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A Russian Traveled the US Campaign Trail and This Is What He Saw

Photo: Ilya Varlamov. Used with permission.

Photo: Ilya Varlamov. Used with permission.

Ever since the Democratic National Committee’s servers were hacked, the US news media has run rampant with speculation about what influence the Kremlin might be wielding in the American presidential race. On an almost daily basis, there are articles published decrying Russia’s interference in the election, or Republican candidate Donald Trump’s affinity for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia has become a central theme this fall—something unheard of since the years of the Cold War.

The Kremlin has denied all accusations of wrongdoing, as bilateral relations between Moscow and Washington have become increasingly strained. Just this week, Russia suspended an agreement with the United States to dispose of weapons-grade plutonium, listing major geopolitical demands the Kremlin says must be fulfilled before the deal is reinstated. Hours later, following through on threats issued day earlier, the White House suspended all bilateral talks with Russia over Syria, where both states are busy dropping bombs and aiding ground forces in a long and blood civil war.

But just as the White House is only a metonym for US government, the Kremlin isn't the same as ordinary Russian people, many of whom have been intensely interested in the American presidential race.

Ilya Varlamov is one of the most popular photographers and bloggers active today on the Russian Internet. Last month, he traveled across the United States, capturing images that he thought would appeal to his readers back home.

So English-language readers can see what stood out to this Russian visitor, RuNet Echo's Christopher Moldes reached out to Varlamov, who granted us permission to translate his election-season travelogue and share his photos.

American Elections: The Candidates Are … Well, These Guys
By Ilya Varlamov

Americans have found themselves in such a tricky situation that I’ve even started to feel a little bit sorry for them. Imagine: the presidential elections are fast approaching and there's no one to choose from! It's as if you were given the choice between Zyuganov [the head of the Russian Communist Party] and Zhirinovsky [the head of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia]. It's awful to think about, but that's what the Americans have done to themselves.

On one side there's Clinton, the old lady who everyone’s had enough of, who faints every now and then, and who'll die at any moment. On the other side there’s Trump, the delusional clown who has made a show out of the elections, who spews all kinds of bullshit, and who openly mocks everyone. And you ask, who is there to vote for?

I asked Leva, a fellow blogger who's been living in New York for 26 years and is closely following the situation, to comment. Leva plans to go for Clinton:

“When Varlamov told me about how Russia's electoral season lasts about a month, I almost choked on my sake! Can you really call that an election?! That's no match for the United States. Here, the presidential elections have gone on for practically all of 2016, and the primaries began way back in the summer of 2015. And that's the way it should be: there's no need to rush when you’re picking the person who will be blamed for all the world's troubles for the next for years, from beat-up roads to whatever new Maidans spring up.

There are now only two months until election day, and everyone knows the two main contenders in this game of thrones. There's Hillary Clinton from the Democratic Party and Donald Trump from the Republican Party. Both received the support of their parties after a long primary election process.

Hillary is a completely conventional candidate. I'd even say she's boring. Until 2000, her political career consisted of being the wife of Bill Clinton, who was first elected as governor of the state of Arkansas, and later as president of the USA. As first lady, she was subject to severe criticism for her attempts to play an active role in the development of healthcare reform, which had already fallen apart at that time.

Near the end of her husband's second term, Hillary was elected as senator from the state of New York, and in 2006 easily won a second term. In 2008 she ran to become the Democratic presidential nominee, but lost in the primaries to the young and charismatic Obama. Having secured a smashing victory, he offered her a position in his government as Secretary of State, and she, swallowing her pride, accepted. They say that it was at this moment that Obama and his team developed a deep respect for Hillary.

Clinton has been in the national spotlight for 25 years, and in this time has managed to make a bunch of enemies, although even they admit that she's someone who is ready to compromise in pursuit of her goals. She's extremely well-informed about international and domestic politics, understands economics fairly well, and is never at a loss for words.

