This Russian Stuff

By William Hausdorff

I’m trying to decide how much of this Russian stuff really matters.  According to some of the recent indictments by the Justice Department, a concerted, well-funded Russian disinformation effort turbo-powered by bots was designed to interfere with the US presidential election campaign in 2016.  Thirteen Russians are accused of wire fraud, bank fraud, identify theft, even conspiracy to defraud the US government.  

On the one hand, by demonstrating there was a serious effort to interfere with the election campaign, Special Counsel Robert Mueller and team imply that collusion by the Trump campaign or family to abet this conspiracy, and/or of obstruction of justice to block its investigation, is not something that can be dismissed as “just politics.” 

All admit that Mueller is unlikely to get his hands on any of these Russians to put them on trial, much less in prison.  The tacit assumption, then, is that this merely sets the stage for future charges and indictments that will reach well into the upper reaches of the Trump White House.

Yet the underlying theme in the media is that the Russian origins of this particular operation, not to mention being sponsored by a crony of Putin, make it especially nefarious or potent.  Extremely knowledgeable observers such as the US/Russian reporter Masha Gessen have recently noted that

Loyal Putinites and dissident intellectuals alike are remarkably united in finding the American obsession with Russian meddling to be ridiculous. 

And that the notion that there has been an elaborate, well-orchestrated Kremlin-hatched plan to “throw” the election to Trump—rather than just “sow discord”—is similarly absurd.

It is difficult to be too shocked at the Russian efforts to influence our electoral campaigns given the US government’s own unparalleled track record in covertly and overtly supporting political candidates and parties around the globe.  Guatemala, Chile, Iran, Vietnam, Dominican Republic, Panama, Cuba, post-war Italy and Greece, even Russia itself in the Yeltsin years, readily come to mind.  Sometimes this culminates in overthrowing democratically elected governments when our favored candidates don’t win or do what we want them to do.

It is certainly true that, unlike the Putin regime, the US government isn’t inherently authoritarian or anti-democratic.  Does that make US interference somehow more acceptable?

Know The Enemy Within

More to the point, however, these Russian actions pale in scope and even viciousness beside the much larger and more successful homegrown efforts to disorient Americans and undermine or discredit traditional sources of information in the modern world.  These efforts are aimed not only at the mainstream news media, but also at the academic and scientific communities.  The overall goal has been to demonize as traitors all who disagree with the Republican agenda.

I’m referring, of course, to the Sean Hannitys, the Laura Ingrahams, the First-son Donald Trump Jr and any number of Republican officials from the President on down who endorse their wild conspiracies, lies, and manufactured hatred.

Unfortunately, this is getting normalized, especially Fox News.  For example, Breitbart has served as the totem for the fake news world, while mainstream reporters seem to go out of their way to point out “there are good journalists working at Fox News.“  But let’s take a moment to compare the online versions of Fox News and Breitbart. 

Breitbart thoroughly deserves its alt-right reputation with its sensationalist articles, barely veiled anti-immigrant racism, and fierce support of Trump.  Yet, on any given day Breitbart will frequently import, fully intact, articles from the Washington Post, New York Times and CNN that showcase criticisms of Trump or the Republicans.  Breitbart also likes to run articles critical of the “globalists” in the White House, such as First-Son-in-law Jared Kushner, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, and Director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn.  It is loathsome and incendiary, but also a mixed bag.

Fox News, while increasingly as sensationalistic as Breitbart in demonizing immigrants, virtually never reposts any article from the Post or the Times.  In fact Fox, often—but still surprisingly--completely ignores, for days, news that doesn’t fit its political views.  In this sense, it seems a virtual reincarnation of the old Soviet news agency TASS.  Or perhaps a not-so-distant cousin of the National Enquirer, whose publisher at least freely admits that his goal is to block stories that don’t reflect well on Trump.  There is no better testimonial than that of deranged conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who has recently fawned over the quality of the commentary on Fox News.

In other words, the Russians weren’t saying or doing anything else, as far as I can tell, that others weren’t already, and at which we no longer blink an eye.  As conservative Times columnist Russ Douthat recently put it

Trump’s election was, indeed, a sudden shock in a long-running conflict. But it does us no good to pretend the real blow came from outside our borders, when it was clearly a uniquely hot moment in our own cold civil war.

I think the more interesting question is why Russian bots fell on such fertile soil in the US, apparently unlike France or Germany even though each certainly has had its own divisive elections involving “populist” (alt-right like) movements.  But that would have to be the subject of a future column.  More importantly, how can the US escape this democracy death-spiral?

Where are the Democrats?

