I’ve Seen the Biden-Trump Rematch Before, and It Was Scary

An elderly president isn’t sure whether he should run for a second term. His approval ratings are low, and there are concerns about his health. His advisers, adamant that he is the only bulwark against a formidable opponent, insist that his candidacy is crucial for the survival of democracy. If he does not run, they say, dictatorship will prevail. Despite his reservations, the president agrees. He pledges to defeat his opponent and protect his country’s future.

This isn’t America today; it’s Russia in 1996. That aged president is not Joe Biden but Boris Yeltsin. His fearsome rival is not Donald Trump but the Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov. As I watch the American presidential campaign unfold, I’ve been constantly reminded of their contest. For all the differences between them, I can’t shake a sense of déjà vu.

Back in the ’90s, Russia stood at a crossroads, seemingly faced with a clear choice: democracy or tyranny. Today it is evident that this was a false dichotomy. Instead, a dishonest campaign based on fear not only undermined Russians’ faith in democracy but also inadvertently facilitated the rise of a future dictator, Vladimir Putin. It’s a pretty scary story.

At the end of 1995, Boris Yeltsin’s popularity was dismally low, with approval ratings around 6 percent. Yet his advisers were bullish. Overlooking other, more popular democratic candidates — Viktor Chernomyrdin and the young Boris Nemtsov — they believed Mr. Yeltsin was the only one capable of saving the nation from a Communist resurgence, citing his electoral victory over the Communists in 1991. The country’s young democracy was at stake. Reluctant at first, he was eventually convinced.

It’s true there was reason to be concerned. Amid countrywide discontent, Mr. Zyuganov was running a campaign that might be summarized by a familiar slogan: “Make Russia great again.” By the end of 1995, his party had triumphed in the parliamentary elections, effectively securing control over the lower house. In early 1996, his presence at the World Economic Forum in Davos cemented his status as the presumptive next president of Russia, with many considering his victory all but assured.

But Mr. Yeltsin’s advisers were not going to give up easily. Instead, they set about creating a remarkably effective campaign, following what they called the formula of fear. One of the campaign managers, Sergei Zverev, explained their thinking to me when I was researching a book about the ’90s in Russia. “It was essential to deploy every tactic to instill a fear of the future among the populace,” he told me, “ensuring that the potential horrors of a non-Yeltsin victory would overshadow any existing discontent with his persona.”

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