Around our 1844-built house in the Washington, DC suburbs, which we affectionately call Antebedlam, my wife and I observe a strict division of labor. When she cooks, I clean up; when I cook, she cleans up. I handle all the bills; she creates the reason for most of the bills. And it’s my job to worry, hers to generate calming reassurance. She is from old New England stock, and in my experience these folks are sparse when it comes to showing emotion. Some members of her family are stoic enough to embarrass an ice cube.
Performing my assigned task as worrier-in-chief is not always easy. Sometimes there’s just not much I can manage to worry about, at least nothing new. But the other evening I hit upon something that fills the bill, and the more I have thought about it, the more anxious I have become. I’m worried about the possibility that the Russian regime under Vladimir Putin is becoming, or perhaps already is, a “crazy state,” as the Israeli scholar Yehezkel Dror described it in a January 1980 monograph.
Crazy states are dangerous. Normal statesmen cannot reason with their leaders, so deep into paranoid conspiracy theories are they. They tend to start wars. Crazy states with nuclear weapons are, presumably, even more dangerous, but—North Korea aside—that’s just theoretical musing because there’s never been a major-power nuclear-armed crazy state…yet.
Why did I end the foregoing paragraph with “yet”? Earlier this month—January 12 to be specific—my friend Ivan Krastev published a short essay in the New York Times entitled “Why Putin Loves Trump.” In this article Krastev describes what he calls a two-hour-plus manifesto-style documentary called Myroporyadok (“World Order”) that ran on Russian state television last month. The first frame of the film includes this line: “Vladimir Vladimirovich, is war coming?” And the rest of the documentary is stuffed with, as Krastev describes it, “diplomats, policy analysts, conspiracy theorists, and retired foreign statesmen” attempting to provide an answer, which comes out in not too fine a point as “yes.” NATO and the United States “are fundamental threats to Russia’s future, and, if nothing changes in the coming months, the Big War could be imminent.”
As Krastev reports, just days after the film ran the Kremlin released its new national security strategy, which leans explicitly and heavily on nuclear weapons. One can interpret the documentary as a kind of softening preparation for public acceptance of this new strategy. In other words, one can see it as pure manipulative propaganda and not, as Krastev suggests, “a powerful expression of the Kremlin’s present state of mind,” which views the world “as a place on the edge of collapse, chaotic and dangerous, where international institutions are ineffective, held hostage to the West’s ambitions and delusions.” Then again, maybe the Kremlin really does believe its own propaganda, as Krastev avers. If so, it wouldn’t be the first time that a highly top-heavy, reactionary authoritarian regime believed its own guff—of which more anon. Maybe Putin really does see himself as a global-scale righteous populist, standing defiant against the hypocrisy and frilly postmodern moralism of the arrogant West; “the West may carry on about values and principles,” Krastev describes Putin’s mind, “but all of that masks a realpolitik aimed at world domination.”
We have grown used to new post-Soviet Russian versions of the “big lie” in recent years, and we know that this sort of thing is designed to deflect domestic failures and growing panic about their cumulative impact. We typically resist taking it seriously, and we certainly and properly resist responding in kind. But here we have something new, and this is what launched my worry antennae: Krastev points out that Myroporyadok belies a central contradiction. It cannot “reconcile its insistence that America is a declining power with the tendency to explain everything that happens in the world as resulting from American foreign policy actions. Is Washington failing in its effort to bring stability to the Middle East? Or is keeping the region unstable the real objective of White House strategy? Improbably, Moscow believes in both.”
“Believes in both, believes in both,” I muttered to myself at least seven or eight times, trying to coax out of my fuddled memory where I have encountered this same symptom of craziness in high places before. And then it hit me: This penchant for contradiction within a conspiracy theory replays, pretty much exactly, the fulminations of Josef Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler, and Adolph Hitler about the Jews. Is America Putin’s scapegoat as the Jews were Hitler’s?
If so, we’ve got plenty to worry about, and here is why. When you detect the mental derangement of scapegoating at high levels of state, you can be sure that something decidedly nefarious is about to happen. Jonathan Sacks, among others, describes the phenomenon in a Girardian frame, as follows:
…the particular combination of conspiracy theory and substitute victim involved in the creation of a scapegoat requires a difficult mental feat. You have to believe at one and the same time that the scapegoat is both all-powerful and powerless. If the scapegoat were actually powerful, it could not longer fulfill its essential function as the-victim-of-violence-without-the risk-of-reprisal…. But if the scapegoat were believed to be powerless, it could not plausibly be cast as the cause of our present troubles…. The simultaneous presence of contradictory beliefs is a sure sign of the active presence of a scapegoat mechanism within a culture.1
America under Barack Obama serves as the perfect foil here. Yes, the United States is very powerful—powerful enough to humiliate the Russian people. But it is also feckless and passive, unable to resist the assertion of Russian values. This enables the toggling mechanism essential for the scapegoat syndrome to work: When you need the enemy to be scary, he can be; when you need him to be weak, he can be that, too.
Sacks describes the full blossoming of the scapegoat mechanism—whose actual purpose is always to ward off intra-group recrimination and violence over things having gone very wrong—as the culmination of a process that begins with the dehumanization of the would-be scapegoat and then moves on to include a victimization narrative about the self. As to the latter, listen to how Krastev describes Putin as seen in Myroporyadok:
…the film is a challenge to the widely accepted view of Mr. Putin as a coldblooded realist, a cynic who believes in nothing but power and spends his days poring over maps and checking his bank statements. In “Myroporyadok,” we find Mr. Putin the angry moralist who, similar to European populists and third-world radicals, experiences the world through the lens of humiliation and exclusion. As Mr. Putin’s close adviser, Vladislav Surkov, once wrote: “We still look like those guys from the working part of town suddenly finding ourselves in the business district. And they’ll swindle us for sure if we keep stumbling backward and dropping our jaws.”
Finally, in Sacks’s analysis, the scapegoat mechanism is characteristic of dualism, of a radical division of the world into good and evil. Dualism, a heresy of ethical monotheism, is the predicate for what he terms altruistic violence, which is based on the belief that killing other people is an act of self-defense, and that the dehumanized other is so vile that killing him is a service to the godhead. In Mein Kampf Hitler wrote that in exterminating the Jews, “I am doing the Lord’s work.” And he really believed that. So do the dualist fanatics of the Islamic State when they behead, burn, and otherwise slaughter their enemies. The question is, is Vladimir Putin, he with a finger on the trigger to launch at least 1,900 nuclear warheads in our general direction, capable of believing something like that, too? Perhaps the more precise question is this: Could a man with nearly absolute power but no solutions for his nation’s sharp decline become a prisoner of his own propaganda?
I don’t know, and I don’t know how I could know. But just think: Americans and Russians (and others, of course) endured the nuclear arms race in the midst of the Cold War and, despite a few close calls, nothing went big bang in the night. Wouldn’t it be the height of irony if now, with the ideological guts of the old days dried and shriveled up, and with the arsenals of both sides vastly reduced in volume, the danger of a nuclear exchange were much higher than most of us think?
Well, as E.M. Cioran wrote in A Short History of Decay (1949), “History is irony in motion.” This is true, as any student of history knows. And so, perhaps, the worst imaginable irony actually becomes a pretty good bet. Me, I worry about it. It’s my job. My wife? Ha!—not in the slightest.
1Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name (Schocken, 2015), p. 76, emphasis in original. I made my way through the same literature, and came to the same general conclusions, in Jewcentricity (Wiley, 2009), chapter 3.