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.
Just a couple of thoughts. We’ve been hearing for months, here and there, how Donald Trump might be a trojan horse placed by the Democrats to discredit the Republican Party. That, presumably, a deal was done between The Donald and Hillary to run the most absurd campaign and make her look like the only viable choice. Not a bad idea for a potboiler political thriller. And the closer to the election we get, some variation of that idea is making more sense.
However. Despite what pessimists might say, the American electoral landscape is not really that controllable. And any such actual plan would long since have been discovered and revealed. You can’t keep something like that secret for this long. Someone will know and will tell. Just because that’s how things roll here.
But it’s not at all unlikely that some kind of a deal was done inside the GOP involving Trump.
Given the roster of candidates taking the field last year, what is perfectly plausible is that Trump was invited—maybe not even formally—to throw his hat in the ring. Be a Republican candidate. It would have been easy to tickle his vanity and get him to do it.
Because he’s a known berserker. We all know The Donald. He could stand up there and say things none of the others could and make them look like rational choices by comparison. Good cop bad cop. When you look at the row of right wing crazy that was running—people dedicated to deregulation, tax breaks for the wealthy, bigger military build-up, gutting healthcare reform, reinforcing corporate personhood, using immigrants as strawman threats against labor, natavism, anti-civil rights, security state wonks, anti-science pro-fundamentalist christian, nothing but a bucket of bad news for working class people—they needed, or thought they would benefit from, having someone who could draw attention away from all that by standing up there and being all the things Trump has been all along. The others would look civil, thoughtful, responsible. We would overlook their basic anti-egalitarianism and anti-intellectualism and, in some cases, their anti-humanitarianism, choose one of them, and clear the field for a fistfight they thought they could win with Hillary. Or Bernie.
It went pear shaped very quickly. They lost control of their candidate.
And the problem was they couldn’t really contradict him without making themselves vulnerable by their records, because Trump has not said a thing policy-wise that they had not all said, only in “nicer” terms. He didn’t contradict one policy plank. All he did was strip away the shiny so we could see the ugly underneath.
And they lost control. Is this possible?
It’s happened before. Back in the late Seventies the GOP courted the fundamentalist christian community, which till then had been traditionally apolitical. They went in, backed a guy named Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority, invited them into the tent to participate, made them promises about returning the country to a christian moral code (as defined by them, of course). It was a very cynical move because they clearly never intended to follow through on those promises. All they wanted was a kind of religious fifth column that would stir up the conservative base and get out the votes. It took longer, but they lost control of them. By the Nineties they had morphed into neocons and eventually gave birth to the Tea Party. That traditionally apolitical group got a taste for power politics and took matters into their own hands and look at the mess we have now. The Republican Party lost control.
And a lot of sane, responsible, decent Republicans lost elections or just left the field, unwilling to mix it up with the fanatics.
The GOP grew this faction from a bean and it has now lurched into the field flailing against anything that is not consistent with—
Well, that’s part of the problem. The Party apparatus itself knows that if it comes right out and says what the goals really are they could lose and lose bigtime. By actions if not words it has been clear for a long time they want an oligarchy. They don’t trust the average American, who may be too concerned with taking care of his or her family and might vote for things which will remove power from the privileged classes. You can argue if you want, but just follow the money—and the jobs—and the voting records of those who have enabled the decimation of the middle class and the empowerment of the corporate elite.
But now the Party apparatus has a bigger problem—the frightened mob they have nurtured since 1976 has turned into a mindless mass of terror-driven reactionaries, poorly educated, selfish, and aggressively anti-progressive. And they have lost control of that mob.
Which voted for the guy who was never supposed to get the nomination.
Now the rest of us have a problem. Trump is not only uncontrollable by the GOP, his supporters are beginning to sound like those fifth columnists the religious right was supposed to be. Except they aren’t talking about voting conscience—as far as I can tell, they don’t have one—but about taking up arms if Hillary wins.
And some of the GOP stalwarts are doubling down. McCain declaring that the Republicans will block all supreme court nominees made by Clinton is nothing but an attempt to appease that mob who seem to want no government rather than one they can’t understand.
They’re all complaining now that this isn’t what they intended, that they can’t support Trump, they never meant for this—
I’m reminded of the film Judgment At Nuremberg, in which Spencer Tracy plays a justice on the war crimes court, hearing the case of a German jurist, played by Burt Lancaster. At the end, Lancaster tells Tracy “We never meant for it to go so far.” To which Tracy responds, “Sir, it went that far the first time you sentenced an innocent man.” Or something to that effect. One could say to those now-chagrined and embarrassed GOP apparatchits claiming they never intended this: “It went this far the first time you placed party over country.”
We have a few weeks till the election. I don’t think there’s much else to say. We have a choice between progress and destruction. I believe that, no hyperbole intended. The destruction has been coming for a long time. Presidential election aside, we must expunge that mob of deplorables from the halls of power. Maybe Hillary had to apologize for that, but she was right. They are the worst aspects of our nature and—I’ll say it—too stupid to know how stupid they are. But that’s not their fault. They’ve been succored on the milk of ignorance by a cynical party machine that is now about to choke on its own poisons.
