'Putin's War on America' Is Nothing Compared With U.S. War on Democracy
Paul Street’s column will appear in Truthdig each Sunday through Aug. 12. Its regular schedule will resume when Truthdig columnist Chris Hedges returns from vacation.
The noted North Korean political commentator Kim Jong Un got it right last year: Donald Trump is a “mentally deranged dotard.”
Consider the U.S. president’s bizarre performance next to Russian strongman Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday.
Asked about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, President Trump said this: “I have President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this. I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
He continued: “So I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”
Talk about walking into your enemy’s wheelhouse. Trump looked, acted and sounded like a big floppy and supine plaything of his smirking Russian master. It was surreal.
I’m no fan of “Russiagate” and never have been. But it was as if Trump had let Russia-mad MSNBC and CNN craft the Helsinki news conference and write his lines for him.
The response from the U.S. corporate media minus Fox News was swift, harsh and unremitting. Cable news went wild. Its talking heads (except for Trump State Television/Fox) were unanimous: A “treasonous” Trump had “thrown his own country”—with “country” understood to mean the U.S. “intelligence” (spying and subversion) apparatus—“under the bus” and “sided with the enemy instead.”
A sour POTUS had to reluctantly walk his comments back the next day, awkwardly claiming that he’d really meant to say, “I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be.”
Right. I lied more convincingly than that in second grade.
Does Putin have the dirty photos after all? Does Trump have a late-life schoolboy crush on “strong and powerful” Vlad? Or on the related binding powers of head-of-state authoritarianism and senior white maleness? Political power envy? Bicep envy? Trump’s knee-jerk revulsion at any suggestion that his “great victory” in the 2016 Electoral College was tainted? All or some of the above?
We can only guess about the real source(s) of Trump’s peculiar Putin jones at this point.
By contrast, I can say with full confidence that nothing Trump said Monday or Tuesday was as ridiculous as something I heard leading Democrat and U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., tell CNN the night of Trump’s Helsinki debacle.
“It is the role of the U.S. intelligence community,” Warner said to Anderson Cooper, “to speak truth to power.”
Read that again: “It is the role of the U.S. intelligence community to speak truth to power.”
Never mind that the FBI has long surveilled, hounded, harassed, oppressed, slandered, maimed and even murdered U.S. labor, civil rights, peace, social justice and environmental activists and leaders—people fighting concentrated wealth, privilege and power. The FBI’s long record of domestic police-state repression has continued to the present day, up through Occupy, the Fight for $15, Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock.
Never mind the CIA’s longstanding central role in the crushing and subversion of national independence and social justice movements, popular revolutions and democratically elected governments the world over. Or the CIA and FBI’s central role (current Russiagate investigator Robert Mueller’s having been a top player) in the creation of false intelligence pretexts for George W. Bush’s monumentally criminal, mass-murderous invasion of Iraq.
There was nothing close to the hint of a pushback against Warner’s idiotic statement from Cooper (a former CIA intern) or anyone else in the “mainstream media.” It doesn’t enter cable news’ talking heads’ minds to see the nation’s spying, surveillance and police state for what it is at its core: an instrument of class, racial and imperial oppression.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper could be heard on CNN using the same phrase—“speaking truth to power”—to describe the mission of “the intelligence community.”
Clapper was just one among dozens of former U.S. military and intelligence officials and experts—all proud agents and defenders of the American global empire and so-called capitalist democracy—paraded across the CNN and MSNBC sets to express horror at Trump and Russia.
The more Russia- and Trump-obsessed cable news I watched last week, the crazier it got. Things went really off the rails Wednesday night. That’s when MSNBC’s Russia-mad talk-show host Rachel Maddow leaped from reporting a ridiculous Sarah Huckabee Sanders comment on how the Trump White House was discussing whether to honor Putin’s request to hand over a former U.S. diplomat (Barack Obama’s Russian ambassador, Michael McFaul) for questioning in Russia (which would be a bizarre and astonishing development and was obviously never going to happen) to telling ordinary individual Americans that they could soon be at risk of being picked up by the White House and handed over to Russia to be killed by Putin (or “other foreign dictators”). Who was more wacky—White House press secretary Huckabee Sanders, for saying the White House was considering handing over a former U.S. ambassador to Russian authorities (something that was never going to occur), or Maddow, for telling everyday Americans that Trump may one day mark them for rendition to Russia at the behest of the Kremlin (also never going to occur)?
