Vladimir Putin is a dictator.
In recent years, his regime has neutered Russia’s judiciary, jailed political opponents, killed investigative journalists, and taken firm control of formerly independent television and radio stations. In recent months, it has arrested Putin’s most serious challenger, Alexey Navalny, and banned him from running in the presidential election. In recent days, it has pressured state employees to go to the polls and shuttled groups of supporters from one polling station to the next. “With loyalist security forces, a subservient judiciary, a controlled media environment, and a legislature consisting of a ruling party and pliable opposition groups,” Freedom House reported in its most recent update on Russia, “the Kremlin is able to manipulate elections and inhibit genuine opposition.”
Why am I rehashing all of this widely known information? Because both our political leaders and our most important newspapers have, for the past week, been pretending that they didn’t know all of this.
Unsurprisingly, one of the worst offenders has been Donald Trump. Though his advisers reportedly pleaded with him to “NOT CONGRATULATE” Putin on his supposed victory, he did it anyway. When he faced loud criticism for doing so, he doubled down on his stance, emphasizing that “getting along with Russia (and others) is a good thing.”
I am usually deeply resistant to anti-anti-Trumpist commentators, on both the left and the right, who are desperate to downplay how unique this president is: A lot of people on the right squint so hard that they manage to blind themselves to the utterly aberrant way in which Trump is undermining basic democratic norms and attacking the independence of key institutions like the Department of Justice. Meanwhile, a lot of people on the left are so committed to the view that America has always been irredeemably evil that they see Trump as standing in a neat line of descent from George W. Bush (or for that matter, Barack Obama).
Both stances dangerously underplay the unique threat that authoritarian populists like Trump pose to liberal democracy. And yet, this is one of those rare instances in which Trump really is more typical than atypical. In fact, European leaders with perfectly moderate views have behaved just as cowardly over the past days. “Congratulations on your re-election, President #Putin,” Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, tweeted. “I warmly congratulate you on your reelection,” Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, added in a message released by her office.
Many journalists and editors have, depressingly, been guilty of a similar lack of clarity. “Putin Wins Fresh Six-Year Term in Russian Elections,” the Wall Street Journal headlined on the day of the election. Other media outlets were not much better. “Putin Wins Russia Election, and Broad Mandate for 4th Term” a headline on the New York Times website read. “Putin cruises to victory in Russia, tells supporters: ‘Success awaits us!’” the Washington Post repeated.
The coverage in Europe has, if anything, been even worse. “Vladimir Putin secures landslide victory,” the Guardian announced. “Putin triumphs,” La Repubblica reported. Putin has been “strengthened by the presidential election,” the German Press Agency, DPA, gushed.
To be sure, most of the articles under these headlines do acknowledge that the Russian election was neither free nor fair. And most of the journalists who write these articles do not count among the ranks of the—sadly ever more prevalent—pro-Putin trolls who are willing to flatter him for his supposed achievement and explain any of his misdeeds away with increasingly distasteful conspiracy theories.
And yet, these media outlets are unwittingly doing Putin’s bidding. By framing the election as though it was a legitimate democratic enterprise, they are adding to the dictator’s domestic legitimacy and boosting his international popularity. No wonder, then, that Putin has an increasingly vocal fan club in most North American and Western European countries—or that Germans are now much more worried about the policies of Donald Trump than they are by those of Vladimir Putin.
The alternative is not too difficult: Media outlets should make sure that they convey the fraudulent nature of the Russian elections in their headlines, not just buried deep into the articles they write. This is easy for outlets that pride themselves on having a clear editorial tone: “Shocker: Vladimir Putin Easily Wins Re-Election by a Huge Margin” my Slate colleague Daniel Politi wrote with deservedly dripping sarcasm. New York magazine took a similar tack, going with “Vladimir Putin Wins Russian Election in Stunning Upset.”
Newspapers that cultivate a more neutral tone have found it more difficult to report the Russian news without furthering Putin’s propaganda. But they can find a model for how to navigate this problem closer to home: When Donald Trump started to tell blatant lies on the campaign trail, legacy media slowly deviated from old standards to reflect new realities In a famous headline, for example, the New York Times reported “Trump Remarks on London Rile the British” but then added, directly underneath, “Claims With No Proof.” Now, it’s time for them to make a similar shift on foreign news, going with factual hard-nosed headlines like “Vladimir Putin Extends Lease on Power in Unfree Elections.”
Even more importantly, democratic leaders should finally refrain from congratulating Vladimir Putin—or other dictators who hold sham elections—on his supposed victory. This doesn’t mean that they have to break off contact with him or appear hostile to the Russian people; sadly, it is a reality of international politics that you sometimes need to keep up decent relations with not-so-decent leaders—and of course we should always remember that many ordinary people are not responsible for the thugs who suppress their freedoms. But as I’ve written before, there’s a clear distinction between engaging an adversary in a distantly respectful manner and treating him like a friend.
Emanuel Macron, the French president, has trodden this thin line carefully. Like other political leaders, he called Putin on the day after the election. But unlike them, he pointedly refrained from congratulating him on an election victory. Instead, he addressed his wishes to the Russian people, wishing them “success in the country’s political, democratic, economic and social modernization.”
Oddly enough, Trump expressed a rather similar principles rather well in his latest tweet: His motto, he explained, is “PEACE THROUGH STRENGTH.” Despite the Orwellian ring and Reaganite origins of that phrase, it does capture something important: We will never be able to contain adventurers like Vladimir Putin if we continually bow to their will. On the contrary, it is only if we show that we are willing to stand up for our principles that we can actually improve our relations with countries like Russia. And that, of course, is precisely why it is such a scandal that the president of the United States should be willing to pretend that the fraudulent election that enthroned Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin for another six years was the real deal.
As democracies come under threat in their traditional heartlands, and authoritarians around the world wield their influence more and more boldly, politicians and journalists need to become more courageous and purposeful about how to defend their values. This doesn’t require reporters to turn into moralists or statesmen to turn into social activists. But it does require that we speak our truth at least as boldly as the Kremlin spreads its lies. And the truth about the Russian “election” is unambiguous: Far from being free and fair, it was a cynical effort to legitimize the rule of Russia’s long-standing dictator, Vladimir Putin.
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