In all the chatter about Russian interference in the last election, one question keeps coming up. It’s never fully answered and because of that, the question as to whether or not such interference occurred remains in play. At this point, it’s like climate change—everyone knows it happened, but how, in what form, and to what end are details the absence of which seem to insulate the president for the time being. That seems about to change with Comey’s testimony.
But that question—why, what does Putin hope to gain, what’s the pay-off?—bedevils people. Especially people raised on spy thrillers and James Bond and post-Cold War conspiracy porn.
It seems fairly evident that any hacks of voting systems were ineffective in changing ballots or anything so direct. What is important is the fact of the attempted hacking not the direct results on tallies. Something was done, but because there does not seem to be the kind of result that makes sense in terms of past history and strategic movements of the sort we expect, the whole thing exists in a murk.
Which was the point.
Putin would like to “restore” Russia to the size and influence of the former Soviet Union. He doesn’t necessarily want to resurrect the U.S.S.R. politically, at least not in terms of collectivist, Marxist ideology. That nonsense doesn’t interest him. He’s interested in power, pure and simple, and the one threat to that is still—the United States.
The telling moment was this whole mess in Ukraine. Not till the threat of NATO membership did Putin act. Despite what Trump might say, NATO still has teeth. Membership in the alliance carries many benefits beyond simple military cooperation and mutual defense, although that is huge when you stop to think about it—the confidence that the member states will guarantee your sovereignty has tremendous ancillary benefits. You can act in your own best interests without, or at least with much less, fear that those actions will be crushed by a neighbor. Which is what has happened to Ukraine.
Power and money, at this level, are two sides of the same coin. The sanctions imposed on Russia by Obama have throttled a potential windfall from the Siberian oil fields. Ukraine was a part of that. There is a huge amount of money bottled up because of Putin violating Ukrainian sovereignty. What he wants more than anything else is to get those sanctions lifted so the oil will flow.
But more than that, in the long run, he wants a free hand in his part of the world. He’s not exporting revolution, that’s no longer part of the Russian identity. He just wants to be a big, bad bear, in charge of his tundra, and able to play as an equal on the world stage. He wants what he possibly believes the West has been keeping Russian from since 1917.
In spite of the fact that over the last three decades we have hamstrung our ability to be a positive force in the world because we can’t see how making money and human rights conflict in the Third World, and because we are unwilling to put a muzzle on our corporations when they go into other countries and poison environments, undercut reforms, and damage the people we think we’re helping, it remains possible for us to actually do what we should have done after the Soviet Bloc collapsed, namely rebuild and stand for justice. We in fact do that, in limited but occasionally spectacular ways, but we rarely hear about any of it and too often we do a half-assed job because of our inability to see our way past our own paranoia and self interest. (The chaos and mess in Iraq is an example of shortsighted greed undercutting what might have turned out to be a major success, but I won’t go into that here.)
What Putin wants most is for our political will to remain locked up in a struggle with itself over questions of money versus ethical action. We have been doing a reasonably good job of keeping ourselves disorganized and conflicted without his help. But it is just possible that he sees what we do not yet see, and that is a younger generation coming up that is fed up with this kind of inanity that will put into power people who will act positively. That will impact the money sector, certainly, but its biggest impact may well be globally with an America once more of the kind that created the Peace Corps and embraced a humanitarian mission. It might create an America willing to call Putin’s bluff.
Of course, it’s not just the United States. And so we’ve been seeing signs of Russian interference in many elections, most recently in France (where it backfired and where the newly elected president publicly scolded Russia), not with a view to invasion or anything so dramatic, but purely for the chaos resulting that will distract the West from Putin’s actions. Putin can do nothing but benefit from a West that is paying little or no attention because it is tangled up in petty feuds and ideological mudwrestling. Undermining our confidence in our own electoral process will only feed that chaos and render us even less effective.
Did Trump and his people collude with the Russians to fix the election? Probably not, at least not in those terms. I think Trump really believed he could win without interference. I think he may have thought he was playing Putin, accepting a hand that would gain him advantage with the Russians afterward. Did he do it out any embrace of treason? No, he did it because a deal was on the table and there was a lot of money to be made, and that is simply how Trump sees the world. If he is impeached over any of this I suspect he will be genuinely surprised. It was, after all, the Game, and he sees himself a master of that game.