Cable news commentators also expressed concern for another “American” sought for questioning (and torture and murder, purportedly) by Putin: financial mogul Bill Browder, who happens, hilariously enough, to be the grandson of the former Soviet-captive U.S. Communist Party head Earl Browder. Putin’s interest has to do with tax disputes related to Browder’s onetime investments and “human rights” activism in Russia. Here’s a fun little fact about Bill Browder that wasn’t highlighted by MSNBC and CNN: The multimillionaire “American” renounced his U.S. citizenship and “re-domiciled” to England in 1998 to avoid paying U.S. taxes on foreign investments. It’s hard to imagine the Boston patriots of 1773 forming a Tea Party in defense of the “great American” Bill Browder.
Speaking on behalf of power—imperial power in this case—nothing Trump said Monday and Tuesday was quite as absurd as the undisputed condemnation U.S. corporate news talking heads and pundits heaped on Trump for saying in Helsinki that he held “both countries responsible” for the decline in U.S.-Russia relations. “I think we’re all to blame,” Trump said.
Outraged U.S. media authorities fell over themselves to express shock and horror at this “Orwellian” statement of “false equivalency.” CNN and MSDNC (I mean MSNBC) likened it to the white-supremacist Trump’s deservedly infamous comments likening so-called “alt-left” civil rights protesters to neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Va., last August.
In historical reality, as the “mainstream” U.S. media would never acknowledge, Trump’s “both countries responsible” comment understated Washington’s primary culpability in the rise of the “new,” that is, post-Soviet, U.S.-Russia Cold War. The record of imperial U.S. aggression and provocation is clear to anyone who pays remotely serious attention to the record of the recent past:
● President Bill Clinton’s decision to annul a 1990 agreement with Moscow not to push the North Atlantic Treaty Organization farther east after the reunification of Germany and not to recruit Eastern European states that had been part of the Soviet-ruled Warsaw Pact.
● Widespread U.S. interference in Russian electoral politics and civil society—including brazen U.S. intervention in Russia’s pivotal 1996 presidential election—before, during and ever since the collapse of Soviet socialism.
● U.S.-led NATO’s decisions to renege on its 1997 pledge not to install “permanent” and “significant” military forces in former Soviet bloc nations and to place four battalions on and near the Russian border.
● The 1999 U.S.-NATO military intervention in the Yugoslav civil war, leading to the dismemberment of Serbia and the building of a giant U.S. military base in the NATO- and U.S.-created state of Kosovo. (That recent history has hardly prevented Washington from shaming Russia for “forcibly redrawing borders in Europe” by annexing Crimea.)
● President George W. Bush’s unilateral withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
● President Obama’s decision to deploy anti-missile systems (supposedly aimed at Iran’s nonexistent nuclear weapons and really meant to intercept Russian missiles) in Romania and Poland.
● Obama’s decision to invest more than $1 trillion on an upgrade of the U.S, nuclear weapons arsenal, which was already well enough stocked to blow up the world 50 times over. The upgrade continues under Trump. It involves “strategic” bombs with smaller yields, something that dangerously blurs the lines between conventional and nuclear weapons. It has helped spark a new nuclear arms race with Russia and, perhaps, China.
● Longstanding U.S. efforts “to move Ukraine out of Moscow’s orbit and integrate it into the West” (to quote U.S. foreign relations scholar John Mearsheimer).
● U.S. provocation and endorsement of a right-wing 2014 coup against the pro-Russian government in Ukraine, on Russia’s repeatedly invaded western border—a development that constituted a severe national security threat to Russia and predictably created war in eastern Ukraine and a crisis that led to numerous dangerous incidents between NATO and Russian forces.
● Washington’s constant self-righteous denunciation of Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, a thoroughly predictable Russian response to the United States’ installation of a right-wing and heavily neo-Nazi-affiliated, pro-NATO and anti-Russian government in Kiev, Ukraine.
“NATO leaders,” American political writer Diana Johnstone stated in June 2014, “feign surprise at events they planned months in advance. Events that they deliberately triggered are being misrepresented as sudden, astonishing, unjustified ‘Russian aggression.’ The United States and the European Union undertook an aggressive provocation in Ukraine that they knew would force Russia to react defensively, one way or another.”
