Which populist-demagogue do you prefer?
Who Said It, Trump or Pashinyan?
At first glance, US president Donald Trump and Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan couldn’t be more different. One is a billionaire, the other a pauper. One is a successful businessman, the other a failed newspaperman. One is prolific at finding private financing for his activities, the other is moderately versed in finding foreign government financing for his activities. One prefers red for the color of his famous hat, the other black. One has a glorious head of stringy hair, the other is bald.
But looks can be deceiving.
What little President Trump and Prime Minister Pashinyan share in superficial comparisons they make up for in their respective characters as political aspirants and leaders of government.
The Power of Doubt
A boisterous real estate mogul, Donald Trump’s first serious foray into national politics was initiated by his persistent attempts to cast doubt on President Barack Obama’s legitimacy. Trump was a leading voice in the so-called birther movement that questioned whether Obama was in fact eligible to run for and be president based on the unfounded suspicion that he was not born in the United States. While such tactics are commonplace in tense elections, continuing to cast doubt on the legitimacy of a sitting president is unusual, not least because it undermines the faith of the public in the institution of government but also because it poisons the well of genuine political discourse. Trump continued his crusade, continuing to claim after Obama’s election as president that he was not born in the US, even though Obama had caved in procuring his original birth certificate that proved his legitimacy.
While his involvement in the birther controversy might be seen – and even excused – as the confused bumbling of a political newcomer, it would later prove to be but one tactic in Trump’s grander strategy of continuously placing the institutions and leaders of the United States under question: Hillary Clinton, the Central Intelligence Agency, attorneys general, the Supreme Court, and others.
However early Trump started on his path to the presidency, Nikol Pashinyan has him beat by at least a decade. The young man from Ijevan entered the national political discourse as an incendiary journalist. Shortly after the resignation of Levon Ter-Petrossian, Pashinyan started publishing a string of inflammatory and unfounded accusations about Ter-Petrossian’s successor, Robert Kocharyan, and members of his government.
The volatile young journalist created fantastical accounts of the corruption of government officials without being able to procure any evidence, something the US State Department took note of when it described Haykakan Zhamanak, run by Pashinyan, as a “sensationalist political tabloid”. According to a leaked cable years later, US government officials again took note of the dubious nature of Pashinyan’s claims and the the dismal reputation for neglecting facts at the newspaper, writing, “Haykakan Zhamanak has a reputation for publishing unfounded stories that tend not to be borne out. Pashinyan’s allegation that the destruction of his car was an act of intimidation has not been substantiated.”
Despite lost libel lawsuits, fines, and a succession of closed newspapers, Pashinyan persisted in producing invective that resounded with the disaffected populace of a newly-independent Armenia. It was an ignominious start to a new political career but, as with Trump, the public attention was worth the cost.
Trump and Pashinyan share an astounding disdain for national institutions. Trump and his allies in media have led millions of Americans to believe that venerable national institutions like the intelligence services and various departments within the administration are corrupt.
Pashinyan, for his part, has worked for decades to undermine the legitimacy of the very ministries and governmental departments he now commands, suggesting, like Trump, that they were rotten to the core and that the swamp needed to be drained. This included attacking Armenia’s judicial system, electoral system, police, and high-ranking officials, from the president on down. Years of largely unsubstantiated attacks created a myth that constantly propelled Pashinyan into the limelight and which, like with Trump, helped him ascend to the heights of his country’s power.
The question is not whether either man was right in saying that reforms needed to be made: any bureaucracy, especially one as large as the United States or as anachronistic as Armenia’s, could use reform. But, while mature states and statesmen understand the importance of maintaining the people’s faith in their country’s institutions while they work to reform them, this is of little concern to narcissistic demagogues like Trump and Pashinyan whose primary interest is seeing themselves in charge, whatever the cost may be.
Time + Social Media
Nobody took Trump seriously when he announced a presidential bid to succeed Obama. With no experience governing and an unrealistic policy agenda with goals like building a wall with Mexico and having Mexico pay for it, his candidacy was long on popular rhetoric and short on viable policy objectives.
But, realizing – or, perhaps, capitalizing on – the public’s fascination with uncommon and occasionally distasteful speeches and pronouncements, Trump filled stadiums and put on a show more reminiscent of a megachurch sermon sans invective than a political rally. Enemies were identified and pronounced loudly and repeatedly; the system was not only broken but was rotten and needed a savior; and, no promise was too grand in the pursuit of the office, even bringing manufacturing back to the United States.