What he will not understand is that his game is the least important one and the one Putin is playing is both more sophisticated and more devious and with stakes Trump just might not understand.
But the bottom line is likely to be, all Putin wants is what he now has. We’re distracted, we’ve suffered a blow to the confidence in our systems and institutions, and the bitter squabbling over the right to make as much money as avarice demands continues but now with even less intelligent players.
The clown car rolled into the station, the occupants decamped, and the frollicks began in earnest. Lots of shouting, foot-stamping, and low-grade denunciations from the podium of this or that.
Trump is almost universally seen by all but the most ardent supporters as unqualified for the office of the president. We keep hearing that, squeezed in between all the other verbiage being spewed about him. That in fact the only reason for some to vote for Hillary is because Trump is so thoroughly unqualified.
And yet, it would seem that most people who support him have a “Yeah? So?” reaction.
Consider: that very accusation, leveled by people despised by Trump supporters, makes him all the more appealing. For many, the very fact that he is unqualified to fill an office which they have believed filled primarily by ideologues of the “wrong” stripe for decades is a bonus. His very unsuitability in comparison to all others is the whole point. So hammering on the “unqualified to be president” charge is counterproductive. You’re only reinforcing what they already know—and approve.
What Trump has successfully managed is to project as counternarrative an image of the ideal outsider. Not only is he outside the mainstream of political circles but he is outside the traditional bounds of informed citizen. The people to which this appeals most strongly are those who no longer believe in any kind of constructive dialogue. In their bones, they seem to believe that because they either don’t understand the system or the language of cooperative discourse, they are always shut out of any major public dialogue. They’re tired of the ongoing discussions because, for them, nothing ever goes their way.
This is not Trump’s doing but he has tapped into it very well. He knows his audience. Tell them you’ll put up a gigantic wall to keep foreigners out, any attempt at examining the merits of that proposal will be met with impatience and derision. “We don’t care about your ethics or even your cost-benefit analyses, we like the idea of a wall, so stop telling me it won’t work or shouldn’t work or—more to the point—that I have no right to feel that way!”
Trump won the GOP nomination very simply, by appealing to those who are fed up trying to understand “processes” or “paradigms” or “dynamics” or the intricacies of a system they feel—often correctly—is bent on screwing them, by telling them that he will be their John Wayne and clean up the town. Which usually means gunplay and some form of segregation.
Yes, it does come directly from the implicit “Make America White Again” which is the essential motor in his campaign car.
The reason this never works and only succeeds in making a lot of other people extremely angry is that it is a fantasy.
And Trump knows how to play this. His wife’s speech at the convention, clearly cribbed from Michele Obama, is a seriously twisted example of cultural appropriation that compares well with anything George Orwell might have come up with. An anti-immigrant candidate’s Eastern European wife steals a speech from an educated native born black woman and represents it as a model of what the GOP should strive for. This is done without the least hint of irony and the floor erupted with glee at the profundities they heard. Which they had heard before and, as with just about everything else attached to Obama, rejected. Rejected without any consideration as to content only with regard to who was saying it.
Of course, if Trump’s presumed policies actually went into effect, his wife might have trouble staying here. He’d have to give her a special pardon.
But his base doesn’t care. Melania will be fine, she can stay, because what they want more than anything is the power to say who fits and who doesn’t.
Hence the comparisons to Nazism. The Green Card will become the new Yellow Star. What’s in your wallet?
Shifting to the other side, the lukewarm support for Hillary is in some ways based on the exact same set of criteria. Qualifications. She may well be the most qualified candidate for president we have ever seen. On paper, I cannot think of any presidential candidate ever who brings more preparedness to the office.
And that very thing is making a lot of people very uncomfortable. Because America has developed, over many decades, a culture that exudes contempt for professionalism, especially in politics and especially in someone who is the wrong kind of person.