One does not have to be a fan of Vladimir Putin or a left critic of U.S. imperialism (guilty here) to understand the nationalist logic behind the Russian president’s concerns with U.S. and Western aggression—and the popularity of Putin’s resistance to that aggression among millions of Russians fed up with decades of national humiliation by the West.
As the mainstream “realist” Mearsheimer argued in a 2014 article—“Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault”—published in the establishment Council on Foreign Relations’ journal Foreign Affairs, Putin reasonably viewed Washington’s commitment to NATO expansion and NATO’s U.S.-led recruitment of Ukraine as “a direct threat to Russia’s core interests … [and] who can blame him?” Mearsheimer asked, adding that “the United States does not tolerate distant great powers deploying forces anywhere in the Western hemisphere, much less on its borders.”
“We need not ask,” Noam Chomsky wrote two years ago, “how the United States would have reacted had the countries of Latin America joined the Warsaw Pact, with plans for Mexico and Canada to join as well. The merest hint of the first tentative steps in that direction would have been ‘terminated with extreme prejudice,’ to adopt the CIA lingo.”
An honest look at the history of U.S. and Western aggression in Eastern Europe and, well, meddling in Russia itself, suggests plenty of reasons why Russia would have wanted some say in the 2016 U.S. election—and why it would have preferred a bizarre “isolationist” NATO critic with a long and strange personal and financial history with Russia (Trump) over a committed Russia-hating, NATO-expansionist and global imperialist like Hillary Clinton.
If you don’t want other countries messing, or trying to mess, with your nation’s internal politics, then don’t mess with theirs—and don’t set up armies and hostile regimes on their borders. The United States, which maintains more than 800 military bases spread across more than 100 “sovereign” nations, regularly interferes in the internal affairs—including elections—of the other states and societies.
A final preposterous thing that “mainstream” U.S. news media has been repeating over and over in the last several days is the charge that “Russia tried to undermine our democracy.” In three days of informal but regular monitoring of CNN and MSNBC, I heard that phrase or some variation of it (including “Russia waged war on our democracy”) at least 30 times.
To what “American democracy” are they referring? University of Kentucky history department chair Ronald Formisano’s latest book is titled “American Oligarchy: The Permanence of the Political Class” (University of Illinois, 2017). By Formisano’s detailed account, U.S. politics and policy are under the control of a “permanent political class”—a “networked layer of high-income people,” including congressional representatives (half of whom are millionaires), elected officials, campaign funders, lobbyists, consultants, appointed bureaucrats, pollsters, television celebrity journalists, university presidents and executives at well-funded nonprofit institutions. This “permanent political class,” Formisano finds, is taking the nation “beyond [mere] plutocracy” to “the hegemony of an aristocracy of inherited wealth.” The super-opulent moneyed elite it minds and apes is a product of U.S. history and has nothing to do with Russia.
Formisano is just one of many distinguished and mainstream American thinkers who understands that the U.S. is simply not a democracy. (Even some conservative elites like the veteran federal jurist and economist Richard Posner concede this basic reality.) As the distinguished liberal political scientists Benjamin Page (Northwestern) and Martin Gilens (Princeton) showed in their expertly researched book “Democracy in America?” last year:
[T]he best evidence indicates that the wishes of ordinary Americans actually have had little or no impact on the making of federal government policy. Wealthy individuals and organized interest groups—especially business corporations—have had much more political clout. When they are taken into account, it becomes apparent that the general public has been virtually powerless. … The will of majorities is often thwarted by the affluent and the well-organized, who block popular policy proposals and enact special favors for themselves. … Majorities of Americans favor … programs to help provide jobs, increase wages, help the unemployed, provide universal medical insurance, ensure decent retirement pensions, and pay for such programs with progressive taxes. Most Americans also want to cut ‘corporate welfare.’ Yet the wealthy, business groups, and structural gridlock have mostly blocked such new policies [and programs].
We get to vote? Big deal. An “unelected dictatorship of money” (Edward S. Herman and David Peterson) reigns nonetheless in the United States, where, Page and Gilens find, “government policy … reflects the wishes of those with money, not the wishes of the millions of ordinary citizens who turn out every two years to choose among the preapproved, money-vetted candidates for federal office.”
