Void calling to void

Masha Gessen tells us the Trump-Putin date tomorrow is nothing meeting nothing.

The deliberately empty gesture is the ultimate innovation of the Trump Presidency. Beginning with his transition-era announcement of saving American jobs at a Carrier plant—an accomplishment of no consequence for the country as a whole and little, if any, consequence for many Carrier employees—Trump has trafficked in hollow symbols. Each gesture is designed to affirm his image as a dealmaker, even though the deals are devoid of substance at best and costly at worst. In this context, the Trump-Putin summit, a meeting without an agenda, appears entirely logical.

For his part, Putin has spent nearly two decades hollowing out Russian politics, media, and public language. His system rests on rituals devoid of content: elections in which voters have no meaningful choice, court and administrative procedures whose outcomes are preordained, and media that speak with a single, vacant voice. For the last several weeks, these media have been trumpeting the looming summit.

They’re two different versions of emptiness. Putin is intelligent and competent while Trump is neither, but the emptiness they have in common.

For Putin, less discussion in Helsinki is more. His power will be manifested in things not discussed: Russian interference in the election, which Trump is clearly loath to bring up, and human-rights issues that an American leader would traditionally broach at such a meeting. A political prisoner, the Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov, who is serving a twenty-year sentence in a Russian prison colony on trumped-up terrorism charges, is in the second month of his hunger strike. He is trying to draw attention to the fate of more than sixty other Ukrainian political prisoners held in Russia. American and international human-rights activists have been waging a hopeless fight to get the issue on the summit agenda—or on the White House radar at all.

That’s a tall order, what with golf and tweeting and watching Fox News. Trump has only so many brain cells available.

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