The reason Melania Trump’s plagiarism (and let me stress, I don’t for a second believe Melania did that, her speech was written for her, but someone knew exactly what they were doing) will pass through the Trump base without stirring a leaf of indignation is because Michele Obama should never have been able to make it in the first place. She’s the “wrong” kind of person to be smart and powerful.
So, in similar fashion, is Hillary Clinton.
Now, if she were a man…
How can I suggest that? Because the kind of subterfuge, oligarchism, and political insider creds for which she is being criticized is shared by just about any career politician who has moved for any length of time at those levels of power. Dig deep enough, you can find exactly the kinds of shenanigans of which Hillary is suspected, but in the main none of it ever gets before a Senate committee, because in the main all of them are men and the overwhelming majority are white. It only becomes actionable when the status quo is threatened, and here the threat is to the gender bias that should have gone away in the Seventies.
At it’s simplest, the choice is this: we have a candidate who will effectively execute the office of president and run the country; and we have a candidate who will run the country into the ground. The funny thing is, both of them are in equal measure cheered and reviled over the exact same question of qualifications. One is amply qualified, the other is profoundly unqualified.
As for the direction of the country, I suggest that the important elections this year are not for the presidency. If Hillary wins—and I suspect she will—she will be overseeing a political landscape that will either be in chaos or will be in the early stages of serious reform. Her job will be to keep it together in either case. Because it will be in congress that the real changes need to be made. If we send the same congress back, Hillary will simply be there to be blamed for the same stagnant nonsense Obama has been putting up with. If, however, we see record voter turnout and a massive overhaul in the Senate and the House, then a great deal of repair work will start, and that will be messy in a different way. I’d still rather see Hillary there that Trump.
One thing, though, that has to change—our indifference to education and our suspicion of ability.
Oh, one other thing—we need to vote.
We’ve had a banner year of in terms of bizarre homicides. I could say that all homicide is bizarre, but somehow when it involves people who actually know each other it seems more…expected, I suppose. Tragic, shocking, but after a little thought you can see how it happened.
So-called mass shootings are another matter. These are exercises in mindless spleen-venting on the part of people who are then portrayed as mentally ill, “radicalized,” or some variation of misanthropic moron, either an ideologue or a racist or sometimes just someone who has reached the end of the apparently short string by which life was hanging. Collectively we try to make sense of them. For most of us, this is like making bricks without straw: work the material all you want, it’s just mud in the end and nothing that holds up. We just don’t know.
Into this once more we have another round of what has since 1968 been a cyclic iteration of the Gun Control Debate. The question arose on the federal level during Prohibition when gangsters were running around with Thompson machine guns. The police argued that the ownership and use of such weapons outside the military represented a public danger, and limitations were duly enacted, but this was by no means the first instance within the borders of the United States when possession of firearms by private citizens was an issue of law. And to be sure after the Civil War the question had teeth in the face of Reconstruction policies and the subsequent reaction of the defeated South to the condition of free blacks. There is ample in our history to make a case that the idea of restricting access to personal firearms is a matter of oppression. Hence these arguments cannot be quietly put to rest.
One thread is the presumed constitutionality of the matter. The 2nd Amendment is seen by many to guarantee unrestricted access to firearms. Strict Constructions line up in odd combinations with Survivalists, militant preservationists, and others to claim the Founders meant exactly this. On the other side are those who argue they did not. The fact is, it’s an open question. A good deal of American law was based on English Law and Blackstone’s Commentaries served as an often unacknowledged guide to the writing of local and state ordinances as well as hovering in the back of all the conventionists’ minds while drafting the various state constitutions and the federal constitution. This is one reason so many early state constitutions look so much alike, even in language.
What did Blackstone has to say about possession of arms?
5. The fifth and last auxiliary right of the subject, that I shall at present mention, is that of having arms for their defense, suitable to their condition and degree, and such as are allowed by law. Which is also declared by the same statute . . . and is indeed a public allowance, under due restrictions, of the natural right of resistance and self-preservation, when the sanctions of society and laws are found insufficient to restrain the violence of oppression. Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, 1765
Right there we see the basis of our legal understanding and the problem with clarification. Under due restrictions. Blackstone—and presumably most if not all the Founders—understood that some regulation was necessary. But by pairing it with a right both Blackstone and the Founders left the issue vague enough to result in precisely the argument we now have. I wrote a piece about my interpretation of what the Founders were thinking here.