One looks to the opposition political party.  Yet it appears that the Democrats are getting lost in all of this, alternately distracted by the Russians, Trump’s tweets, and legislative tactical maneuvers.  What exactly is the larger Democratic vision?  Is there a coherent response to key elements of Candidate Trump’s “vision"? 

Some of the topics he raised in the campaign, even if he did so in typically demagogic fashion, were not crazy, they clearly won him votes, and they are all still relevant (certainly once in office he himself hasn’t taken any of them on): 

--That “the system” is corrupt.  Once upon a time some Democrats were in favor of campaign finance reform.  Is it still a priority? One can argue, after all, that the real reason the Congressional Republicans protect and aid Trump, instead of impeaching him long ago, is their donors are getting what they want.  In other words, their votes are directly driven by funding for their campaigns and for their post-Congress sinecures.

--That unfettered international free trade can be damaging.  Does the Democratic Party have a position on free-trade agreements, and how they might affect American jobs?

--That the health care system still needs serious reform.  The supposedly vital individual mandate of Obamacare is gone.  Does the Democratic Party favor universal health care, or not?

--That there needs to be a clear and consistent immigration policy.  Is there a Democratic position on immigration beyond DACA, or is it a matter of bargaining points?  It is a complex topic, easy to demagogue, but one that is increasingly turning ugly with numerous stories of seemingly capricious arrests and deportation actions.  And judging by the recent immigrant shootings in Italy, it can easily become violent.   

--That the US should avoid nebulous, unending wars.  Note, however, that according to Politico, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley has boasted of her monthly lunches with Hillary Clinton’s “friend” former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the same Kissinger who has fomented any number of never ending wars in southeast Asia, southern Africa, and Latin America.  According to her, Kissinger is the one with  “the biggest influence on her worldview.”  Has the Democratic Party ever articulated a coherent view on Syria?

--That foreign policy in every country—including the US--is driven by pursuit of its own interests.  This assertion is not a surprise to people outside the US.  One wonders if only Americans are naïve enough to believe that the primary driver of US foreign policy has ever been the goodness of our hearts and “promotion of democracy,” or even "free markets."  In stark contrast to Trump's conclusion that the US should pursue its narrow, predatory, short-term interests as a zero-sum game, there is enlightened self-interest.  This includes, of course, multilateral treaties for arms control and to mitigate climate change.  But it’s still national self-interest.

Even worse, some of the crazier Trumpian notions are now being swallowed wholesale without discussion, because they are useful “bargaining chips.”  What is the justification for an INCREASE in the already massive defense budget?  Radio silence from the Democrats, whose Congressional leaders happily supported the increase in the budget bill. 

Whatever happened to the preposterous contention that MEXICO was going to pay for the Border Wall, and to firmly hold Trump to that?  Funding for this was cheerily offered up as a “bargaining chip” in recent congressional deal-making.

To revisit the failed effort to stop the December massive tax cuts and gifts to the wealthy tax issue is not an academic exercise, but the Democrats have gone silent.  Although it passed only by the narrowest of margins, the Republicans succeeded in framing the tax bill debate as “How can you be against cutting taxes?”  This worked to give political cover to the Senate Republican “moderates,” since it’s based on the highly successful message that lower taxes are always better—even for the rich--because taxes themselves are inherently evil. 

Bankrolled by the irrepressible Koch boys, the Republicans are now gearing up to sell the idea that the deficits created in part by these very same tax cuts will require gutting social programs.

Starting at the basics

To counter that case, in my opinion Democrats need to consider it a priority to clarify their positions and promote larger principles, not legislative details. They could start by reviewing this telling exchange in the first presidential debate:
CLINTON: …they showed he didn't pay any federal income tax.
TRUMP: That makes me smart.
CLINTON: So if he's paid zero, that means zero for troops, zero for vets, zero for schools or health.

Hillary Clinton was uncharacteristically succinct, and right on the money here.  Why is this a hard argument for the Democrats to make, and to keep making? Given Republican long standing demonization of “TAXES,” it would be a breath of fresh air for Democrats to refocus the question –over and over--on the concrete purposes of why functioning societies have taxes in the first place. 

The Republicans have similarly demonized the whole concept of “regulations,” and Democrats have ceded the field.  Who can be against “cutting excess regulations”?  Is it so difficult to articulate the value of many regulations, such as to promote clean air, water, labor laws, anti-fraud controls on banks, even guns?

It would help to counteract our home-made disinformation and bots (not to mention those undoubtedly being aimed at us by the Turks, Chinese, maybe even the Belgians) if the opposition party were much clearer on what it stands for.  As part of the process, I’m afraid we will all need to wean ourselves a bit from the fog of our Russian obsession--even if it is the key to the Emperor’s downfall.