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Travel Notes of a Talking Head: the first Trump-Clinton debate as seen from Moscow

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 US pre-election campaigns of both parties. Read on...

Travel Notes of a Talking Head:  the first Trump-Clinton debate as seen from Moscow

by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph. D.

 

On Sunday, 25 September, I received a phone call at my Brussels home inviting me to Moscow to participate on Tuesday in a political talk show hosted by Russian state television during prime time analyzing the first Trump-Clinton television debate in the US.  We quickly agreed the schedule and Monday at midday I received my e-tickets to Russia and return.

The US debates were clearly the flavor of the day for Russian television programming and 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.  Simply put, Russian-speaking “talking heads” carrying US passports are thin on the ground.  Out of consideration of professional ethics, I declined this second invitation but took a rain check to join them on 9 November for a postmortem on the election. That will be the subject of future travel notes.

The political talk show “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 news but a round table discussion, which sometimes seems more like a shouting match. Russian television programming has, like European programming, borrowed a great deal in externals, if not in content, from American models. ‘Sixty Minutes’ is slick, show-biz in visual impact, but with well researched scripts that the presenters, a husband and wife team of widely known young journalists, Yevgeny Popov and Olga Skabeyeva, deliver with panache.

The show on Tuesday evening (see link below) was not ideal for reasons I will go into below. But I am nonetheless grateful to my hosts for bringing me over for the event. First, the invitation forced me to get up in the middle of 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 aired 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 US pre-election campaigns of both parties. The Clinton camp has repeatedly and publicly accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of interfering in the US political process. Russian hackers were blamed for the very embarrassing publication of internal documents from the Democratic Party National Committee showing their bias against the candidacy of Bernie Sanders and attempts to knock him out during the primaries. Moreover, Clinton and her assistants portrayed Donald Trump as a friend and future tool of Putin, a modern day “Manchurian candidate” who will betray American interests once in office. 

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. He had only praise for the Russian military action against the Islamic State forces in Syria. And he made clear his accommodative stance on Russia’s reunification with Crimea. Finally, Trump challenged directly the relevance today of NATO with its focus on countering Russia’s recovery of its great power status. This comes at the expense of ignoring the number one threat of our day, Islamic terrorism. Trump broadly hinted at a possible reduced US presence if not withdrawal altogether from the alliance for failing to carry its 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.

The proposed message of the talk show’s producers on Tuesday night was Russia as a present and important factor in the US debates, which they measured by the number of times each of the candidates made reference to Russia in the 2 minute time slots they had to respond to questions from the moderator.  Indeed, there is some merit to the argument, given that only a few separate countries were mentioned by either candidate during the 90 minutes and the world is very large. These were Russia, China and Iran in descending order of frequency.

However, the two contexts for mention of Russia on Tuesday evening, the alleged hacking of the DNC server and the renewal of a nuclear arms race, are 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 US Ambassador to the UN declaring that Russian action in and around Aleppo was “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 the parties start hostilities.

This escalating confrontation with Russia has two book-ends. It began one day into the cease-fire when a US-led air attack on an isolated Syrian Army position at Deir Ezzor resulted in the death of more than 60 Syrian military.  At the other end, a week later, was the combined Syrian and Russian heavy bombing of East Aleppo, which Power denounced.  It is inconceivable that this recent news will not be used in the next debates by Trump or Clinton.

The show’s hosts must be congratulated nonetheless 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 appearance of the American presidential candidates and especially to Hillary (what else attracts comment from the male world of journalism if not a lady’s hair styling and sartorial choices), ‘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 has taken over the hawkish foreign policy positions of the Republicans and their Neoconservative wing.  Donald has taken over the dovish foreign policy positions normally associated with Democrats. Moreover, Donald also has gone up against the free trade policies that were an engrained part of Republican ideology up until now and were often rejected by Democrats with their traditional financial backers from among labor unions.  All of these observations are essentially correct and astute. It is curious to hear them coming from precisely 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 3 twenty-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.

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 in their own persona that Russian elites are split down the middle on whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton is their preferred next occupant of the Oval Office.

 The reasons given are not what you hear within the USA: 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 US and Russian forces in the field, for example. They gave expression to the cynical view that the positions occupied by Trump 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 Hillary. Thus, Trump could turn out to be no friend of Russia on the day after the elections.

A direct answer to these changes came from the pro-Trump members of the panel. It was best enunciated by the senior politician in the room, Vyacheslav Nikonov.  Nikonov is a Duma member from Putin’s United Russia party, the chair of the Education Committee in the 6th 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.  Said Nikonov, Trump has gone up against the entire US 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 4 swing states which Trump needs to win and where his fortunes have been rising fast.  Clearly his presentation was carefully prepared, not something casual and off-the-cuff.

 

During the exchange of doubters and backers of Trump among the Russians, one doubter spoke of Trump as a “non-systemic” politician.  This may be loosely interpreted a meaning he is anti-establishment. But in the Russian context it has an odious connotation, being applied to Alexei Navalny and certain members of the American- and EU-backed Parnas political movement, including its head Mikhail Kasyanov, and suggesting 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 then again, 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 90 minutes with Trump and she also succeeded.

 

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

 

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Link to the broadcast of “Sixty Minutes,” a political talk show, 27 September 2016 on Vesti 24/Russian state channel Rossiya 1:

http://www.vesti.ru/videos/show/vid/693107/#/video/https%3A%2F%2Fplayer.vgtrk.com%2Fiframe%2Fvideo%2Fid%2F1576322%2Fstart_zoom%2Ftrue%2FshowZoomBtn%2Ffalse%2Fsid%2Fvesti%2FisPlay%2Ftrue%2F%3Facc_video_id%3D693107    

 

© Gilbert Doctorow, 2016

 

 

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  1. 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.

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