But, OK, so how significant was “Russian interference” in tipping the 2016 election to one of the money-vetted capitalist candidates (Trump) over the other one (Clinton)? Russia’s impact on the outcome was negligible. An important source here is the brilliant political scientist and money and politics analyst Thomas Ferguson’s study (co-authored with Paul Jorgensen and Jie Chen), “Industrial Structure and Party Competition in an Age of Hunger Games: Donald Trump and the 2016 Presidential Election” (Institute for New Economic Thinking, January 2018). Ferguson finds that Russia’s sway over the contest was (no surprise for serious analysts) tiny compared with that of the homegrown U.S. corporate and financial oligarchs who sit atop “America, the Best Democracy Money Can Buy.”
The billionaire rentier-capitalist Trump used his own personal fortune to leap over his more traditional Wall Street Republican competitors—absurdly posing as a champion of the forgotten “heartland” working class—in the 2016 presidential primaries. To win the general election, however, he depended on a remarkable influx of big campaign cash from dodgy right-wing U.S. billionaires and equity capitalists in the late summer and fall of 2016. Even more significant, perhaps, was Clinton’s remarkable, record-setting funding by big financial and other business interests (including corporate sectors that normally supported Republicans but came over to the Democrats’ side thanks largely to candidate Trump’s declared protectionism and isolationism) that helped create the dismal centrist awfulness and deafening policy silence of Clinton’s miserable campaign.
“Putin’s war on America” was nothing compared with the American ruling class’ war on America when it comes to the inside story of how “American democracy” was pre-empted as usual by big money (among other and related vectors of concentrated wealth) during the last great quadrennial electoral extravaganza.
Russia did not make Hillary Clinton into one of the worst political candidates ever to disgrace the campaign podium. (I saw her quite a few times in Iowa in 2007. She had less charisma and inspiration than any other politician I’d ever seen.)
Russia didn’t turn her into an elitist, right-wing, Walmart-and-Wall Street neoliberal corporatist. Yale Law, the corporate and financial “elite,” the plutocratic U.S. party and elections system, the Democratic Leadership Council, and Clinton’s own craven wealth- and power-worship did that all on their homegrown own, no help from Moscow required, long before 2016.
Russia didn’t make the “lying, neoliberal warmonger” Clinton avoid real policy issues to an astonishing degree (more than any major party presidential candidate in recent history) during the 2016 general election campaign.
Russia didn’t make the Clinton campaign decide to run almost solely on candidate quality and character when its own unpopular candidate was highly vulnerable on precisely those “issues.”
Russia did not make Clinton fail to buy ads in Michigan and fail to set foot in Wisconsin after the Democratic National Convention.
Russia didn’t create the massive economic inequality and insecurity and bipartisan corporatism and parasitic state-capitalist globalism that Trump was able to exploit—with no small help from Steve Bannon, Sheldon Adelson, the Koch brothers and the Mercer family—in 2016.
Russia didn’t make the Clinton machine and the Democratic National Committee collude to rig the 2016 primaries and Democratic National Convention against Bernie Sanders, who likely would have defeated Trump in the general election.
Should there be an investigation of Hillary Clinton as a Russia asset?
After Trump’s pathetic Helsinki debacle, U.S. cable news talking heads were agog with claims that “malign Russia”—“America’s ruthless adversary”—has been waiting for the conclusion of the World Cup to unleash new assaults on Western and U.S. “democracy,” understood to mean upcoming Western and U.S. elections. What, they ask, are federal, state and local governments doing to “protect our elections and democracy” from the “malign influence of Russia”?
Strangely, yet predictably—since corporate media personalities are themselves parts of Formisano’s American oligarchy—missing from this media hysteria is the question of who will protect U.S. elections and purported “democracy” from the unmentionable malign influence of U.S. oligarchs. They sit atop a New Gilded Age in which the top 10th of the upper 1 percent owns as much wealth as the nation’s bottom 90 percent, and three absurdly rich people (Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett) possess among them the same net worth as the nation’s poorest half. “We must make our choice,” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said in 1941: “We may have democracy in this country, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.”
That’s a timeworn problem in the United States and indeed across the supposedly democratic capitalist world. If you want to blame the horrible authoritarian consequences of that core contradiction on Russia and its supposed “asset” Donald Trump, then you are an even bigger idiot or cynic than the dotard’s own dumb self.