Vote. Vote congressional seats. Right now they’re as if not more important than who ends up in the oval office.
I’ve been working my way through Mario Vargas Llosa’s intriguing little book Notes On The Death Of Culture, which intends to be a general critique on the state of high culture and the impact its enervation has had on the world at large. Reading that and watching the election campaigns is a strange thing.
One of Llosa’s main themes here is that we have demoted “high” culture through a process of democratization of self-brutalization via social media and a mistaken acceptance of the idea that everyone’s opinion carries equal weight. That we no longer value wisdom, quality, or know how to appreciate it as distinct from middle or lowbrow culture, so-called “popular” culture.
There’s something to this, certainly, but I hesitate to call it a death. A tumultuous sorting maybe. Because side by side, cheek by jowl, as it were, with undeniable banality, dross, and effluence that passes for æsthetic content—no, that’s not quite fair, is it? Garbage has an æsthetic quality, even if it can only be apprehended as a negative—that presents itself as of equal value and merit to works of genuine worth, we do see works of superior quality, intent, and impact. In fact, work being done now in all the arts offers examples equal to if not better than any masterpiece of the past. Even television, that vast wasteland, offers amazing work. If one looks for it one may find music, painting, photography, sculpture, literature both fictive and nonfiction, drama both on stage and recorded, that compares with the finest humanity has ever offered.
And with it, audiences. You might question their level of appreciation, but that has two aspects which negate the attempt. Firstly, how do you gauge “appreciation?” How can anyone determine the extent of comprehension, of response, of, finally, “takeaway” experienced by another human being? You can’t really, certainly not in any way that might be revealed in a poll or a survey. Certainly not as some prognostic assessment about the Culture. Secondly, those creating these works have not come from another planet. They emerge from among us. We, in some way, “produce” them. They are us, they are not alien, so if in fact what they do cannot be understood or appreciated or even recognized, how then do they appear? The fact is, they have an audience. And not, judging by the availability and public knowledge of the work, small, dying audiences.
Which means we are, irritatingly, forced to take on faith that the culture, whatever we might mean by that, is not dying. Transforming, sure, as culture always does. Isolation is harder to achieve, if in fact it is even desirable. We live in each others’ living rooms. At best, Llosa’s fears—which may be too strong a word—may have more to do with nostalgia than actual diagnosis.
But then there is this huge, gawping thing in our midst, this political circus, and it might be reasonable to wonder how much we may have lost in terms of “culture” that something like Trump can aspire as successfully as he has to the presidency. It is perhaps a handicap for many that the answers may be culture-based and insulting to a large group of people. But I think, for myself at least, that there is nothing wrong with affirming that some things are better than others and that all aspects of culture are not equal. When you see placards with gross misspellings and bad diction in service to poor logic and spiteful ignorance, it offends and perhaps causes one to hold back rather than indulge in the obvious assessments. But like the doofus who shows up at a formal-attire wedding in plaid shorts and tennis shoes with an emblazoned t-shirt and a product-placement ball cap, the initial conclusion may not be wrong.
Suggestions have been made that the GOP might intervene and force Trump to step down or even do something with the rules to make him ineligible. Hiding the blemish won’t cure it. Trump’s success, if not he himself, is an expression of a popular sentiment, an æsthetic, if you will, that has embraced the thing Llosa is, in part, talking about. He has brought them together, the subliterates, the banal, the velvet-paintings-of-Elvis crowd, those whose most trenchant popular icon should be Archie Bunker.
And they voted for him. Should the GOP try to remove Trump, understandable as the impulse may be, it will be a repudiation of the very people they have relied on and nurtured and groomed for over three decades. They have been largely unseen all this time because they have been salted throughout the larger culture, an aberration perhaps. But Trump has caused them to step forward as a group. We, the rest of us, can see them now. They’ve been there all along, but we have rarely encountered them in numbers so large we could not pretend they weren’t just fringe kooks, loonies, or family embarrassments.
Forgive my crudeness, but I’m engaging this problem the way they do. Name-calling, pigeon-holing, because it makes the unknown manageable. It is a practice we rightly abhor but is the obverse of recognizing a form of self-selection and commitment to a set of protocols. If it makes us uncomfortable to be confronted with a reality that has grown up in our midst, then perhaps we share some of the responsibility. We have as a culture been driven more by the shiny, the thalamic and hippocampic reactiveness that draws us to the bright thing at the expense, sometimes, of the good thing.
But then, what do you do with someone who has decided that truth and beauty are the same as a red dot sale at WalMart?
It’s perhaps one reason WalMart has been so successful.
Trump, finally, has caused nothing. He is playing to an audience. What he says is less important than the fact that there are people who like it. When he is long gone from the political stage, they will remain.
It’s a cultural problem.
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.