In her years in politics, Hillary has dealt with her fair share of mud-slinging, and although not one of the numerous scandals she has found herself in has exposed any serious sins, a bit of “crust” remains. Many voters see her as hypocritical, conniving, and vain.

But Clinton's main problem is that she’s not charismatic enough. The qualities that could make her a good president in fact turn her into a weak candidate: She's too accommodating, too wrapped up in the details, overly meticulous and detailed in her explanations.

Clinton's main supporters are adult, moderate liberals. She isn't as capable of inspiring young idealists, as her main competitor in the primaries, Bernie Sanders, was. Her staff's main hope is that all these young people will vote for her in November if only to avoid a Trump victory. It's exactly for this reason that 80 percent of people I know intend to support her.

This is because, in contrast to Clinton, Trump's candidacy is anything but traditional. His victory in the Republican primaries nearly split the party in two. Many of the most high-profile Republican politicians have only grudgingly supported him, and quite a few have decided to not even do that.

The thing is that Trump is in no way a Republican in the usual sense. He's a businessman who's made his money in real estate, and until this election had never participated in politics. And, unlike politicians, he doesn't hesitate to say infeasible nonsense, which his electorate happily eats up. In this way, Trump is like Zhirinovsky: they both style themselves in such a way that no one attaches any particular importance to their words.

In the course of his campaign, Trump has made loads of unrealistic promises, the main one being to build a wall on the Mexican border (over three thousand kilometers) and force Mexico to pay for it. He also promised to ban all Muslims from entering the country, without clarifying what he would do with the ones that are citizens. Trump easily disavows his own words, changes positions, and pulls all kinds of maneuvers that would make other politicians look dishonest. But no one seems to expect consistency from him. His last scandal came after he gave an interview to Russia Today. Everyone knows that this is a Kremlin propaganda outlet, and his appearance there raised many questions. Trump immediately stated that he didn’t know anything about Russia Today, saying only that he had given his old friend Larry King an interview for his podcast. King had gracelessly set him up.

Trump's potential voters can be divided into several groups. There are those who really do agree with his main pronouncements a la “all your problems are caused by Mexicans/Muslims/the Chinese.” Others (and they aren't just a few!) simply really don't want to see Hillary in the president's chair. My parents, for example, think that she is an unacceptable candidate. After all, she is most certainly an anti-Semite: there are picture's going around the Internet where she’s embracing Arafat. You know, she's been caught up in so many scandals! Where there's smoke, there's fire (I've heard the same things said about Navalny). And in general, it would be a good idea to stop God knows who from entering the country (even among immigrants, there are those who seriously think like this).

As you can already tell, I myself am all for Clinton. What's more, I was for her even back in 2008! To me it seems that she's qualified, intelligent, and capable of improving a lot in America. While Trump claims that everything's bad and points out who is guilty, she says that for the most part, things are going quite well. There are problems, she says, and here's how we're going to solve them.

Unfortunately, she doesn't have enough charisma, and if the Republicans had any sort of qualified candidate things would be bad for her. But many believe that Trump does not seriously want to be President, and that's why his campaign isn't serious. For a long time, the campaign was just fiery speeches and television interviews, while Hillary was developing her volunteer network across the whole country. Trump has had to change the leadership of his campaign staff several times, each time explaining that he had been planning on doing so all along.

Hillary has been leading in the polls for essentially the entirety of the election season (with the only exception being after the Republican convention, when they showed Trump on TV non-stop). The best site for monitoring the race is fivethirtyeight, where some pretty smart people formulate statistical forecasts based on all sorts of surveys, which take into account the weight of each state and the historical accuracy and bias of each pollster.

And some other news came out yesterday: at a ceremony honoring the victims of the September 11th terror attacks, Clinton got sick. She had to leave the event early, and everyone was posting a video where she couldn't stand without support while she getting into her car. At first, her staff said that nothing was wrong, she simply overheated a bit (it’s a bit hot in New York right now), but later her doctors admitted that she has pneumonia. She had to cancel a two-day trip to California. Her opponents have long been fueling rumors about her poor health, and even if she were to get better quickly and return to the campaign trail, this episode may still seriously harm her.