Recently I saw this debate once again where the minds of the Founders was being analyzed for both pro and con. I thought to chime in, then held back. I realized suddenly that it simply doesn’t matter what they had in mind.
People will take what they want from the Constitution, just as they do from the Bible, and use it in any way that serves their personal view of how the world ought to be. The vagueness—assumed vagueness—of the 2nd Amendment in this regard allows for the evolution of civil construction to suit a changing situation. The whole Constitution is like that. “What does it mean?” is open to interpretation as long as the issue is recognized as fundamentally important.
(Scalia is simply wrong in his view that the Constitution is not a living document, that it is somehow set in stone and inviolate. If true, that makes it all but worthless.)
The intent of the Founders, however one wishes to construe it in practice, was to guarantee that the armed power of the state came from the express consent of the people. That the “king” was not to hold that power exclusively to the detriment of his subjects, but they would hold it to keep the king in check.
How they held it was and is open to debate and certainly open to reformulation.
In that regard, we should also remember that the United States has traditionally been a state opposed to the idea of standing armies and until WWII, when our current arrangement of maintaining a large federal armed force came into acceptance, we raised armies at need. Consider this from Teddy Roosevelt’s Sixth State of the Union address:
“Our Regular Army is so small that in any great war we should have to trust mainly to volunteers; and in such event these volunteers should already know how to shoot; for if a soldier has the fighting edge, and ability to take care of himself in the open, his efficiency on the line of battle is almost directly Proportionate to excellence in marksmanship. We should establish shooting galleries in all the large public and military schools, should maintain national target ranges in different parts of the country, and should in every way encourage the formation of rifle clubs throughout all parts of the land. The little Republic of Switzerland offers us an excellent example in all matters connected with building up an efficient citizen soldiery.”
And by the way this was one of the primary functions of the NRA before its lobbying arm expanded to dominate the entire machinery of it.
But the fact is, the situation has changed and we are not talking about abstract political philosophy but about with access to military style weapons and head’s full of junk going out and popping off at targets of opportunity because they think their world is ending. Or they want their 15 minutes. Or they didn’t take their meds. Or they overdosed on paranoid social media and Fox News. Or they think—
And we have a multi-billion dollar arms industry that thrives on this stuff, because every time it happens people run out and buy more guns. Naturally they don’t want to see restrictions.
But to argue that restrictions are in some way a violation of the Founders intent is not only a narrow and self-serving view but beside the point, because for the most part the people making that argument wouldn’t change their mind if they could be proved wrong. This is religion for them and like people who insist that Leviticus supports their view of the present world and its ills they will interpret it as they want.
Just as those who find the 2nd Amendment a vestigial piece of antiquated nonsense that perhaps ought to be expunged.
The Founders certainly never intended us to be hamstrung by what they did. The world is a different place—technologically if not politically—and refusing to sit down and try to find a solution to a problem because “the Constitution says” would likely strike them as absurd.
I don’t believe any rational person feels the guy who shot up the Planned Parenthood clinic is mentally or morally qualified to have had unrestricted access to weapons. To defend his ability to have them because you think it means you can’t have the same access to the same weapons is a troubling and frankly myopic attitude. We have a real problem in this country with firearms in the hands of people who, with just a little thought, we know shouldn’t have them.
The people who shot up San Bernardino are a different matter. Sane but definitely operating out of a different playbook than the rest of us, one built on self-justifications, paranoia, and perhaps a bit of political vulgarity that made them feel outside the scope of ordinary avenues of communication. The fact is, anyone could do this and we have no way of knowing who might or when or why. It would be nice to think we could predict with certainty, but we can’t, so other solutions should be sought.
However, the debate must be had before we can come to any solution. But stop using the Founders as an excuse. Be honest—this isn’t about them. It’s about us.