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A Reality-Show President Enters the Theater of War 

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Not far from the White House, at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., Yayoi Kusama’s blockbuster retrospective show Infinity Mirrors has been attracting insane crowds of people who stand in line, eager for the twenty-second stretches of disorientation inside Kusama’s infinity rooms.

The rooms use facing mirrors, hanging lights, and polka dots to create vistas of infinite regress. As art, it is perhaps underwhelming—an empty spectacle with no real depth, offering upon long inspection nothing unseen in a glance.

But as I stood in “The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away,” I snapped a picture and realized it was far more compelling on my screen than in life, the perfect art for the age of the selfie.

On my phone, I saw myself in a Blade Runner-like world of “attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion” as the lights created towering psychedelic spires surrounded by replicants of myself. It was impossible to tell which one was real, because none of them were. They were all reflections on the screen.

I felt the same sense of vertigo a few days earlier at the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing into Russian active measures—or propaganda—intended to use the refracting mirrors of the internet to disrupt our election.

“What's hard to distinguish sometimes is did the Russians put it out first, or did Trump say it and the Russians amplify it,” Clint Watts of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and George Washington University's Center for Cyber and Homeland Security told reporters after his testimony on President Trump’s embrace of propaganda conspiracies. “He actually repeats propaganda put out by RT or Russian sources and, vice versa, they parrot him.”

Reflections reflecting reflections again and again so that nothing is true.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Russia’s propaganda strategy was designed and perfected by Vladislav Surkov, who brought postmodern theory to the Kremlin, creating and managing Russian political reality like performance art. When he was sanctioned for his role in the invasion of eastern Ukraine, which he largely orchestrated, he said he didn’t mind: “The only things that interest me in the U.S. are Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg, and Jackson Pollock. I don’t need a visa to access their work. I lose nothing.”

In Peter Pomerantsev’s “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia,” he writes that “Surkov’s genius has been … to marry authoritarianism and modern art, to use the language of rights and representation to validate tyranny, to recut and paste democratic capitalism until it means the reverse of its original purpose.”

Pomerantsev says that Surkov turned Russian politics into a reality show. Then, as if in a new kind of arms race, we elect a real reality-show star as president.

  • Propaganda, modern art, and Tomahawk missiles in the age of Trump

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