Right now the gap between Clinton and Trump is about 4 percent, which allows the statisticians at Fivethirtyeight to say that the probability of her victory is about 70 percent. Let's hope that that's how it will be.

1. Supporters of Trump are mainly from rural areas, while Clinton supporters live in large cities, especially the on coasts – primarily California, New York and its surrounding areas, and other large urban areas. There is a lot of campaign signage along roads. Here's a pedestrian crosswalk in the countryside, where some rednecks have decorated it with Trump signs.

  1. You can even find Trump signs in farm fields, the standard “Trump: Make America Great Again!” and others. This is a typical scene in southern states. Where there are people involved in agriculture, where there are simple, working folk, where there are farmers and rednecks—that's where people are voting for Trump.

  1. Here the choice of slogans is a bit more interesting: Hillary lied—people died.

  1. “Society is safer when citizens are armed.” As you know, Democrats want to limit the free sale of weapons in the USA. But these people believe that Trump wouldn't do such a thing.

  1. These people are against mandatory vaccination. I wonder if they realize that Trump himself, in all likelihood, is vaccinated against all sorts of things?

  1. Hahaha. “Latinos for Trump”! This is especially adorable and hilarious, especially if you consider what Trump thinks of Mexicans.

  1. Trump's main haters live in large cities, especially in liberal areas like the gay neighborhoods of San Francisco and Seattle, and areas popular among the young, like Brooklyn, New York and Venice, Los Angeles where subcultures thrive, and so on. Look at this cute display in a sex shop!

08. Horny Hillary and Donald Chump blow-up dolls.

  1. “He screwed up politics, now you can screw him back.”

  1. A “Stop making stupid people famous!” sticker right next to a Hillary doll.

  1. A display in a gay neighborhood of San Francisco.

  1. “Dumps for Trump.”

  1. Here's a double play-on-words. Trump has said that his last name comes from the last name of his German ancestors, Drump, but it's a bit hard to get the point afterwards. This is actually an ad for Seattle’s Theater Schmeater production, where “a slightly limited businessman becomes the King of Nowhere.”

  1. Another of the play's handbills. POTUS is both the abbreviation for President of the United States and the name of kingdom.

  1. Political signage in a gay neighborhood.

  1. Toilet paper with Trump's face on it for sale.

  1. It's safe for your ass because the pictures are printed with soy ink.

  1. Now it's the Latinos’ turn: Trump as a piñata.

  1. And not just Trump, everyone got caught up in it.

  1. The Trump haters, in a spin on his famous slogan, suggest making America gay or native.

  1. More variations. Imagine what would happen if they sold caps over here that said “Russia was never great”!

  1. Some signage for Bernie Sanders remains, here aimed at a Hispanic audience.

  1. Hillary signage is few and far between.

  1. People sometimes put these signs up by their homes.

  1. Someone still plans on voting for Bernie Sanders. American citizens have the right to write in the name of any candidate, even an unregistered one, on the ballot. So theoretically, the election could be won by the dead drug lord Escobar, Putin's dog, or Barack Obama again.

  1. There will soon be elections to the Mountain View, California (pop. 80,000) city council. Look how humble it is. The signs are practically identical; no one stands out.

  1. You can buy a “Hillary for prison” button!

  1. Election street art

  1. Donald and Hillary aren't coming off the front pages.

Well, who do you think will win? Hay-haired Trump? Iron Hillary? Someone else that Americans will write in on the ballot?

This is an English-language translation written by Christopher Moldes. For the original Russian-language text by Ilya Varlamov, visit his website here.
  • CurtCarpenter

    I think Varlimov lacks subtlety in his images and misses some important nuances that are defining this horrible election cycle. What photo, for example, might illuminate the distaste many Americans have for both candidates?

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