2016 Election, Reagan, Russia, Trump

Explaining Trump and Putin…

      “Putin has had many positive experiences working with Western political leaders whose business interests made them more disposed to deal with Russia, such as former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.”

Intelligence community report on Russian activity to influence the U.S. election

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WASHINGTON — The chiefs of America’s intelligence agencies last week presented President Obama and President-elect Donald J. Trump with a summary of unsubstantiated reports that Russia had collected compromising and salacious personal information about Mr. Trump, two officials with knowledge of the briefing said.

On today’s front page of the New York Times 

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One of the dangers to American democracy inherent in a Donald Trump presidency is the sheer magnitude of the disruption to political norms that he has and will touch off. It’s frankly almost impossible to keep track of chaos he has sparked. I’ve taken to reducing his soon-to-be presidency to “the outrage of the day.”

The upsetting of what is normal is, of course, precisely what many of his supporters like most about Trump and his approach. As long as he’s able to keep his core supporters stirred up with his brand of political chaos – many of those supporters long ago abandoned any desire or ability to think critically about the man-child – he will believe that he is riding high and being successful. And given the stunningly short national attention span that afflicts us, as well as our desire to be entertained, he may just have discovered a new rule of political effectiveness – keep them guessing and above all keep them distracted.

Trump will almost certainly and eventually crash and burn (I hope before bringing on a war; trade or shooting), and he will eventually need to confront the age-old problem of over exposure. Every reality TV show has a shelf life after all and his expire by date looms even before he takes office. A 37 percent approval rating is not the raw material of long-term political credibility. He has no where to go but down.

But man-oh-man what damage in the meantime, which brings me to my outrage of this day: the amazing political gymnastics on the part of some on the American right who are joining Trump is his embrace of Vladimir Putin, the one-time KGB agent intent on destabilizing western democracies, including our own. This has been clear for months and long before the most recent salacious material surfaced publicly, yet the Putin embrace grows stronger.

Churchill, FDR and Stalin at Yalta in 1945

From before Franklin Roosevelt’s trip to Yalta in February of 1945, the American political right has held as a cardinal principle of conservative orthodoxy a deep and abiding distrust of all things Russian. From Robert Taft to Ronald Reagan no Republican strayed from that gospel. Richard Nixon’s remarkable opening to an arms control agreement with the Russians and diplomatic relations with China were possible, in no small part, because of Nixon’s life-long hard line stand on both countries. It really did take an anti-Communist Republican like Nixon to go to China since any Democrat, with the possible exception of Senator Henry Jackson, would have been immediately characterized as “soft” on Communism.

Most American’s old enough to remember Reagan remember his 1983 labeling of the then–Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” The larger context of that famous line was Reagan’s warning that the country must not “ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire.”

Ronald Reagan’s ‘evil empire’ speech in 1983

In order to understand the full scope of Reagan’s speech, one his most famous, delivered by the way to the National Association of Evangelicals, a group ironically now totally in thrall to Trump, I went back and read the speech. Several lines resonate all these years later and in the context of the vast rightwing acceptance of Putin, election meddling and all, none rings more true than this:

“Some would have us accept them at their word and accommodate ourselves to their aggressive impulses,” Reagan said of the Russians in 1983. “But if history teaches anything, it teaches that simple-minded appeasement or wishful thinking about our adversaries is folly. It means the betrayal of our past, the squandering of our freedom.”

It remains the single most stunning reversal of 75 years of conservative thought that so many on the political right have strayed so far from the warnings of Reagan – until Trump, the secular saint of the GOP – that they they can actually embrace Vladimir Putin as some kind of legitimate global partner in a new Trumpian world. 

And while I suppose it is possible to question the unanimous conclusion of the U.S. intelligence community that Putin ordered interference in the recent election in order to destabilize our democracy and help Trump, it is really not possible to ignore the record of the man John McCain correctly calls “a thug, a murderer, a killer and a KGB agent.”

With Donald Trump one of the two most        powerful men in the world

Putin has annexed Crimea, invaded the Ukraine, fought a war with Georgia, threatens the Baltic states, backs the Syrian regime at the expense of fighting ISIS, finances rightwing nationalist movements in western Europe and has created both a cult of personality and a kleptocracy that rules Russia in ways that Lenin or Stalin might envy. Reagan is rolling over.

And there is this tidy little summary of Russian efforts to destabilize western Europe as reported by Henry Porter in Vanity Fair:

“Russia’s record of destabilizing actions against the Soviet Union’s former dominions is established beyond doubt,” Porter wrote late last month. “In 2007, the Baltic state of Estonia, which Russia basically regards as being on loan to western liberal democracy, experienced a full-blown cyber-attack on its banking and media networks after the Estonian government relocated the Soviet-era ‘Bronze Soldier’ memorial. Russia launched a cyber-war against Georgia prior to the Russian-Georgian conflict. Ukraine became the target of sustained attack exactly a year ago this week. Hackers took control of the power grid through a denial-of-service attack and caused outages across one region.   During the last 12 months, the Germans have sent repeated warnings about attacks on their political system and perceived operations to stir up hatred with false news stories. In May, Germany’s domestic security agency said there had been attempts, reportedly sourced to Russia, to compromise the computer system of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party. Reports of a previous attack on the Bundestag, which disabled the lower house’s network, was also tied to Russian actors.”

