired mass support, the regime must rely on propaganda, both to keep the masses agitated against state enemies and to rally around the dictator and the party.
Propaganda is used to reinforce any cause, position, outlook, or attitude that paints the party and the leader in the best possible light, often by distorting facts, ignoring facts, or using facts selectively.
In Russia, Putin uses propaganda extensively through all the media outlets available, from state television and “Russia Today” to public announcements by officials such as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, to press releases and public statements by Putin himself: “The war is going well”; “all is happening according to plan.”
Part of propaganda is to prop up the dictator, because unlike military dictatorships, such as that of Pinochet in Chile or Generalissimo Franco in Spain, fascist/Nazi dictators do not rely on the established forces of bureaucracy and the army. They pursue, instead, massive popular support. Putin is no exception. The chart below (black is approval; blue, disapproval) shows his increasing popularity after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine:
Putin’s popularity is now approaching the levels he reached after annexing Crimea. How the populace reacts should he lose the war with Ukraine is another story.
Nazi and fascist dictators use terror and violence against their internal enemies; they make certain, however, that propaganda emphasizes the formidable traits and strengths of the leader without whom the people, the masses, would be under threat. It is propaganda that engenders what has been called “the architectonic myth” of the great leader — not unlike the “cult of personality” found among communists or the inspirational political myths described by Georges Sorel. Mussolini wrestled toothless bears; Putin rides shirtless and wins rigged judo matches. The architectonic myth rests on emotional force, not reasoned arguments.
2. MILITARISM/IMPERIALISM in the service of NATIONALISM:
Putin has made no secret of his desire to restore Russia to the reputation it held as the center of the Soviet Union or to expand the Russian Empire as happened under Catherine the Great. However repressive those regimes might have been, their size and reach brought attention, though not necessarily admiration, from other countries. Russia then was a major player on the world stage.
Putin wants to return to that kind of influence, if not glory. Thus, no one should be surprised by his seizing of Crimea and his invasion of Ukraine to help fulfill imperial aspirations. Many fear that such imperial ambitions will not end there. Non-NATO countries such as Moldova and Georgia or even Sweden and Finland could become targets. Less likely targets are the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, since they are in NATO and would trigger a NATO response.
Just as Stalin used “capitalist encirclement” to justify the militarization of the Soviet Union, so Putin scares his Russian audience with tales of “NATO encirclement.” So, Putin does not present his actions against Georgia and in Ukraine simply as ways of restoring the Russian Empire. He also presents them as ways to protect Russia against what he views as the ever-incursive inroads of the EU, the United States, and NATO. Thus, his strategy has a twofold purpose: 1) Secure Russian borders by 2) Expanding Russia’s borders. Of course, expanded borders are vulnerable borders, and so those, too, must be secured through expansion and on and on. The by-product of the strategy is, of course, to restore the Russian Empire and its greatness.
3. NATIONALIST PURGES TO CLEAN OUT THE INFERIOR:
On March 16, Putin went on television to discuss his invasion of Ukraine. In that speech Putin lifted language from a 1967 speech by Władyslaw Gomułkathe, then the communist leader of Poland. That speech led to anti-Jewish purges. One of the linguistic similarities in both speeches was Putin’s charge of “cosmopolitanism” against Russia’s enemies:
“The problem is that in essence, their mentality is…not…with our people. Not with Russia.”
Who are these “rootless cosmopolitans”? They are any enemies of Russia, anyone who opposes the invasion of Ukraine, anyone who undermines Russians traditional values, who are not true Russians. These are minorities of various sorts, among them Jews, feminists, atheists, people who lean toward the West, multiculturalists, and, especially, the LGBTQ community.
The result of this Putin rant is that the “scum and traitors,” as Putin called these minorities, must be “spit out…like a gnat that has accidentally [flown] into [our] mouths.” Such “spitting” can be accomplished, Putin said, by “a natural and necessary cleansing of society.”
“Cleansing of society.” There is no disguising what this means: Stalinist or Nazi-style purges of “undesirables.” This cleansing is a way of making the nation stronger and simultaneously freer. Freedom for fascists is really a euphemism for security, which means that once the unsavory, inferior, and traitors are removed, then the nation will be “freer.”
When you combine the use of propaganda through controlled media outlets with an emphasis on the infallibility of the leader and the greatness of the nation, then it is easy to gain broad support of the masses.
Those who protest against the invasion must be punished, as must those who spread lies about how the invasion is going. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Russian State Investigative Committee has opened criminal probes into those accused of spreading false information about the invasion. Those found guilty can spend up to 15 years in prison. Since February 24th in Russia, over 13,800 peaceful protestors against the invasion have been detained. Putin has banned any form of dissent.
How wonderful if the Russians themselves actually undertook a program of “denazification.” Unfortunately, it would have to begin at the top of the Kremlin.