Pashinyan spent years denouncing anybody he could get his silver tongue around. More eloquent in his public speeches than Trump, he ripped through the straw men he created with uncanny ferocity and pizzazz. If it weren’t enough that his political enemies seemed to enjoy getting a rise out of him just to watch his exuberant performances, his self-satisfaction occasionally betrayed his facade of anger when he would let a smug grin escape during his tirades from public squares and the parliamentary podium. If Armenia had a problem, Pashinyan knew who to blame and how to solve it and he let everyone know.
What really accelerated the popularity of both Trump and Pashinyan were social media. Whatever they had said or done before was supercharged by their judicious posting on Twitter for Trump and Facebook for Pashinyan. This blindsided both their opponents and once they realized that they ruled the social media ecosystem, they exploded with content that went viral. Rather than engaging in meaningful debate with their opponents, they preferred the facile interactions curated for high-engagement audiences that then encompassed more and more supporters bewitched by the fervor.
The most curious difference between the two is not in personality trait or governing style but in how they are perceived. While Trump is often bemoaned in not-so-subtle allusions as the second coming of Hitler, Pashinyan is hailed as the second coming of Christ or, more popularly, Gandhi.
Given the similarities in how the two men rose to power, it is hard to avoid the implication that divisive and dishonest rhetoric is acceptable so long as it happens in the right setting. This ugly truth is soundly demonstrated by Armenian-American detractors of Trump who moonlight as die-hard supporters of Nikol Pashinyan.
The same person who will upbraid friends and family for their ignorance in supporting who they see as a deceptive power-hungry bombast will lead a parallel crusade against detractors of a person who fits the same description but happens to be found halfway across the world. The cognitive dissonance would be utterly hilarious if it wasn’t confoundingly jarring.
What’s doubly confusing is the readiness by many to reproach Trump as a populist neo-fascist for his demagoguery while rejecting such a characterization of Pashinyan who, in reality, is every bit, if not more, a demagogic populist with fascist tendencies as Trump is purported to be.
In the ten years since Robert Kocharyan left office and Serzh Sargsyan ruled the country, there have never been so many journalists pressured by Armenia’s government. In less than a year, the editor-in-chief of one of Armenia’s most popular news sites and critic of the current government, Konstantin Ter-Nakalyan, was summoned for questioning [Armenian] by the country’s National Security Service. More ominous were raids of the offices of two prominent media outlets, News.am [Armenian] and Yerevan.Today.
The journalist rights group Reporters Without Borders commented on the Yerevan.Today raid by saying, that “the search of Yerevan.Today’s premises and the seizure of its equipment constitute grave violations of the principle of the protection of journalists’ sources, which is guaranteed by Armenian legislation and the European Court of Human Rights.”
Despite Donald Trump’s regular verbal attacks on the media, Americans take solace knowing that at least the offices of anti-Trump media outlets haven’t been raided.
What is perhaps more worrisome is the contemptuous attitude of both men toward their countries’ respective judiciaries. Here again, while Trump has publicly lambasted judges and the court system, Pashinyan outstrips him in his audacity by beating dead any illusions that there is any independent judiciary left in Armenia.
Besides the widely publicized call between him and the head of the NSS, Artur Vanetsyan, that was leaked and showed Pashinyan interfering in a criminal case, he also rhetorically asked the crowd at a campaign rally: “is there a judge in this country who can say no to anything I say?” The question is why Pashinyan was commanding supposedly independent judges to do anything that they might be compelled to say “no” to and why he was publicly bragging about judges being fearful of expressing views contravening his own, also suggesting that judges who do would face consequences.
All this is excused by Pashinyan supporters, forgetting that many of them were ready to crucify Sargsyan for lesser – and often assumed – transgressions against the social and political order. The justification process is a type of groupthink gone wild and when left unchecked by critical voices, many of which are today silenced in Armenia and Armenian communities worldwide by Pashinyan fans who ostracize, mock, and threaten differing views. This rationalizing and perversion of stated principles is actually an outgrowth of the cognitive dissonance from which Pashinyan and his supporters suffer: rationalization is necessary to fill the gap with what you said and what you’re doing (the “dissonance” in the cognitive dissonance).
What has become clear over time through the creative rationalizing by Pashinyan and his government’s officials who purported to be principled defenders of democratic principles like justice and freedom of speech when they were in the opposition is that those were just convenient vehicles to realize their ultimate goal: power. Now that they have it, they can’t be bothered with delivering what they promised but they remain dependable when it comes to making a biting remark or a poisonous accusation. Sounds like someone we know in Washington, DC.
Mher Almasian contributed to this story.