The next target – Germany’s Angela Merkel

There are clear signs that the Russian meddling in the American election – the cyber crimes, the planting of “fake news” that more correctly should be labeled propaganda and the empowerment of various alt-right actors – was merely a tune up for coming elections in France and Germany. We’ve had a major warning. Will it be heeded? Apparently not by many Trumpers.

 As James Kirchick, a never Trump conservative, wrote recently in the Washington Post, “Pro-Russian converts on the American right appear to take two forms. The opportunists simply want power and are willing to sacrifice principles in pursuit of it. The ideologues, meanwhile, see Russia as nothing worse than an occasional nuisance, if not a potential ally in the fight against Islamic extremism.”

Among the pro-Putin opportunists, those who cravenly seek power or access, Kirchick lists Newt Gingrich, various Fox personalities including Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Lou Dobbs, all of whom have praised Russia, Putin and the creepy Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, the conduit for John Podesta’s hacked email’s. Even Sarah Palin has gone from keeping an eye on Russia – remember she once said she could see it from her porch in Alaska – to apologizing for once thinking ill of Assange.

Elected Republicans have gotten into the praise Putin act. Arizona Congressman Trent Franks bizarrely reasons that the Russian email hacks – if they happened and he’s not sure they did – “succeeded in giving the American people information that was accurate, then they merely did what the media should have done.” One wonders how the Congressman would feel if Putin had his emails. It’s likely he does. 

And what would any modern political controversy be without a conspiracy theory angle. Enter Oliver Stone. You can generally assess where the truth lies by seeing where Stone comes down and then take the opposite point of view. Stone essentially passes off the entire Putin-Trump phenomenon as an invention of the New York Times and Washington Post and actually suggests any further investigation focus on a supposed leaker from within the Clinton campaign rather than Russian hackers. This from the guy who has peddled more conspiracy theories than, well, Donald Trump. You can’t make this stuff up, or if you are Oliver Stone maybe you can.

As for me, as I think about the bizarre Putin-Trump relationship, I keep coming back to the old Watergate adage – “follow the money.”

Back in October and before the election, The Financial Times, hardly any kind of apologist for left of center politics, published a remarkable if little noticed analysis of the vast web of connections between Trump, his children and various advisors and the Russia of Vladimir Putin.

One of the experts consulted by the FT was David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist who has written, among other things, a biography of Trump entitled The Making of Donald Trump. Johnson – no relation – says he’s convinced the real Putin-Trump story has yet to emerge and observes that “Every time Vladimir Putin is mentioned, Trump goes out of his way to express deep respect for him, which suggests there’s something very important which we simply don’t know.”

It has got to be either money or sex. Since the Billy Bush “grab ’em by the…” tape didn’t sink the faux billionaire last fall, I’m betting it all about money. Trump’s empire is surely highly leveraged. He has big, big debt, which many observers have long suspected is at the heart of his refusal to release his tax returns or undertake real divestiture of his assets. I would bet my inaugural tickets that the money trail leads back to Putin and his Russian billionaire oligarch pals.

The young KGB agent

Imagine the possibilities and then remember that Putin is a former KGB agent: Perhaps Trump was caught on some Russian videotape secretly recorded during one of his trips to Russia, as some of the new allegations suggest. Or perhaps there are intercepts of Trump telephone calls. Or maybe the Kremlin has access to what we mere American citizens don’t, the Trump tax returns, bank statements, off shore accounts and debts. Perhaps Trump advisors like one-time campaign manager Paul Manafort, who has well-established ties to Russian businesses and political leaders, actually colluded with Putin’s intelligence agencies. It’s a plot line too bizarre for a John Le Carre novel, but considering where we are and who is headed to the White House can you really rule any of it out?

The most significant paragraph in the intelligence community’s report on Russian efforts to undermine the legitimacy of the presidential election and assist Trump is quoted at the top of this piece: “Putin has had many positive experiences working with Western political leaders whose business interests (emphasis added) made them more disposed to deal with Russia, such as former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.”

Trump’s resistance to further investigation of the Russian role in the election – we should just get on with our lives he says – and his continuing stance that the matter is no big deal looks very much like the leading edge of a cover-up. Real digging by reporters and U.S. senators will undoubtedly expose what cannot be seen above the surface of this murky pond. The future integrity of American elections is at stake, not to mention the idea that an American president really is putting the nation’s interests above his own.

In his path breaking 2005 book Postwar, a history of Europe since 1945, the late and supremely talented historian Tony Judt, a man who understood the postwar world as well as anyone, has only two references to the then still new Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. Both reference Putin’s authoritarian instincts and his drive to recover Russia’s international “respect” after the break up of the Soviet Union.

Judt astutely points out a reality about Russia that many are ignoring – the old Soviet approach to governing never really changed after the official fall of Communism. “High-ranking officials from the old regime were quietly recycled back into power under Vladimir Putin,” Judt wrote, “Communist-era silviki (prosecutors, police, and military or security personnel) constituted over half of the President’s informal cabinet.”

Putin is a thug, he dispatches his enemies in brutal and effective ways and he is an increasingly desperate dictator who presides over a crumbling economy. He is also smarter and much more disciplined than Donald Trump and he has the goods on the “useful idiot” who will soon be occupying the Oval Office. Above all Putin is hell bent on destabilizing and weakening western democracies. The soon-to-be president of the United States, either through ignorance or corruption or both seems determined to help him. This cannot stand.

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