For This Kansas Citian, There's Nothing 'Unprecedented' In Messaging Around Trump's Illness
Ilya Papinako grew up in Russia, under Leonid Brezhnev. Lately, he says, US politics bear a striking resemblance to what made him cynical as a youngster. Here's his perspective—and his advice.
Last weekend, a masked President Trump walked silently, without addressing reporters gathered at the scene, to the helicopter that would deliver him to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to be treated for COVID-19. Despite the undeniable drama of the diagnosis—a president with multiple comorbidities infected with an unpredictable virus one month before election day—another story quickly became just as gripping.
The story of messaging chaos.
First, there was the bizarre Saturday press conference, where the president's doctor blatantly dodged questions about whether Trump had received oxygen while painting a picture of a not-too-sick patient. Contradicting him was the White House Chief of Staff, who told reporters that the president's condition was "very concerning." To reassure folks, the White House released official photos, later that day, of a president hard at work, not in a hospital gown but in a suit and therefore doing just fine. Close analysis of the pictures almost immediately revealed, however, that Trump was signing what appeared to be a blank piece of paper, using a Sharpie. That was just a day before an SUV motorcade paraded a still-infectious president outside the military hospital, shocking Americans with not just medical recklessness, but something else, too. Something harder to describe.
"There are official rules that govern the presidency, and then there are norms that govern the presidency," explains Beth Vonnahme, a professor of political science at University of Missouri-Kansas City. She says that while Americans generally expect matters of national security to be shrouded in secrecy, "there’s the expectation that we’re given the truth about the president."
So while this isn't off-brand for President Trump, it's out of step with long-held norms, and that continues to leave people feeling stunned.
But not Ilya Papinako. He is experiencing something quite familiar. Papinako grew up in Russia, during the Leonid Brezhnev era. He turned 13 on his way to the United States, where he's lived as a Kansas Citian ever since.
Papinako says that in Russia, he was part of what's known as the cynical generation. That is, a generation that came of age when Soviet propaganda was still being actively disseminated, despite the fact that no one believed it any more.
"My parents had a real struggle with it because they had to come to grips with the fact that what they had been told was not the truth," Papinako says. "Whereas I was born into cynicism. If they told you things were great, you knew things were not great. I kind of took that in with my mother's milk."
One of Papinako's vivid memories of life under Brezhnev is a memory of political theater surrounding the leader's illness.
"When I was leaving, it was the end days of Brezhnev where they periodically would say, 'Oh, he has a cold' or 'He's feeling under the weather' when in reality, he was just dying," Papinako recalls.
It wasn't just Brezhnev, he notes.
"The three guys immediately after him all lasted, like, at most a couple of years before, whoops, also having a cold. Up until (Mikhail) Gorbachev came to power, every couple of years a guy would get a cold and the next day there'd be a state funeral."
Sounds like some pretty bad colds were going around in Russia back then.
"Well, you know, there's a really bad cold here, too," Papinako points out. "Two hundred thousand people have died."
Decades later, in the United States, Papinako still doesn't take anything at face value. He actively avoids political zealotry, no matter the persuasion, which leaves him feeling a little like an outsider these days. "You should have a healthy distrust of the side you support," he says.
People in the United States right now are "living in a world of propaganda," he says, on issues ranging from COVID-19 to climate change. That in and of itself doesn't surprise him. "What surprises me," he says, "is how blatant it is."
One of the more common reactions to blatant propaganda, in 2020, is to shout about the inconsistencies on social media, ostensibly to make sure others see them, but perhaps more profoundly, to keep track of what's real and what's not.
In November 2016, the Russian-born critic Masha Gessen wrote an essay, Autocracy: Rules for Survival, in the New York Review of Books. It was meant for an American audience. Of the six rules on that list, Rule 4 is, "Be outraged." Gessen elaborates on that rule as follows: "In the face of the impulse to normalize, it is essential to maintain one’s capacity for shock."
But how do you live with perpetual outrage?
Papinako has an idea that might prove useful. "The shock should not serve as a debilitating condition," he says. "It should simply serve as a reemphasis of what you have come to believe."
He also has advice that might sound contrary to Gessen's, but Papinako sees it more as an endurance tactic than a contradiction.
"Limit what you can do and what you care about. I care about my friends. I care about my immediate environment. I care about my dog and my family. Really, that's about all I can unequivocally preserve and improve," he says.
"What I can genuinely affect is a limited circle, providing positive energy and help. I think everybody should concentrate first and foremost on that, because it's very easy to become entirely overwhelmed. It's a matter of limiting what you allow to get past your defenses."
Sound cynical? That's OK. Papinako's been called that before.